DAYTON, Ohio and KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — State legislators from Ohio and North Carolina held a rare joint news conference on Thursday, Oct. 24, to defend the legacy of the Wright brothers against a claim by the state of Connecticut.
Ohio State Rep. Richard Perales and North Carolina State Sen. Bill Cook, linked by a Skype connection on the Internet, spoke from historically significant locations in their home states to rebuke a law Connecticut passed earlier this year that claimed one of its residents, Gustave Whitehead, flew two years earlier than the Wright brothers.
They also released a statement signed by 34 historians, archivists, authors and others that said the available evidence “fails to support the claim that Gustave Whitehead made sustained, powered, controlled flights prior to the Wright brothers.”
Wilbur and Orville Wright lived in Dayton, where they developed the principles of controlled flight and built their first airplanes in their bicycle shop. They made their first flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C., at a location now within the town of Kill Devil Hills. Historians regard their powered flights of Dec. 17, 1903, as the first successful manned flights of a controlled, powered, heavier-than-air machine.
“Ohio and North Carolina are known to have a longstanding rivalry over who gets to claim the Wright brothers, but the simple fact is we both do,” Perales said. “Heritage organizations in Ohio and North Carolina have worked together for years to preserve our common heritage. Today, Ohio and North Carolina stand side by side for the Wright brothers.”
“I’m honored to be the North Carolina state senator for the area where powered flight was first accomplished,” said Cook, who represents an area that includes Kill Devil Hills.
Perales spoke from the hangar of Wright “B” Flyer Inc. at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport south of Dayton. Wright “B” Flyer is a nonprofit group that flies a modern lookalike of a 1911 Wright airplane (pictured above).
Cook spoke from the Kill Devil Hills town hall, next to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where Wilbur and Orville made their flights.
Supporters of the Whitehead-flew-first claim point to a fanciful newspaper article published in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1901, and some statements gathered decades later. The claims have been studied and dismissed by historians, but they resurface from time to time and receive fleeting media attention, officials from North Carolina and Ohio stated.
What’s different this time is what Perales called Connecticut’s attempt to “rewrite history through legislation.” The legislature passed a bill declaring Whitehead was first to fly, and Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy signed it into law June 26.
The statement the legislators released carried the names of some of America’s most noted aviation historians, including Wright brothers biographer Tom D. Crouch, former Air Force head historian Richard Hallion, aerospace historian James R. Hanson and others.
“Whitehead’s claims were rejected by local newspapers and by individuals in the best position to judge, including virtually all of those who funded his experiments,” the statement reads. “We strongly urge those who support the Whitehead claims to seriously reconsider the evidence in the case, and to rethink their position.”
Perales also has introduced a resolution in the Ohio House of Representatives that would repudiate Connecticut’s claim and invite Connecticut citizens to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills and Ohio’s Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park and the National Aviation Heritage Area — all National Park Service sites dedicated to the legacy of the Wright brothers.
Cook noted his own state passed a resolution chiding Connecticut the last time the claim surfaced in 1985.
Cook said the only new evidence behind Connecticut’s recent action was an “extremely blurry” image purported to be a photo of Whitehead in flight that is not accepted by scholars.
“Leading aviation historians and scholars continue to endorse the Wright brothers as the first to accomplish flight,” Cook said.
Perales, whose district includes Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field where the Wright brothers continued their flying experiments after 1903, said the historical facts are important to Ohio.
“What the Wright brothers did more than a century ago led directly to Ohio’s aerospace industry today — one of the largest sectors of our state’s economy,” he said.
Wright-Patterson, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and aerospace companies across the state employ more than 100,000 workers and support “tens of thousands of additional jobs,” he said.