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. Jun 17, 2011 at 6:16
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    @Fake Name cannonballs, human or otherwise not included Jun 18, 2011 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. Jun 18, 2011 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. Jun 19, 2011 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, 2011 at 8:08

5 Answers 5


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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    I think you dismiss Richard Pearse's efforts too easily. While his controls may have been inadequate to avoid a hedge, they were based on the same principals as modern thinking on the subject. To say that the flight was uncontrolled is not fair, I think. He had control, the aircraft responded to his control inputs.
    – user18902
    Sep 30, 2015 at 15:43
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    If the aircraft responded to his control inputs, and it still crashed the plane, I'd dispute whether the controls were successfully functional. Jan 3, 2019 at 17:34
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    @polo if a gazelle tries to zig zag in order to outrun a cheetah but still gets caught, does it mean the gazelle didn't know how to zig zag? Jan 6, 2019 at 12:46
  • Let's not discuss Pearse's merits here. It's not me 'dismissing' his efforts, it's Scientific American. Jan 6, 2019 at 13:36
  • @PoloHoleSet If we stuck you in the seat of an F-15, and you crashed the plane, is that the fault of the controls, or the pilot? Dec 23, 2019 at 13:30

The evidence does not support the claims of the Wright brothers.

The well known picture allegedly taken on December 17, 1903 and the declaration of one witness come in conflict with Wrights' own statement published by all major American newspapers in January 1904.

1) This is what a witness wrote in 1933: "They carried the machine up on the Hill", John T. Daniels, eyewitness

"Manteo NC, June 30 —- 1933, Dear friend, I Don’t know very much to write about the flight. I was there, and it was on Dec the 17, — 1903 about 10 o’clock. They carried the machine up on the Hill and Put her on the track, and started the engine … and he went about 100 feet or more, and then Mr. Wilbur taken the machine up on the Hill and Put her on the track and he went off across the Beach about a half a mile … Sincerely, John T. Daniels, Manteo NC, Box 1W" Source: http://wrightstories.com/eyewitness-account-of-first-flight-by-john-daniels

Daniels twice wrote he had seen the machine being carried up the hill before each of the two flights he remembered.

However, the declaration of this man is inconsistent with what the Wrights declared for the newspapers. They said they had taken off from a flat surface. No hill is mentioned.

2) This is what the Wrights stated in January 1904: “Wright Flyer”, Dayton Press, Ohio, US, January 6, 1904, Library of Congress, US.

Wright Flyer — A Report of Late Tests Is Given by Messrs’ Wright, Inventors of the Machine. — Interesting Description of the Trials Made at Kitty Hawk. ... On the morning of December 17, between the hours of 10:30 o’clock and noon, four flights were made, two by Orville Wright and two by Wilbur Wright. The starts were all made from a point on the level sand about 200 feet west of our champ, which is located a quarter of a mile north of the Kill Devil sand hill, in Dare county ... " Source: https://www.loc.gov/resource/mwright.05001/?sp=20

3) Here is a detail of the well known picture allegedly taken on December 17, 1903.

enter image description here The slope going down in front of the plane is clearly visible.

4) Had the Wrights published the above photo (and others they said they had taken between December 17, 1903 and October 5, 1905) immediately then they would have really had strong evidence to support their claims. Unfortunately, the two inventors made their pictures public in September 1908. There is no evidence regarding the true date when each photo was taken.

5) The 852 feet of stable flight, claimed by Wilbur Wright for his best trial of December 17, 1903, is also inconsistent with the 115 feet of chaotic flight which is the maximum the test pilot Dr. Kevin Kochersberger obtained (on December 3, 2003) with a replica of the alleged 1903 Flyer.

enter image description here

Wright Experience 1903 Replica Second Test Flight

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    In regards to your fifth point, the 1903 Flyer is well-known to be barely controllable. Even minor variations (such as a heavier or lighter pilot) can change how poorly it flies.
    – Mark
    Dec 30, 2018 at 22:14

The Scientific American credited Whitehead with the successful powered flight of his 1901 aeroplane, in at least 5 known articles. The one previously noted above that shows he hadn't flown was made in June, 1901, just before these flights.

