Who was really the first to fly?


Who was the first person to fly?

Was it that snappy dresser from Brazil, Alberto Santos Dumont? His countrymen fervently think so. His first flight was Oct. 23, 1906. It was recognized by Brazilians and by the French and other Europeans to truly be the first controlled flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft. It had the ability to take off from the ground without any catapult assistance and it was witnessed in public by a large crowd and the scientific community.

Or was it Gustave Whitehead in Fairfield, Connecticut, on Aug. 14, 1901? Eyewitnesses signed depositions years later attesting to that statement. Modern replicas of Whitehead’s aircraft have been successfully flown.

When the Wright Brothers flew in the United States in front of people — the press in particular — they asked that no photographs be taken. They were very secretive because they were afraid that others would steal their designs or technical features of the aircraft. Between 1903 and 1906 they still didn’t have an approved or accepted patent, which was a factor in their secrecy. Their patent (#821,393) was granted May 22,1906 — three years after they first flew. Then in 1908 they were awarded a $25,000 government contract from the U.S. War Department. They went to Paris May 29, 1908, and finally demonstrated the aircraft in front of a very large crowd.

Interestingly, a contract was made between the estate of the Wright brothers and the Smithsonian Institution to display the Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which stated that if it is proven that anyone else had flown first, the Wright Flyer would be taken back. Conspiracy theorists say that this contract was created to keep facts about Whitehead’s alleged flight from being divulged and published. Does a photograph exist showing Gustave Whitehead in flight in 1901? Has the existence of this photograph been suppressed? Controversy to this day still swirls around all these issues.

Was it Richard Pearse from New Zealand on March 31, 1903? He had eyewitnesses also. But there wasn’t any photographic evidence of flight. Pearse never said he was the first to fly and he did not want to take away that claim from the Wright brothers. The New Zealand Mint struck a silver medal in 1982 to commemorate the “80th Anniversary of the World’s 1st Powered Flight.” The date on the medal is: “31-3-1982.” This, of course, would have made the alleged first flight in 1902. The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland, which commissioned the silver medal, states on its website that the first flight was in 1903. So was it 1902 or 1903? The debate still goes on.

Was it Glenn Curtiss? He flew an improved (structurally modified) version of Samuel P. Langley’s Great Aerodrome in 1914. So does that mean it could have flown in 1903 before the Wright brothers? The Great Aerodrome fell off a houseboat in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., twice in 1903 (Oct. 7 and Dec. 8).

Curtiss and the Wright brothers had patent litigation for many years with regards towards “controllable” flight and whose control system (wing-warping or elevators and ailerons) was the first —  and therefore — legitimate.

Or was it really the Wright brothers? It has been said that they didn’t really fly on Dec. 17, 1903. There are those who say that, allegedly, when Wilbur Wright was running alongside the aircraft he was supposedly balancing, he was actually lifting it while his brother Orville Wright was flying it. The deep depressions of Wilbur’s footprints in the sand are supposed to be proof of that.

I was born and raised in Connecticut, but does that mean I have to automatically state that Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly? On the contrary, I emphatically state that I believe that the Wright brothers designed, built, tested, and flew the first heavier-than-air aircraft in sustained and controllable flight. Who knows? Maybe someone, someday, will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone else was first to fly. But until that day comes, I am sticking with the Wright brothers.


  1. Andy says

    I have also heard the case made that while others may have flown first, what really set the Wrights apart was their rigorous scientific methodology to meticulously document and justify all of their design decisions. In other words, it wasn’t so important they were the first to fly so much as they were the first to explain to everyone -else- how to fly. If that is true, that contribution is possibly more significant in terms of launching the whole industry of flight as compared to having a few spectacles flying around.

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