Gustave Whitehead

By some accounts, Gustave Whitehead, seen here with his daughter and airplane "No. 21," took flight on the aircraft in 1901.

There are those who would have you believe that on Dec. 17, 1903, in the fishing village of Kitty Hawk, N.C., two men with a penchant for starched white collars and bowler hats did not solve the age-old riddle of human flight.

Those first-flight tales by the brothers known as the Wrights? Simply wrong, they say.

Never mind that the world's first successful airplane - the 605-pound 1903 Wright Flyer - hangs suspended by wires high above the floor at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

The way they tell it, months - in some cases, years - before the Wrights successfully piloted their flying machine of spruce, ash, muslin and piano wire, an aviator from Connecticut - no, New Zealand ... or was it Brazil? - had already beaten them to the sky.

Such are the assertions of an enduring subculture of Wright brothers detractors who, with the approach of the 100th anniversary of powered flight, are raising the volume on a refrain that flies in the face of those boastful North Carolina license plates: The Wrights were not "first in flight."

Instead, they laud early aviation experimenters such as German-born craftsman Gustave Whitehead, New Zealand cattle farmer Richard Pearse and Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Whitehead, who as a boy built parachutes and trapped birds to examine their wings, is said to have flown his bat-winged airplane No. 21 over Fairfield, Conn., on Aug. 14, 1901 - two years before Kitty Hawk.

Self-taught inventor Richard Pearse, known to trudge behind a horse-drawn plow with his head buried in Scientific American, is reported to have flown a 25-foot monoplane a distance of 50 yards - eight months and three weeks before the Wrights' legendary flight.

And then there's Santos-Dumont, the dapper son of a wealthy Brazilian coffee planter who was widely credited with inventing the airplane after making the first official powered flight in Europe in 1906. That was three years after the Kitty Hawk flight - an event still disputed by Santos-Dumont supporters in Brazil who hail their native son as the "Father of Aviation."

"I'm fascinated by them," Wright brothers historian Tom D. Crouch says of the Kitty Hawk naysayers. "What's at work is an enthusiasm for conspiracy theories that operates in lots of areas in modern life. Sort of, 'Wouldn't it be fun if everybody was wrong about a big issue like this and somebody else had really done this?' "

Unbowed, the Wrights' challengers press on from the fringes of the centennial spotlight.

They've taken to the Internet to proselytize and promote their pioneers' legacies through Web sites and bulletin boards. They've constructed replicas of their heroes' aircraft to prove the flightworthiness of their aeronautical designs. And, in some cases, they're searching for elusive new evidence to bolster their claims and planning "centennial of flight" observances all their own.

The way supporters of Gustave Whitehead tell it, the inventor cracked the problem of flight in August of 1901.

A German seaman with an aptitude for mechanics, Whitehead arrived in the United States in 1894 and experimented with flying machines in Boston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh before settling in Bridgeport, Conn., around 1900. He continued tinkering in a shed by his house.

By some accounts, on Aug. 14, 1901, Whitehead executed four flights in pre-dawn darkness aboard his airplane No. 21. Reaching heights of 50 feet, one flight reportedly covered a half-mile, with Whitehead leaning over to one side to steer around a clump of chestnut trees before landing safely.

"She turned her nose away from the clump of sprouts when within fifty yards of them and took her course around them as prettily as a yacht on the sea avoids a bar," wrote reporter Richard Howell in an article that appeared four days later in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald. "The ability to control the air ship in this manner appeared to give Whitehead confidence, for he was seen to take time to look at the landscape about him. He looked back and waved his hand exclaiming, 'I've got it at last.' "

The article, a 5,000-word account, is considered the strongest evidence that Whitehead beat the Wrights.

The craftsman also is said to have made flights of two and seven miles over Long Island Sound in January of 1902.

More than a century later, some supporters are reviving the quest to prove the inventor beat the Wrights. They are searching for the journal of a sea captain whose name was recalled as Beckwith Brown, believed to have voyaged up and down the Connecticut coast. They hope the journal contains photographic evidence of Whitehead in the air.

"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.

Even as a schoolboy, Pearse was fascinated by flight and excelled in engineering. One day he arrived at his one-room school with a contraption made of a cotton reel, a nailed board, a piece of string and the top of a tin can cut and twisted into a propeller. For the excitement of his classmates, he wound the string around the reel, tugged on it and sent the tin propeller shooting off from the nail.

By the time he finished his primary education, Pearse had invented a mechanical needle-threader for his mother, a "zoetrope" for his sisters that flicked still pictures to produce moving images, and a small steam engine made from a syrup can filled with water.

But with nine children, the family couldn't afford to send him to engineering school; instead, Pearse set up a workshop for inventing gadgets on the family farm.

With little expertise or financial assistance, Pearse toiled on, and by 1902 had built a two-cylinder, 25-horsepower engine. He then constructed a 25-foot monoplane with a tricycle undercarriage using tubular steel, wire and canvas.

"What he did was quite amazing for one man in a little village," says C. Geoffrey Rodliffe, a Pearse biographer who in the 1960s interviewed elderly witnesses to the flights. Evidence suggests five flights between March and July 10, 1903, Rodliffe said.

But outside of witness accounts, pinning down the precise date of Pearse's first flight in 1903 has been difficult. Records from a local hospital where he sought treatment for an injured collarbone after his plane crash were destroyed in a fire. A photograph of the craft stuck in the hedge taken the day after perished in a flood.

