Today I testified in the Ohio Statehouse in favor of House Concurrent Resolution 8, repudiating the claim that Gustave Whitehead flew a powered airplane of his own design two years before the Wright brothers, or ever. My testimony to the House Transportation and Insfrastructure Committee focused on why this bill is important.
First, a little background.
As the bill says, the Whitehead claim has surfaced from time to time since the early days of aviation. Every time, historians have reviewed the evidence—or rather, the lack of it—and dismissed it, reflecting a scientific rule of thumb popularized by the late astronomer Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Unfortunately, it was a rule either unknown to or ignored by Paul Jackson, editor-in-chief of IHS Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, who endorsed the claim in a March 8, 2013 column. Jackson gives great weight to the original newspaper report of Whitehead’s flight, a fanciful piece in the Aug. 18, 1901 edition of the Bridgeport Herald.
Jackson noted the report was written as an eyewitness account (by an unnamed editor) of a midnight ramble through the countryside with Whitehead, two assistants and Whitehead's invention—a flying car. He also noted the article was accompanied by an illustration purportedly made from a photograph of Whitehead in flight.
Jackson neglected to mention the main illustration was a drawing of four witches on broomsticks, which begs the question of just how seriously the newspaper took its own story. The story itself is ludicrous, reporting that Whitehead flew the machine first unmanned, loaded with sandbags and held down by ropes, then climbed in and piloted it deftly for half a mile on his very first try, controlling it by leaning—and averaging an impossibly slow speed of three miles per hour.
Instead of demanding that Jackson and IHS Jane's support his extraordinary claim with extraordinary evidence, the news media saw it as a titillating bit of controversy that pitted Connecticut against North Carolina, where Dayton's Wright brothers made their first powered flights in 1903. Connecticut politicians likewise showed no desire to get the facts before using Jackson's column as justification to pass a state law declaring Whitehead first in flight.
I'm not going to waste my time or yours with a point-by-point rebuttal of the various arguments in favor of the Whitehead claim. For that, visit Carroll F. Gray's website, flyingmachines.org.
What galled me, as an Ohioan, is that the initial news reports didn't even mention Ohio, where the Wright brothers actually lived, invented the airplane and later launched America's aviation industry. This is because Ohio hasn't vigorously promoted its aviation heritage brand, while North Carolina for decades has proudly declared itself the "first in flight" state. North Carolina rightly shares Ohio's aviation heritage, but Ohio has let let North Carolina dominate it.
HCR 8, introduced by Ohio Rep. Rick Perales, is a step in the right direction. It would put Ohio on record as repudiating the Whitehead claim and acknowledging Ohio, not any other state, is the true birthplace of aviation. That's why I presented the testimony below.
Ohio HCR 8
Timothy R. Gaffney
March 23, 2015
Chairman Boose and members of the Committee, thank you for allowing me to testify. My name is Timothy R. Gaffney, and I am the author of The Dayton Flight Factory, a book about the Wright brothers. I am also the communications director and a former trustee for the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, but I testify today as an Ohioan who is proud to live where the Wright brothers invented the airplane and launched America’s aerospace industry.
I support this bill based on my own extensive research about the Wright brothers and also the claims about Gustave Whitehead. The bill is correct, but is it important? Should the state of Ohio speak out about another state’s attempt to rewrite history? I think so, and this is why: for too long, Ohio has been too modest in claiming its rightful reputation as the birthplace of aviation—a reputation that amounts to a marketing brand of enormous value to a state seeking to retain and attract aerospace jobs. Ohioans believe modesty is a virtue, but in the case of our aviation heritage, we’ve been modest to a fault. We’ve allowed another state to use that brand as its own.
The consequences are real and measurable. In 2005, the Heritage Alliance received the results of a nationwide awareness study. The study found 80 percent of respondents believed the Wright brothers invented the airplane, but 40 percent believed they invented it in North Carolina. Only 14 percent believed they invented it in Dayton, Ohio.
We shouldn’t be surprised. North Carolina promotes its Wright brothers heritage much more vigorously than Ohio. For example, North Carolina license plates proudly declare it was “first in flight.” State law requires Ohio license plates to carry the slogan “birthplace of aviation,” but the new plate design makes it all but invisible. To use a football metaphor, Ohio has made it easy for North Carolina to take the Wright brothers ball and run with it.
Another example involves Connecticut’s claim that one of its residents, Gustave Whitehead, flew two years before the Wright brothers, thus claiming that it—not Ohio, not even North Carolina—was first in flight. Connecticut isn’t simply trying to use our brand; it’s trying to destroy it. When Connecticut last hyped this claim in the 1980s, North Carolina’s general assembly passed a resolution repudiating it. Ohio did not. When the claim resurfaced in March of 2013, Fox News made it a national story with a report that cast the controversy as a tussle between Connecticut and North Carolina. Fox didn’t even mention Ohio. The flurry of news reports that followed generally left Ohio on the sidelines.
The good news is that Ohio has begun taking action to support its robust aerospace industry and show its pride in the aviation heritage that created it. This bill is a fine example, and to me a symbol, of that new attitude. Since October 2013, when Representative Perales held a joint news conference with a North Carolina state senator and announced his plans to sponsor this resolution. the press has started to notice Ohio and report its stake in the Whitehead issue.
Now that we have the public’s attention, what will we do? Will Ohio follow through and pass HCR 8? Or will it let the bill die and signal that the birthplace of aviation brand is free for the taking? I urge you to show Ohio’s pride in its aviation heritage and pass this bill. Thank you for your time.Read more
In The Dayton Flight Factory, you won't find any mention of Gustave Whitehead, the Connecticut resident who some claim flew two years before the Wright brothers. In my mind, it's not noteworthy. The Whitehead claim surfaces every decade or so, and every time historians look at the claim and find no convincing evidence to supper it. To quote the late astronomer Carl Sagan, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
But some Connecticut politicians who were not about to let historical accuracy stand in the way of parochial interests passed a law declaring Whitehead—and their state—first in flight.
Ohio Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek, has responded with a resolution to repudiate Connecticut's claim, reaffirming Ohio's reputation as the birthplace of aviation. And on Tuesday, I'm going to Columbus to testify in favor of the bill, H.C.R. 8. Once my testimony is in the record, I'll share it here.Read more