  1. Scientific American, Jan. 27, 1906, pp.93-94 “The Aero Club of America’s Exhibit of Aeronautical Apparatus” “This exhibit was the most complete of its kind ever held in any part of the world, for all types of flying machines, balloons and airships were represented … Besides these very complete exhibits of apparatus, the walls of the room were covered with a large collection of photographs showing the machines of other inventors, such as Whitehead, Berliner and Santos-Dumont; and other photographs showing airships and balloons in flight … A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901 was the only other photograph besides that of Langley’s machines* of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight. In order to at least partially substantiate their claims, it would seem as if aeroplane inventors would show photographs of their machines in flight …” [note: Langley's described craft was a model(http://archive.org/details/scientific-american-1906-01-27)

  1. Scientific American, Nov. 24, 1906, p.379 “Santos Dumont’s Latest Flight” “…In his enthusiasm, the Brazilian aeronaut forgets also that at least three experiments in America (Herring in 1898, Whitehead in 1901 and the Wright brothers in 1903), Maxim in England (1896), and Ader in France (1897) have already flown for short distances with motor-driven aeroplanes, and yet no really practical machine of the kind has as yet been produced and demonstrated.” (p. 378)

  1. Scientific American, 15. Dec. 1906, p.447 “The Second Annual Exhibition of the Aero Club of America” “The body of the framework of Gustave Whitehead’s latest bat-like aeroplane was shown mounted on pneumatic-tired, ball bearing wire wheels … Whitehead also exhibited the 2-cylinder steam engine which revolved the road wheels of his former bat machine, with which he made a number of short flights in 1901.” At the bottom of the next page, the 1901 Whitehead engine is displayed in a photograph from the exhibition, as are two additional motors and a propeller.”

  1. Scientific American, Jan. 25, 1908, p. 54 “The Farman Aeroplane Wins the Deutsch Archdeacon Prize” “In view of the above-mentioned facts, while giving to M. Farman the credit for first publicly demonstrating that it is possible to fly in all directions, both with, against and across a light wind, we nevertheless wish to recall to the aeronautical world the fact that to America belongs the credit of producing the first successful motor-driven aeroplane, and that to such men as the Wright brothers, A. M. Herring, and Gustave Whitehead – men, who under the tutelage of Lilienthal and Chanute, have begun with gliding flight and gradually worked their way forward to the production of a self-propelled aeroplane in all its details, including the gasoline motor – belongs the real credit of having produced the first successful heavier-than-air flying machines.”

  1. The Scientific American carried a full page article about Whitehead in September, 1903, three months before the Wrights conducted their experimental powered “hops” at Kitty Hawk. The article then credits Whitehead with recently flying along the ground surface, up to 16 feet in the air, with a motor-driven aeroplane of his own construction, a triplane. http://archive.org/details/scientific-american-1903-09-19

All of the above, with links, are located together on http://gustavewhitehead.info/scientific-american-on-early-flights/.

Gustave Whitehead was first in successful powered flight, flying the aeroplane he invented in 1901, predating the Wrights by two years and three months, and on at least several occasions during that year. According to multiple witnesses (1) and numerous local newspaper articles of the era (2), Whitehead made achieved an elevation of 50 feet and flew a distance of up to 1/2 mile, with successful landings. In his day, up until about 1904, Whitehead became world-famous for having made the flights.(3) He became overshadowed by later inventors, such as the Wrights and Curtiss. http://gustavewhitehead.info/gustave-whitehead-powered-flight-witnesses/


Connecticut Flights: Gustave Whitehead moved to Connecticut in mid-1900, proceeding with his flight experiments. During the summer of 1901, Whitehead made conducted powered flight experiments, including numerous successful powered flights of varying distances at a number of locations, most ranging in distance from 200 ft. to 1.5 miles, with elevations of 10-50 feet, according to witnesses and the local newspapers. One newspaper report of a flight of 1/2 mile, occurring on August 14th, 1901 at Fairfield, CT., was written by an eyewitness, the highly respected, trusted editor Richard Howell, of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald. It is noteworthy that a reproduction of the Whitehead aeroplane, built to the same specifications as Whitehead’s “No. 21” of 1901, flew for a distance of 1/2 mile in 1997; a video made at the time may be viewed here. 18 total witnesses gave testimony by affidavit or statement that they’d observed a powered flight from 1899 – 1903 (prior to the Wrights). 17 of these witnesses observed these powered flights in Connecticut, from 1900-1903. Ages of the 18 witnesses from 1899-1903 at the time of the flights: 5 out of 18 were children at the time under the age of 12 3 of the 18 were teenagers, from 12-17 years of age 10 of the 18 witnesses to powered flights up through 1903 were age 18 or older at the time of the flight." http://gustavewhitehead.info/local-newspaper-evidence-whiteheads-1901-flights/


