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I'd say it's a commonly held belief that the Wright brothers were the first to achieve controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than air human flight, as it can be found in most history books. However, there are many who say that this might not be so....

The most notable man claiming to have flown before the Wrights was Gustave Whitehead, who is purported to have designed, built and flown his own craft approximately two years before Orville and Wilbur Wright.

"Two years, four months and three days before the successful flights of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, a birdlike monoplane took to the air at early dawn on August 14, 1901, near Bridgeport, Connecticut, carrying its inventor and builder, Gustav Whitehead, a distance of approximately a half mile." Stella Randolph, The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead. source

An article from the New York Herald dated August 19, 1901 is quoted as saying:

Mr. Whitehead last Tuesday night, with two assistants, took his machine to a long field back of Fairfield and the inventor; for the first time flew in his machine for half a mile. It worked perfectly, and the operator found no difficulty in handling it Mr. Whitehead's machine is equipped with two engines, one to propel it on the ground, on wheels, and the other to make the wings or propellers work.

However, while this sounds quite convincing, an article from Scientific American dated 1901 perhaps sheds some light on why Gustave Whitehead is not known today as the first aviator:

"A novel flying machine has just been completed by Mr. Gustave Whitehead, of Bridgeport, Conn., and is now ready for the preliminary trials. Several experiments have been made, but as yet no free flights have been attempted".

Could be that the Wrights were the first to achieve flight, even though Whitehead's machine may have been built earlier?

More than one source offers this simpler explanation; that there was simply no evidence to back Whitehead's claims:

He continued building and experimenting with airplanes, and his supporters claim that he made powered flights in both Pittsburgh in 1899 and Bridgeport in 1901 and early 1902. His letters to periodicals and interviews in newspapers claim powered flights as early as 1898 and as late as 1903. He was, in fact, one of a several turn-of-the-century experimenters who regularly issued press releases that described successful flights with no real evidence to back his claims. Whitehead made his last airplane in 1908 — which did not fly — then went on to build helicopters which did not fly

Research into the topic can yield credible-sounding claims for either side, and my current position can be summed up by this particular quote I happened across at flyingmachines.org:

"That Whitehead designed and built (and flew) gliders and designed and built powered flying machines is not in dispute. That any of his heavier-than-air powered machines flew is."

Is there credible evidence proving Gustave Whitehead achieved powered heavier-than-air human flight before the Wright brothers?

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@Alister I ran across his name more than once, but for the sake of my own limited grey matter, I tried to aim my question toward Whitehead, but if you've got credible evidence for Pearse, I welcome it it. I wanted to title the question "Did Whitehead beat the Wrights to flight?" but chose the wording because if credible evidence can be provided for the likes of Pearse or others, I believe it would be valid. –  Monkey Tuesday Jun 17 '11 at 6:16
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@Fake Name cannonballs, human or otherwise not included –  Monkey Tuesday Jun 18 '11 at 5:04
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@Monkey, you did all the research that the answer would be. :( Basically, the crux of the argument is that none of the other contenders to the first powered flight title offered corroborating or substantiating data. Sadly, if Fuax Noise or CNN from today were to report on it, the entire history would be obfuscated by the sensationalism... The only "evidence" (which is not credible) is Whitehead's hearsay. –  Larian LeQuella Jun 18 '11 at 23:10
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@Larian actually, funny you should mention that, this question came out of some research I was doing into inaccuracy/lack of proper evidence and bias in media reports. –  Monkey Tuesday Jun 19 '11 at 18:08
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The Wright brothers were the first to have achieved, controlled, powered, flight while witnessed by independent observers. Any other claimants miss one or more of those components (especially the independent observers). –  jwenting Jun 20 '11 at 8:08

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

When asking "who was the first to fly?" the question is usually interpreted to mean "who was the first to achieve powered, controlled flight in a heavier than air machine". That excludes a number of glider builders, the most prominent being Otto Lillienthal, who nonethless deserve credit for being great aviation pioneers and inventors, on whose shoulders the powered aircraft pioneers built their work.

