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Wright brothers flew 2 years after Gustav Whitehead, researcher claims

  • gustav-whitehead-01.JPG

    Gustave Whitehead, 2nd from left, with visitors in front of his "No 21". At his feet the self built gas pressure motor. (Flight Historical Research Foundation Gustav Weisskopf)

  • gustav-whitehead-03.JPG

    Aviation Pioneer Whitehead with daughter Rose in front of his "No. 21". In the foreground is his self-built gas pressure motor. (Flight Historical Research Foundation Gustav Weisskopf)

Were we wrong about the Wright Brothers?

That's the shocking claim by Australian aviation historian John Brown, who told FoxNews.com he has photographic proof that German immigrant Gustav Whitehead flew over Connecticut in 1901 -- Orville and Wilbur were second.

“Two years, four months, and three days before the Wright brothers, somebody else flew first,” Brown said via phone from Germany. "It’s really a radical revision of the history of aviation."

'Two years, four months, and three days before the Wright brothers, somebody else flew first.'

- Australian aviation historian John Brown

Even “Jane’s: All the World’s Aircraft” -- widely considered the essential bible of flight -- has acknowledged Whitehead's achievement and Brown's research. With the headline "justice delayed is justice denied," editor-in-chief Paul Jackson wrote about the early aviator's story for the overview to the newly released 100th edition of the reference guide, published online on Saturday.

“Today, it seems impossible that a vast cache of documentary evidence ... can be overlooked by the world at large,” he wrote.

The Wright brothers soared into history books on Dec. 17, 1903, following their historic, 852-foot, 59-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina -- an achievement for which the duo are widely described as being “first in flight.” But historians have long known that others were working on a variety of flying machines, including a fellow U.S. resident, German immigrant Gustav Whitehead (born Weisskopf).

Whitehead flew early in the morning of Aug. 14, 1901, Brown said. His winged, bird-like plane was called No. 21, or "The Condor"; with wooden wheels and canvas wings stretched taut across bat-like wooden arms, it rose over the darkened streets of Bridgeport, Conn., and covered an estimated 1.5 miles at a height of 50 feet, he said.

Whitehead brought the chief editor of the Bridgeport Herald to witness the event, which led to a news article for the paper and a photo of the historic event -- a photo that, unfortunately for history, turned out to be awfully blurry.

“There were four journalists who saw the photo back in the early 1900s. They saw it up close, the real-life version. I have to use their eyes to be able to see it,” Brown, who has cultivated a vast crop of information on Whitehead, told FoxNews.com.

What happened to Whitehead?

  * Patent problems. Orville and Wilbur filed a patent as well as numerous injunctions against other early pioneers, Brown said.

  * Criminal associates. Whitehead disastrously picked a convicted criminal to help commercialize the technology. He was locked from his own factory.

  * The Smithsonian. Jackson wrote that the Institute obtained Wright Flyer No. 1 from Orville only after agreeing not to state that any earlier aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power, something Jakab called a misunderstanding of a feud between Orville and the Smithsonian. "On the surface, yes this agreement does exist … and the agreement has never been secret," he told FoxNews.com.

Whitehead’s story has long been a widely known but buried fact of history, one studied at length by numerous aviation enthusiasts. Tom Crouch, chief curator of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian and the author of four books on the Wright brothers, is one of them. He remains unswayed.

"Gimme a break," Crouch told FoxNews.com. "I have not seen anything that convinced me that Whitehead got off the ground in a powered machine at all."

The problem is that the blurry original photo disappeared years ago, but numerous newspaper articles about the event are easy to track down -- many of them are linked from Brown's website. There's a copy of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald from Aug. 18, 1901, and the Washington Times from Aug. 23, 1901, for example. The site also has pictures from a German museum dedicated to Whitehead.

One image is of key interest: a 1906 photograph of an exhibit on Whitehead’s flight, taken at an aviation exhibition. The 1906 photograph shows several other photographs of the man and his flying machine -- possibly including the lost blurry original of the historic flight in 1901. Brown said he asked Bavarian police to analyze the photos seen in the 1906 image.

“The photo has been enlarged 3,500 percent,” Brown said. It validated the blurry picture, and the analysis confirms the numerous early press reports on Whitehead’s flight as well, he claims.

“He had the only monoplane. It’s a high-wing monoplane, and it has a big mast in the middle. It’s obviously his plane.”

"And it’s in the air, so it’s obviously flying," he told FoxNews.com.

Other experts remained skeptical of Brown's claims: Peter Jakab, associate director of curatorial affairs for the Smithsonian Museum, said the 1906 photograph was examined thoroughly long ago.

“I see a lot of blurriness. I don’t see a lot of airplanes,” he joked. He argues that the legacy of Orville and Wilbur's plane is more important anyway.

“It was able to evolve into something we have today. And that’s its real powerful significance -- in addition to being the first to fly,” Jakab told FoxNews.com. Crouch went so far as to call Whitehead a pretender, noting that people he worked with in later years didn't believe he had flown.

“Up until now, historians said he was a pretender, a fake and a fraud. The truth is quite the opposite,” Brown told FoxNews.com.

The German Interior minister on Tuesday awarded €9.5 million for a new museum dedicated to Whitehead, Brown noted. But first or second, that investment might be taking things too far -- even for Brown.

“[Whitehead] applied for U.S. citizenship. This is something the Americans should be celebrating more than the Germans,” he said.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.