Three local Bridgeport newspapers reported on Gustave Whitehead’s successful flights of 1901 – in many news articles from 1901 through 1912, listed below. So far, I have identified a total of 12 local news articles during that time period describing successful Whitehead flights. [Articles newly discovered are indicated with: *NEW!] Two local newspapers referenced Whitehead flight photos the journalist had seen just prior to publication – confirming the existence of early Whitehead flight photos, also mentioned as being publicly displayed before many hundreds of attendees during the Aero Club’s first exhibit in New York City, described prominently in the Scientific American (Jan., 1905). The Bridgeport Evening Farmer of May 29, 1909, had this to say, in the same paragraph when Gus Whitehead was describing his summer flights of 1901: Mr. Whitehead has a number of photographs of his machines in the air. Some show a passenger aboard. The pictures are by amateurs, but show that the inventor has done more toward the development of his machines than the public has given him credit for doing. “


For video of some historic Whitehead sites, a history of the first flights of mankind by Gustave Whitehead up through 1901, and footage of a replica in flight, with commentary by Smithsonian's curator Tom Crouch, pertaining to Whitehead and the Smithsonian-Wright Agreement of 1948 (the Contract binding Smithsonian to recognize only Orville as first in flight) view this documentary on Amazon Prime: First Flight: Conquest of the Skies http://a.co/d/7qGRnqx. This documentary explains some of the evidence and the conundrum that aviation historians run into concerning first flight credit.

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    Were Whitehead's experiments in controlled, powered flight? I don't see any claim of that here.
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 28, 2018 at 2:51
  • The Wrights misled the public and the courts in portraying their 1903 flights as controlled. Letters between Wilbur, Orville, and William J. Hammer, their subrosa employee who gathered data and with their permission placed a description of their 1903 flights in the World Almanac of 1911, Chronology of Aviation also separately published at that time, twice, to all Aero Clubs. This Chronology showed the Wrights had very limited, if any, control, except to fly straight into the wind. Dec 28, 2018 at 20:43
  • Whitehead was doing the same, though both the Wrights' and Whitehead's flying machine had capability of wing warping and rudder controls. (Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight, p. 91-101) In 1902, Whitehead successfully made several circular flights, reported in the American Inventor, April, 1902. Dec 28, 2018 at 20:53
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    Of your five SA articles only one actually claims that Whitehead flew before the Wrights, and it's vague about the details. Jan 6, 2019 at 18:37
  • From what I see, they all give Whitehead the credit of early flight, 4 out of 5 mention dates (3 - 1901), and one 1903 (3 months ahead of the Wrights). Only #4 SA article listed above doesn't provide a date, however if you knew the Whitehead history as the readers of SA did then (GW was famous for his flights) they are referring to pre-Wright flights. At that point in time (when all those articles were written) it was of no great importance who was first but who developed a practical machine to transport people and goods. The public didn't much care nor did anyone else about "firsts". Jan 7, 2019 at 3:03

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, 2011 at 8:09
  • I think it's still worth to be mentionned. Jan 9, 2019 at 11:49
  • Then also mention all the dozens of others "sometimes said to be the first to fly" with no independent verification...
    – jwenting
    Jan 10, 2019 at 4:40

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, 2011 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. Jun 17, 2011 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, 2011 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. Jun 17, 2011 at 20:42
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    @MonkeyTuesday: Changing the question substantially after answers have been postet was against the policy. You should have opened a second question to ask for powered flights, imho. Why the policy of the site wasn't enforced is outside of my knowledge. Jan 6, 2014 at 0:33

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