There are those who would have you believe that on Dec. 17, 1903, in thefishing village of Kitty Hawk, N.C., two men with a penchant for starchedwhite collars and bowler hats did not solve the age-old riddle of humanflight.
Those first-flight tales by the brothers known as the Wrights? Simplywrong, they say.
Never mind that the world's first successful airplane - the 605-pound 1903Wright Flyer - hangs suspended by wires high above the floor at theSmithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
The way they tell it, months - in some cases, years - before the Wrightssuccessfully piloted their flying machine of spruce, ash, muslin and pianowire, 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 brothersdetractors 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 boastfulNorth Carolina license plates: The Wrights were not "first in flight."
Instead, they laud early aviation experimenters such as German-borncraftsman Gustave Whitehead, New Zealand cattle farmer Richard Pearse andBrazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Whitehead, who as a boy built parachutes and trapped birds to examine theirwings, 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-drawnplow with his head buried in Scientific American, is reported to have flown a25-foot monoplane a distance of 50 yards - eight months and three weeks beforethe Wrights' legendary flight.
And then there's Santos-Dumont, the dapper son of a wealthy Braziliancoffee planter who was widely credited with inventing the airplane aftermaking the first official powered flight in Europe in 1906. That was threeyears after the Kitty Hawk flight - an event still disputed by Santos-Dumontsupporters in Brazil who hail their native son as the "Father of Aviation."
"I'm fascinated by them," Wright brothers historian Tom D. Crouch says ofthe Kitty Hawk naysayers. "What's at work is an enthusiasm for conspiracytheories that operates in lots of areas in modern life. Sort of, 'Wouldn't itbe fun if everybody was wrong about a big issue like this and somebody elsehad really done this?' "
Unbowed, the Wrights' challengers press on from the fringes of thecentennial spotlight.
They've taken to the Internet to proselytize and promote their pioneers'legacies through Web sites and bulletin boards. They've constructed replicasof their heroes' aircraft to prove the flightworthiness of their aeronauticaldesigns. And, in some cases, they're searching for elusive new evidence tobolster their claims and planning "centennial of flight" observances all theirown.
The way supporters of Gustave Whitehead tell it, the inventor cracked theproblem of flight in August of 1901.
A German seaman with an aptitude for mechanics, Whitehead arrived in theUnited States in 1894 and experimented with flying machines in Boston,Baltimore and Pittsburgh before settling in Bridgeport, Conn., around 1900. Hecontinued tinkering in a shed by his house.
By some accounts, on Aug. 14, 1901, Whitehead executed four flights inpre-dawn darkness aboard his airplane No. 21. Reaching heights of 50 feet, oneflight reportedly covered a half-mile, with Whitehead leaning over to one sideto steer around a clump of chestnut trees before landing safely.
"She turned her nose away from the clump of sprouts when within fifty yardsof them and took her course around them as prettily as a yacht on the seaavoids a bar," wrote reporter Richard Howell in an article that appeared fourdays later in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald. "The ability to control the airship in this manner appeared to give Whitehead confidence, for he was seen totake time to look at the landscape about him. He looked back and waved hishand exclaiming, 'I've got it at last.' "
The article, a 5,000-word account, is considered the strongest evidencethat Whitehead beat the Wrights.
The craftsman also is said to have made flights of two and seven miles overLong Island Sound in January of 1902.
More than a century later, some supporters are reviving the quest to provethe inventor beat the Wrights. They are searching for the journal of a seacaptain whose name was recalled as Beckwith Brown, believed to have voyaged upand down the Connecticut coast. They hope the journal contains photographicevidence 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 abouthis home. "I really feel like the guy has been [neglected] and feel it's myduty to see that Whitehead gets some credit."
About 15 years ago, a friend rummaging through the attic of a house in EastLyme, Conn., told Kosch he came across the captain's leather-bound journalcontaining a picture of Whitehead in flight with a description of thespectacle.
Later, when he learned of the journal's value, the friend attempted toretrieve it, Kosch says, but the owners had moved to California. Koscheventually made contact with them, but they later told him they could not findthe 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 aninvestigation," says Kosch, who built and flew a replica of airplane No. 21 in1986 to prove the plane could fly. "A sea captain wouldn't lie in hisjournals."
