formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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March 26, 2013 Who's Up First?

The Liberty Gazette
March 26, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: The aviation world has been dealt some strange cards this past week and one of them may require a change in history books.

Considered the foremost authority on aviation history, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft has been published annually in England since November 1909. We turn to Jane’s for detailed descriptions of every type, make and model airplane produced. The publication has historically supported the Wright brothers as having been the first to fly. But now in their 100-year anniversary issue to be published this year (three years were missed during both World Wars) they have changed their tune. Jane’s editors and researchers now say there is ample evidence to refute the Wright’s claim in favor of Gustave Albin Whitehead who flew his aircraft once in 1901 and again in 1902 – before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in December 1903.

Linda: The key to this is that the flight be both powered and controlled.

Around the end of the 19th century the Wright brothers were locked in a race against Samuel Pierpont Langley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Museum, to be the first to fly. Langley’s "Aerodrome" was launched twice by catapult from a houseboat on the Potomac River, in October and December of 1903. The launches failed, the aircraft falling "like a sack of mortar" according to one witness. The last attempt was just nine days before the Wright Flyer lifted from the sandy dunes at Kitty Hawk under its own power and flew 120 feet.

Mike: Langley was backed by Army grants while the Wrights had to find their own funding. Langley sought the limelight, fame and fortune; the Wrights hid from it. During development of their flying machine the Wrights sought information from the Smithsonian’s archives – their requests denied by Langley. After Langley died a close friend became Secretary of the museum and continued the rivalry for two more decades by refusing to acknowledge the Wrights’ achievements. Glenn Curtiss, who was in a patent war with the Wrights, was hired to "fix" Langley’s Aerodrome. Curtiss finally made it fly in 1914 so the Smithsonian claimed the original Aerodrome design was a success and shunned the Wrights.

Orville donated the Wright Flyer to a London museum in 1925, and there it stayed until the Smithsonian finally came clean on the real story in 1943. At Orville’s direction the Wright Flyer was shipped to the Smithsonian where it now hangs from the ceiling in the main gallery.

And what about Gustave Albin Whitehead? If Langley was set on keeping the Wrights’ names from the record books it stands to reason he would treat any competitor that way. I wasn’t an eyewitness but it could have happened just that way.

Of course, the official response from the Smithsonian at this time is that Mr. Whitehead’s claims don’t fly. Knowing this history though wouldn’t you think it needs a closer, less biased look? The experts at Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft seems to think so. Stay tuned, history lovers, there will be more to this story as the fight for first flight continues a hundred years later.

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