"I'm really sucked into the history of this thing," says Fairfield, Conn., pilot Andrew Kosch, 63, who has boxes of Whitehead materials scattered about his home. "I really feel like the guy has been [neglected] and feel it's my duty to see that Whitehead gets some credit."

About 15 years ago, a friend rummaging through the attic of a house in East Lyme, Conn., told Kosch he came across the captain's leather-bound journal containing a picture of Whitehead in flight with a description of the spectacle.

Later, when he learned of the journal's value, the friend attempted to retrieve it, Kosch says, but the owners had moved to California. Kosch eventually made contact with them, but they later told him they could not find the journal, he says, and the search for it met a dead end.

"If there is such a journal, boy, oh boy, I'd love to have somebody do an investigation," says Kosch, who built and flew a replica of airplane No. 21 in 1986 to prove the plane could fly. "A sea captain wouldn't lie in his journals."

In the meantime, Kosch is busy compiling a Gustave Whitehead exhibit for the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Conn. It will open in November, a month before the centennial of the Wright brothers' first flight. A science teacher at Platt Regional Vocational-Technical School in Milford, Conn., Kosch also has his machine-shop students building a steam engine for a second Whitehead replica he hopes to fly before the Kitty Hawk anniversary.

"I'm doing everything I can to get attention to him," he says. "I don't want him just to be lost in history."

But Smithsonian officials and aviation historians believe the Bridgeport Sunday Herald article describing the flight to be an aeronautical hoax, a staple of American journalism begun in the 1840s when Edgar Allan Poe, in desperate need of money to hire a doctor for his ailing wife, concocted an amazing tale about a hot-air balloon journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Historians point out that when research into the claims began more than six decades ago, Whitehead assistant James Dickie said he did not witness the 1901 flight as the article claimed, and believed the Herald story to be imaginary. He went on to say that he did not know the second assistant named in the story.

Orville Wright himself was surprised that anyone took the article as fact, noting in a 1945 article that the Herald story appeared under a heading entitled "Flying," illustrated with four witches riding brooms.

Subsequent conflicting testimony and evidence, Whitehead's inability to duplicate his professed results, and the lack of photographs depicting No. 21 in flight has left scholars skeptical. Smithsonian officials say the tale is also riddled with glaring gaps in logic: Why did Whitehead give up aviation when he appeared to be the most successful "aeronaut" in the world?

Charging a "Smithsonian conspiracy," the Whitehead camp claims the Smithsonian has a vested interest in avoiding further scientific inquiry because of a 1948 contract signed with the executors of Orville Wright's estate that gave the institution possession of the 1903 Flyer.

Under the agreement, ownership of the plane could revert back to the Wright estate should the Smithsonian ever acknowledge any aircraft or design predating the Flyer as "capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."

Whitehead supporters claim the contract has caused the Smithsonian to turn a blind eye to any evidence that debunks the Wrights' first-flight status. As a result, they say, the contract has effectively banished Whitehead and other aeronautical pioneers to obscurity.

"All other aviation pioneers were systematically eliminated of a fair chance in having their work and achievements researched and investigated, although that would have been the duty of the Smithsonian," says Matt Lechner, who serves on a historical-flight research committee at a museum honoring Whitehead in Leutershausen, Germany.

The Smithsonian says the contract was drafted merely to reassure Orville Wright, who had feuded with the institution after it had erroneously identified Samuel P. Langley's 1903 Aerodrome A as the world's first airplane "capable of sustained free flight" in 1918.

"If it could be demonstrated that someone else flew before the Wright brothers, I certainly would have no problem putting that forward," says Peter Jakab, chair of the National Air and Space Museum's aeronautics division.

On the south island of New Zealand, dozens of witnesses recounted the events of March 31, 1903: Nearly nine months before the famous flight at Kitty Hawk, 25-year-old Richard Pearse wheeled his plane down to the crossroads near his farm and, as a small crowd gathered, tried to start the engine.

It rattled to life and Pearse staggered into the air, immediately veering left and climbing slowly before crashing into an overgrown hedge. Witnesses said later flights of up to a quarter-mile took off from a small hill, with Pearse landing in a mostly dried-up river bed. A propeller and engine parts have been found there.

Last month, New Zealanders held a four-day Richard Pearse Centenary of Flight celebration in honor of the man nicknamed "Mad Pearse."

"I'm certain his achievements pre-dated the Wright brothers," says great-nephew Jeff, 45, on the phone from the house in Waitohi where Pearse was born in 1877.