In the meantime, Kosch is busy compiling a Gustave Whitehead exhibit forthe Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Conn. It will open inNovember, 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 asecond 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'twant him just to be lost in history."
But Smithsonian officials and aviation historians believe the BridgeportSunday Herald article describing the flight to be an aeronautical hoax, astaple of American journalism begun in the 1840s when Edgar Allan Poe, indesperate need of money to hire a doctor for his ailing wife, concocted anamazing tale about a hot-air balloon journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Historians point out that when research into the claims began more than sixdecades ago, Whitehead assistant James Dickie said he did not witness the 1901flight 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 thestory.
Orville Wright himself was surprised that anyone took the article as fact,noting in a 1945 article that the Herald story appeared under a headingentitled "Flying," illustrated with four witches riding brooms.
Subsequent conflicting testimony and evidence, Whitehead's inability toduplicate his professed results, and the lack of photographs depicting No. 21in flight has left scholars skeptical. Smithsonian officials say the tale isalso riddled with glaring gaps in logic: Why did Whitehead give up aviationwhen he appeared to be the most successful "aeronaut" in the world?
Charging a "Smithsonian conspiracy," the Whitehead camp claims theSmithsonian has a vested interest in avoiding further scientific inquirybecause of a 1948 contract signed with the executors of Orville Wright'sestate that gave the institution possession of the 1903 Flyer.
Under the agreement, ownership of the plane could revert back to the Wrightestate should the Smithsonian ever acknowledge any aircraft or designpredating the Flyer as "capable of carrying a man under its own power incontrolled flight."
Whitehead supporters claim the contract has caused the Smithsonian to turna blind eye to any evidence that debunks the Wrights' first-flight status. Asa result, they say, the contract has effectively banished Whitehead and otheraeronautical pioneers to obscurity.
"All other aviation pioneers were systematically eliminated of a fairchance 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 honoringWhitehead in Leutershausen, Germany.
The Smithsonian says the contract was drafted merely to reassure OrvilleWright, who had feuded with the institution after it had erroneouslyidentified 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 Wrightbrothers, I certainly would have no problem putting that forward," says PeterJakab, chair of the National Air and Space Museum's aeronautics division.
On the south island of New Zealand, dozens of witnesses recounted theevents of March 31, 1903: Nearly nine months before the famous flight at KittyHawk, 25-year-old Richard Pearse wheeled his plane down to the crossroads nearhis farm and, as a small crowd gathered, tried to start the engine.
It rattled to life and Pearse staggered into the air, immediately veeringleft and climbing slowly before crashing into an overgrown hedge. Witnessessaid later flights of up to a quarter-mile took off from a small hill, withPearse landing in a mostly dried-up river bed. A propeller and engine partshave been found there.
Last month, New Zealanders held a four-day Richard Pearse Centenary ofFlight celebration in honor of the man nicknamed "Mad Pearse."
"I'm certain his achievements pre-dated the Wright brothers," saysgreat-nephew Jeff, 45, on the phone from the house in Waitohi where Pearse wasborn in 1877.
Even as a schoolboy, Pearse was fascinated by flight and excelled inengineering. One day he arrived at his one-room school with a contraption madeof a cotton reel, a nailed board, a piece of string and the top of a tin cancut and twisted into a propeller. For the excitement of his classmates, hewound the string around the reel, tugged on it and sent the tin propellershooting off from the nail.
By the time he finished his primary education, Pearse had invented amechanical needle-threader for his mother, a "zoetrope" for his sisters thatflicked still pictures to produce moving images, and a small steam engine madefrom a syrup can filled with water.
But with nine children, the family couldn't afford to send him toengineering school; instead, Pearse set up a workshop for inventing gadgets onthe family farm.
With little expertise or financial assistance, Pearse toiled on, and by1902 had built a two-cylinder, 25-horsepower engine. He then constructed a25-foot monoplane with a tricycle undercarriage using tubular steel, wire andcanvas.
"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 elderlywitnesses to the flights. Evidence suggests five flights between March andJuly 10, 1903, Rodliffe said.
But outside of witness accounts, pinning down the precise date of Pearse'sfirst flight in 1903 has been difficult. Records from a local hospital wherehe sought treatment for an injured collarbone after his plane crash weredestroyed in a fire. A photograph of the craft stuck in the hedge taken theday after perished in a flood.
