Is there a”first in flight” controversy? What kind of controversy is seen?
Yes, there has been an active controversy going on since the 1930’s, when Gustave Whitehead came back into national focus as a contender for “first in flight”. There have been proponents of the Wrights and proponents of Whitehead, then and now.
To learn more, read:
“The Who Flew First Debate”, archived article from Flight Journal by William J. O’Dwyer
Gustave Whitehead and the First-Flight Controversy – History.Net
(extensive article by Frank Delear, first published in Aviation History magazine, 1996)
The Smithsonian and the Wrights
From 1903 through the early 1940’s, the Smithsonian was heavily invested in promoting its own Secretary Samuel P. Langley as inventor of the first airplane capable of powered flight. Langley’s failed flying machine efforts, financed with $200,000 from governmental funds, were lauded by subsequent Smithsonian leaders, angering Orville Wright, who sent his reconstructed Wright Flyer to the London Museum in 1928, in protest. Publicly humiliated and forced by Orville Wright to renounce the Langley assertions and apologize, as part of ten years of negotiations to receive the Wright Flyer as an exhibit, the next candidates to receive Smithsonian recognition were the Wright brothers. Though Whitehead had been researched by Stella Randolph in the 1930’s, revealing him as a contender for “first in flight”, in the public eye, the Wrights were still “first”, due to earlier promotions in prominent publications such as Century magazine (1908) and the World Almanac of 1911. During the tense negotiations with Orville for the return of the Wright Flyer to the USA, starting in the 1930’s, the Smithsonian had no motivation to add Whitehead to the mix. The negotiations culminated in an understanding that the Wright Flyer would be returned, to be placed in the Smithsonian, but it was not finalized till after Orville’s death in early 1948, delayed by World War II, when it was placed underground in safe keeping from bombing raids, and an unexplained period following the end of the
Fueling the current debate: In November, 1948, the Smithsonian signed an Agreement (“the Contract”) with the Wright heirs that requires recognition of Orville Wright and the Wright Flyer as “first in flight”, in order to gain the Wright Flyer as an exhibit for $1. This contractual agreement is still in place. If it is broken by the Smithsonian or any of their nearly 200 affiliated research facilities or museums, the Wright Flyer will be returned to the heirs. The Contract has made it next to impossible to gain the support of Smithsonian to engage in any serious inquiry into Whitehead’s history. In fact, the Smithsonian curators, who must defend the Contract, are the most vocal critics of Whitehead’s claim on “first in flight”. Whitehead researchers and interested parties say that this is causing bias and that the Contract must be annulled.
The criticisms about Wikipedia being unreliable and biased appear to be especially true on the Gustave Whitehead topic.
An example of the position against Whitehead as “first in flight” may be seen most days displayed on Wikipedia’s Gustave Whitehead page, where much of the input appears to be controlled by Wright proponents. It is also reflected in the Gustave Whitehead Talk pages, where the controversy is directly engaged, and the plans made to change any information that might show Whitehead flew first. Words are changed to cast doubt or ridicule. Confronting the Wright proponents, or attempting to change the information back to what is accurate (even with full citations) leads to being suspended or banned from editing. There are approx. 18 very revealing archived sets of communications documenting these actions. An investigation of at least one major contributor shows he owns a Wright-oriented website full of vitriolic statements about Whitehead and his researchers.
Strongest resistance to crediting Whitehead as “first in flight” appears to be from those few who profit from Wrights’ recognition
There have been criticisms from a small number of Wright enthusiasts and those with monied interests in Wright tourism, in the media and on some official Wright Internet sites. On the other hand, we have heard from residents in North Carolina and Ohio, where the Wrights flew and lived, who say they want history to be accurate, no matter what, and if Whitehead was first, they can live with it and are interested.
Resistance to the crediting of Whitehead as “first in flight” appears to be coming mainly from those few who earn a living related to the Wrights’ recognition, such as the curators at the Smithsonian, Wright-oriented publications and sites, and from others who have come to nearly worship the Wrights with a seemingly religious fervor. Over the years, the myths built up around the Wrights have become full of so-called “facts” and glorifying detail (initially supplied by the Wright family “diaries” and letters, for the most part). The Smithsonian, in recent decades, has contributed to excessive glorification of the Wrights, especially under its current curators, who regularly publish books with that sort of orientation, such as “The Bishop’s Boys” by Tom Crouch.
The same is true for another of the greats in aviation: Glenn Curtiss, who defied the Wrights’ attempt to gain a world monopoly on aviation and to stop experimentation, and as a result he has been vilified by the Smithsonian.
The portrait that emerged of the Wrights seems more suited for saints – and is completely at odds with the Wrights being very bright, but very human individuals concerned primarily with business, a world monopoly, fortune, and in the case of Orville, fame. The Wrights have been built up as heroes, understandably, as they helped develop what may be considered the first practical airplane. However, hero-worship of the Wright Brothers, combined with pressure from the Smithsonian Contract with the Wright heirs, is interfering with historical inquiry and evaluating independent findings with an open mind. That is a problem! It must be noted that public hero-worship of the Wrights was not universally present in the first several decades of the 20th century, when the Wrights had plenty of criticism for their perceived pursuit of fortune at the expense of the development of aviation, which they actively tried to dominate and control worldwide. Those who continued to develop practical airplanes, like Glenn Curtiss, were sued for patent infringement and paid dearly.