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Were Wright brothers the first to fly an airplane?

Last Updated: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 13:39

Washington: A little-known 1948 contract between the estate of Orville Wright and the Smithsonian has the museum legally bound to call the Wright brothers first in flight.

It states that “The Smithsonian shall [not state] any aircraft ... earlier than the Wright aeroplane of 1903 ... was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”

However, one aviation historian claims that contract is wrong, forcing the museum to ignore the truth.

And for the first time, the museum has released the contract publicly to, to let the world make its own decisions.

According to most anyone you ask, Orville and Wilbur sailed into history books on December 17, 1903, following their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

But Australian aviation historian John Brown argues that a recently uncovered photograph proves German immigrant Gustav Whitehead flew first (over Connecticut, in the wee hours of August 14, 1901).

Brown says that the Smithsonian is bound by that contract to ignore Whitehead’s feat. And the secrecy has to go, he wrote last week to the Smithsonian’s senior curator.

The contract was signed in 1948 between surviving Wright brother Orville and the museum; it secured ownership of the Flyer from London’s Science Museum for 1 dollar, with a stipulation – “The Wright plane must always be recognized as the first true airplane.”

‘Jane’s: All the World’s Aircraft’ - widely considered the essential bible of flight - recently acknowledged Whitehead’s achievement, and agreed with Brown about the contract.

The contract does exist and still holds, Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the museum, said in a recent blog post.

In an open letter sent March 24 to the Smithsonian’s Crouch, Brown argued that the letter was coloring his view of history.


First Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 12:11
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