Nevertheless, supporters believe Pearse did fly before the Wrights and, ifnothing else, that he should be recognized for the prophetic design featuresof his 1903 plane.
Pearse's plane was in some ways far ahead of the 1903 Wright Flyer. It hada tricycle landing gear with steerable nose wheel, more than 20 years ahead ofits time; one wing rather than two; wing flaps and a rear elevator similar tomodern aircraft; a propeller with variable-pitch blades - elements recapturedin the design of modern hang-glider aircraft.
"The Wrights got the recognition of being the first to fly, but if you lookat the entirety of flight, he should get recognition for his vision," JeffPearse 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-awaywings designed for vertical takeoff and landing, but was never flown.
Pearse himself never claimed to have beaten the Wrights, saying he didn'tconsider 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 aviationkept by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale for his 197-foot flight onOct. 23, 1906?
Doesn't history show that Santos-Dumont conducted his aviation experimentsin public before huge crowds, rather than on the remote sands of a fishingvillage? Did he not make three public flights in 1906 - two years beforeWilbur 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 afistful of American newspapers what really happened," supporter RobertoRodrigues Mola says in a letter posted on the Internet. "And what happenedwasn't a whisper message to my neighbor in a silly game, but a strong shoutthat traveled over the ocean at that time, and is echoing until the presentdays," he says in comparing news of the Wright's flight with Santos-Dumont's.
Many Brazilians consider Santos-Dumont the "Father of Aviation" partlybecause he demonstrated a public passion for flight, unlike the Wrights, whoremained secretive as they prepared their airplane patent.
Nick Engler, director of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museumof Pioneer Aviation in Dayton, Ohio, says part of the Brazilian bashing of theWrights is the leftover legacy of history books written with a nationalisticslant during the country's dictatorial regime of the 1930s.
"They made Brazil sound like the end-all, be-all of technologicaldevelopment," Engler says. "So consequently, when you talk to a Brazilianabout 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 firstpowered flight in Europe near Paris on Nov. 12, 1906, aboard the boxy canvasand bamboo 14-bis, a biplane inspired by Wright brothers' plans that hadappeared in European magazines. The 722-foot flight at Bagatelle lasted 21.2seconds.
The next year, Santos-Dumont turned to monoplanes and built Demoiselle, aprecursor of modern ultralight aircraft. The plane designs were published inmagazines worldwide, including Popular Mechanics, providing flight enthusiastsof limited means with an inexpensive way to take to the sky.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1910, Santos-Dumont withdrew frompublic life and eventually hanged himself with a necktie in 1932 afterbecoming depressed over the use of aircraft in war. He was 59.
Forget about first in flight. Some question whether the brothers' Flyerever got off the ground.
In 1903, when the craft rolled down a 60-foot takeoff rail laid out on thesand, it was a 27 mph headwind and Wilbur Wright's left hand - which heremoved from the plane before the shutter clicked for one of the world's mostreproduced photos - that helped the plane overcome ground drag and created theillusion of full flight, they contend.
The 1903 photograph of the craft raising itself into the air with Wilburrunning alongside didn't surface until 1908 (when the brothers' planes flewmuch better, they argue) because the Wrights could not duplicate the resultsthe picture captured - minus the wind and Wilbur's steadying grip.
So, the nonbelievers say, the brothers worked in secret perfecting theirairplane 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, ishardly unassisted flight," says retired Air Force Reserve pilot William J.O'Dwyer, who took up the Whitehead cause in the 1970s. "His footprints in thatphoto 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 handposition."
There comes a point in these debates where logic and rational argumentcease to persuade, says Janet Bednarek, who heads the history department atthe University of Dayton.
"There are people who still believe the Earth is flat," says Bednarek, whohas studied early flight. "The Wright brothers invented the airplane. They putall the pieces together that were necessary for the modern airplane, and everyairplane since then reflects their work."
The Wright museum's Engler says it might hearten first-flight naysayers toknow that it is still possible, albeit unlikely, that historians will uncoverconclusive evidence that some little-known tinkerer beat the Wrights to thesky.
But no matter how ingenious their achievement might have been, he says, itwould amount to little more than a historical footnote, because it had noimpact on the birth of aviation.
Unlike many of their challengers, the Wrights left detailed documentationthat chronicled their scientific understanding of aerodynamic control. Thatcoupled with their wing-warping invention to control an aircraft's roll madepowered 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.