States wage ‘first flight fight’ over Wright Brothers

Who’s right about the Wrights?

A Connecticut bill that “denounces” the Wright Brothers by literally writing them out of history is a demeaning falsity, said lawmakers from Ohio and North Carolina -- and the representatives of the Nutmeg State should be ashamed of themselves.

“If you saw that document where they crossed out the Wright brothers … it just hurts,” Rep. Rick Perales, R-Ohio, said Thursday. Perales called a news conference to unveil plans for a bill of his own that will affirm what most of the world believes, that the Wright Brothers were first in flight.

Read the fine print

A 1948 contract between the Smithsonian museum and Orville Wright requires the museum to call the Wright Flyer the first real airplane, critics argue. Here, the relevant excerpt from the contract:

“Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor its successors, nor any museum or other agency ... or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903.”

Read the full contract here.

But were they?

That widely believed fact was called into question (yet again, historians say, while rolling their eyes) seven months ago, when Australian aviation historian John Brown told about what he called photographic proof that German immigrant Gustav Whitehead flew over Connecticut in 1901 -- meaning “first in flight” pioneers Orville and Wilbur were second.

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

Ohio and North Carolina have for decades celebrated the historical legacy of the Wright Brothers, who entered history books following their flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December 1903 but grew up in Dayton, Ohio. The Buckeye State bills itself as “the birthplace of aviation,” yet Connecticut lawmakers pounced on the claims that Whitehead flew first, in June introducing a bill that proclaimed Powered Flight Day a tribute to Whitehead, who had been a resident of the town of Bridgeport.

"There’s no question that the Wright brothers will retain their place in aviation history," Sen. Mike McLachlan, R-Conn., told at the time. "And rightfully so. They just weren't first."

That’s simply not true, said North Carolina Republican Sen. Bill Cook. Cook, speaking from Kill Devil Hills, N.C. -- where the Wright Brothers National Memorial sits -- joined Perales via Skype at a joint press conference held at Wright "B" Flyer Hangar and Museum, Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport.

'If you tell a lie or an untruth enough, folks start to believe it. I want to cut that off at the beginning.'

— North Carolina Sen. Bill Cook

“It’s almost beneath recognizing,” Cook said about the Connecticut bill. “Sometimes, if you tell a lie or an untruth enough, folks start to believe it. I want to cut that off at the beginning.”

Cook said he doesn’t plan similar legislation, but he supports the Ohio bill -- a rare bit of camaraderie for the two states that have historically battled over whose claim to Wright fame is more significant.

“We keep killing this spurious argument and it keeps raising its head,” Cook said.

“Sometimes you have to reiterate the truth so that folks know that it is the truth. We have a lot of people in this country who read only a little blurb, the tip of an iceberg, and sometimes accept it as truth. I want to make sure that when they think about this, they have the truth.”

The National Aviation Heritage Alliance in Ohio and North Carolina’s First Flight Foundation facilitated the news conference.