The best resource I have found on this subject is this article, detailing the work of some aviation pioneers contemporary and previous to the Wright Brothers. A number of people claim (or have claimed for them) powered controlled flight prior to the Wright Brothers, but all of them have difficulty with their claims. Here are a few extracts:

Augustus Moore Herring, October 1898 "Herring is reported to have flown his powered glider on two attempts. [...] While Herring's craft probably did fly with an engine aboard, the craft was not controlled and the flight was not sustainable."

Preston Watson, summer 1903 Local residents recalled witnessing Watson making short flights of an aircraft powered by a single engine between 1903 and 1904, but no one could remember any exact dates.

Gustave Whitehead, August 1901 According to Whitehead supporters, his greatest success came on 14 August 1901 when Gustave is said to have made as many as four test flights of the No. 21. [...] Unfortunately, the evidence to back up any of these rather extraordinary claims is sketchy, at best. The most ardent believers in Whitehead's accomplishments did not publish any of their claims until over 30 years after they are alleged to have occurred. By this time, only one eye witness could be found to corroborate the stories, and this individual had a financial interest in a book being written about Whitehead. [...] Perhaps the most telling evidence of all is the fact that his wife could not remember any instance of seeing her husband flying in one of his planes.

An additional article can be found in Scientific American:

Other contenders for the "first airplane" laurels merely made short or uncontrolled flights. Clement Ader can be credited with the first powered takeoff in 1890. But his steam-powered aircraft reached an altitude of eight inches, sufficient to classify it as a flight only to his French countrymen. German-born Gustave Whitehead was adept at fabricating stories about flying in the U.S., but he never built a workable airplane. New Zealanders are proud of Richard Pearse: in March 1903 this reclusive, eccentric farmer flew his bamboo-and-canvas monoplane for about 450 feet before crashing into a gorse hedge. His example illustrates, rather painfully, the need for controllability in aerial navigation.

By appropriately expanding the definition of "fly" (or by choosing to believe some undocumented and implausible claims) you can make a case for some of the other pioneers. But the Wrights undoubtedly have the best documented and most credible case for being the first to fly.

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It depends what you call "to fly". Clément Ader is sometimes said to be the first to fly, but that's a disputed assertion, especially outside of France.

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and that's the crux, he has no independent verification to back up his claim. –  jwenting Jun 20 '11 at 8:09

Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal (* 23. Mai 1848 in Anklam; † 10. August 1896 in Berlin after a crash with one of his flying machines). http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Lilienthal

He invented the principle of the profile of the wing, and was one of the first, who recognized, that you needn't be thinner than air, to fly (principle of the Mongolfiere).

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Lilienthal for the German impaired. Notably he did not achieve powered flight - his flights were all glider based. Further, The Wright brothers credited him for a lot of their inspiration, however they threw his data away and instead used their own wind tunnel gathered data for their designs. –  Adam Davis Jun 17 '11 at 12:28
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Maybe they didn't rely on his work. But that doesn't make them earlier. Powered flight was not in the headline, not in the first paragraph, not in the last, emphasized paragraph. I don't see what your problem is. –  user unknown Jun 17 '11 at 12:36
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There is a distinct difference between "fly" and "glide" and when people talk about human flight, generally they aren't discussing gliding, because humans have been gliding far longer than flying, and it's a more difficult subject to pin down. However you are correct that his is something that must be assumed, so I'll bug the OP to specify. –  Adam Davis Jun 17 '11 at 12:51
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I apologize for the confusion, I didn't realize I hadn't included the word "powered". It does make a substantial difference. The question has been edited to clarify. –  Monkey Tuesday Jun 17 '11 at 20:42
    
@AdamDavis: The english wikipedia talks about "gliding flights" and about him as the "Father of Flight". –  user unknown Jan 6 at 0:31

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