Nevertheless, supporters believe Pearse did fly before the Wrights and, if nothing else, that he should be recognized for the prophetic design features of his 1903 plane.

Pearse's plane was in some ways far ahead of the 1903 Wright Flyer. It had a tricycle landing gear with steerable nose wheel, more than 20 years ahead of its time; one wing rather than two; wing flaps and a rear elevator similar to modern aircraft; a propeller with variable-pitch blades - elements recaptured in the design of modern hang-glider aircraft.

"The Wrights got the recognition of being the first to fly, but if you look at the entirety of flight, he should get recognition for his vision," Jeff Pearse says.

Before his death in 1953 at the age of 75, Pearse built the Utility Plane, an inexpensive craft that he envisioned as the Model-T Ford of the airways, bringing aviation to anyone who could afford a car. The craft had fold-away wings designed for vertical takeoff and landing, but was never flown.

Pearse himself never claimed to have beaten the Wrights, saying he didn't consider his erratic descents to be sustained and controlled flight.

But in a country whose national symbol is the kiwi - a flightless bird - his efforts remain cause for celebration.

In Brazil, Kitty Hawk naysayers say history is on their side.

After all, they proudly point out, isn't the name of their native son, Alberto Santos-Dumont, the very first in the official record book of aviation kept by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale for his 197-foot flight on Oct. 23, 1906?

Doesn't history show that Santos-Dumont conducted his aviation experiments in public before huge crowds, rather than on the remote sands of a fishing village? Did he not make three public flights in 1906 - two years before Wilbur Wright made his first in Europe?

Santos-Dumont was first in flight, these Brazilians insist. The Wrights? Fliers-come-lately.

"History - yes, real History! - tells us through dozens of European and a fistful of American newspapers what really happened," supporter Roberto Rodrigues Mola says in a letter posted on the Internet. "And what happened wasn't a whisper message to my neighbor in a silly game, but a strong shout that traveled over the ocean at that time, and is echoing until the present days," he says in comparing news of the Wright's flight with Santos-Dumont's.

Many Brazilians consider Santos-Dumont the "Father of Aviation" partly because he demonstrated a public passion for flight, unlike the Wrights, who remained secretive as they prepared their airplane patent.

Nick Engler, director of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation in Dayton, Ohio, says part of the Brazilian bashing of the Wrights is the leftover legacy of history books written with a nationalistic slant during the country's dictatorial regime of the 1930s.

"They made Brazil sound like the end-all, be-all of technological development," Engler says. "So consequently, when you talk to a Brazilian about Santos-Dumont, you're not arguing facts, you're arguing religion."

Santos-Dumont's undisputed achievements aren't enough.

A consummate showman who lived in France, Santos-Dumont made the first powered flight in Europe near Paris on Nov. 12, 1906, aboard the boxy canvas and bamboo 14-bis, a biplane inspired by Wright brothers' plans that had appeared in European magazines. The 722-foot flight at Bagatelle lasted 21.2 seconds.

The next year, Santos-Dumont turned to monoplanes and built Demoiselle, a precursor of modern ultralight aircraft. The plane designs were published in magazines worldwide, including Popular Mechanics, providing flight enthusiasts of limited means with an inexpensive way to take to the sky.

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1910, Santos-Dumont withdrew from public life and eventually hanged himself with a necktie in 1932 after becoming depressed over the use of aircraft in war. He was 59.

Forget about first in flight. Some question whether the brothers' Flyer ever got off the ground.

In 1903, when the craft rolled down a 60-foot takeoff rail laid out on the sand, it was a 27 mph headwind and Wilbur Wright's left hand - which he removed from the plane before the shutter clicked for one of the world's most reproduced photos - that helped the plane overcome ground drag and created the illusion of full flight, they contend.

The 1903 photograph of the craft raising itself into the air with Wilbur running alongside didn't surface until 1908 (when the brothers' planes flew much better, they argue) because the Wrights could not duplicate the results the picture captured - minus the wind and Wilbur's steadying grip.

So, the nonbelievers say, the brothers worked in secret perfecting their airplane to hide the truth: The Wrights had not achieved "free, controlled, and sustained flight."

"Wilbur out at the wingtip, guiding and lifting while running alongside, is hardly unassisted flight," says retired Air Force Reserve pilot William J. O'Dwyer, who took up the Whitehead cause in the 1970s. "His footprints in that photo betray his true activity of both guiding and lifting the right wing tip. ... The photo shows Wilbur shortly after he let go. Look at his arm and hand position."

There comes a point in these debates where logic and rational argument cease to persuade, says Janet Bednarek, who heads the history department at the University of Dayton.

"There are people who still believe the Earth is flat," says Bednarek, who has studied early flight. "The Wright brothers invented the airplane. They put all the pieces together that were necessary for the modern airplane, and every airplane since then reflects their work."

The Wright museum's Engler says it might hearten first-flight naysayers to know that it is still possible, albeit unlikely, that historians will uncover conclusive evidence that some little-known tinkerer beat the Wrights to the sky.

But no matter how ingenious their achievement might have been, he says, it would amount to little more than a historical footnote, because it had no impact on the birth of aviation.

Unlike many of their challengers, the Wrights left detailed documentation that chronicled their scientific understanding of aerodynamic control. That coupled with their wing-warping invention to control an aircraft's roll made powered flight possible.

"We remember the Wright brothers not because they were the first to fly," Engler says. "We remember them because they gave the world its wings."

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

More information about centennial activities can be found at www.countdowntokittyhawk.com, www.wrightexperience.com. and www.centennialofflight.com.