DAYTON, Ohio — The National Aviation Heritage Alliance (NAHA) is calling on Connecticut lawmakers to restore their support for the Wright brothers after a major publisher backed off its claim that Connecticut resident Gustave Whitehead flew first.
In a New York Times article published Friday, April 17, the publisher of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft distanced itself from the March 2013 column that Connecticut lawmakers used to justify a law replacing the Wright brothers with Whitehead as the one to honor for the first powered flight.
The controversial column by IHS Jane’s editor-in-chief Paul Jackson “reflected Mr. Jackson’s opinion on the issue and not that of IHS Jane’s,” the company told the Times. NAHA confirmed the statement with IHS.
“IHS Jane’s has taken a major step back from the position it held in 2013 when we communicated with senior IHS executives,” said Tony Sculimbrene, NAHA executive director. “At that time, in phone calls, emails and by letter, IHS executives gave no indication that IHS Jane’s didn’t stand by the columns written by its editor in chief.”
In an October 2013 letter to IHS President and Chief Executive Officer Scott Key, NAHA and the First Flight Society of North Carolina jointly asked IHS to review the column’s position in light of a statement signed by more than 30 historians and scholars that “the evidence now available fails to support the claim” that Whitehead flew prior to the Wright brothers. The letter included a copy of the historians’ statement.
In December 2013, IHS Industrials Vice President Jonathan Gear replied that “our investigation” of Jackson’s column found he had “followed our editorial processes for fact-based analysis.”
Gear’s letter added, “I recognize that there are opposing views on this historical analysis,” but Sculimbrene said it gave no hint that IHS considered Jackson’s column his opinion alone.
Jackson essentially rewrote aviation history by declaring Whitehead made a powered flight on Aug. 14, 1901, in Bridgeport, Conn., more than two years before brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made their well-documented flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
In his column, Jackson asserted “a vast cache of documentary evidence” supported his position, but he cited only long-discredited claims, primarily a fanciful report in the Bridgeport Herald, one filled with aeronautical impossibilities and roundly dismissed by aviation historians, according to NAHA officials.
Despite the lack of new evidence, Connecticut lawmakers and the hometown press took the IHS Jane’s column as a seal of approval for the Whitehead claim. In June 2013, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed an act replacing the Wright brothers with Whitehead as the person to honor for the first powered flight.
More recently, Connecticut legislators have introduced a bill designating Aug. 14 as Gustave Whitehead Day and one designating his airplane as the state pioneering aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Ohio House of Representatives is considering a bill introduced by State Rep. Richard Perales, R-Beavercreek, that would repudiate Connecticut’s claim. North Carolina previously passed similar legislation.
The IHS statement says Jackson’s column “was intended to stimulate discussion about first in flight” and that “IHS Jane’s made several offers to supporters of the Wright brothers to provide a counter piece to Mr. Jackson’s article, but no one accepted the opportunity.”
“At no time did IHS Jane’s offer NAHA the opportunity to counter Mr. Jackson’s column, and none of several prominent Wright brothers supporters we’ve contacted say they have received such an offer,” Sculimbrene said.
NAHA has asked IHS Jane’s to disclose who was offered a chance to respond.
But Sculimbrene welcomed the change in position.
“For a publisher whose credibility depends on accuracy, IHS Jane’s has taken a step in the right direction — away from the Gustave Whitehead myth,” he said. “Now it’s time for Connecticut’s lawmakers to do the same.”
In a follow-up, NAHA officials have written to a Connecticut State Senator Kevin Kelly IHS Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft Keys, asking them to reveal the evidence they claim to have that Gustave Whitehead was first in flight.
The letter asks Kelly to disclose what he described as “mounting evidence” of Whitehead’s flight in defending his continued support for the law, as well as a bill he introduced that would designate Aug. 14 as “Gustave Whitehead Day” in Connecticut.
The letter also asked Key to produce the evidence his company says prompted Jackson to endorse the Whitehead claim in a March 2013 column. In the column, Jackson also referred to a “vast cache of documentary evidence” supporting the claim.
“If you can’t provide the evidence you have claimed to possess, then Sen. Kelly, you and your fellow legislatures should correct your law, and Mr. Key, IHS should admit that the Jane’s column was wrong,” said the letter, signed by NAHA Executive Director Tony Sculimbrene. “Otherwise, both the state of Connecticut and IHS will be subject to increasing embarrassment as impartial observers begin to take a serious look at the lack of real evidence behind your claims.”