If you went to a public elementary school in the great United States of America, the answer to "who were the first people to fly a plane" is an easy one: the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio. Late in 1903 over in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright lifted their plane off the ground and flew a whole 120 feet. The National Park Service, as well as many other historians, call it "the first flight."
But according to a series of recent claims by a number of historians, this version of history is inaccurate. The Wright Brothers, who flew their plane in 1903, are allegedly two years behind a Connecticut resident named Gustave Whitehead. Connecticut even passed a law in 2013 insisting that, because of Whitehead, they are the true "first in flight" state.
On Wednesday, the Ohio Statehouse "cleared its final committee hurdle" in passing a law officially calling the state of Connecticut full of shit. But how did we even get here in the first place? Let's recap.
When did this controversy start?
In March of 2013, the well-respected airline industry publication Jane's All About Aircrafts published a controversial opinion: the first people to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft were not the Wright Brothers.
In fact, the "bible of aviation" (as Jane's is called) anointed Gustave Whitehead the real father of aviation, mostly based on 14 months of research from a historian named John Brown, the Connecticut Post reports. More than 80 "press articles about Whitehead's flights" were discovered, convincing both Brown and Jane's that the Wright brothers actually finished in second place.
How stoked were the residents of Connecticut?
The residents of Connecticut, as you may have guessed, were very stoked. Via the Post:
"Jane's has solidified what we've known all along—Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly a powered, manned aircraft before the Wright Brothers, and he did it right here in Bridgeport," said a beaming Mayor Bill Finch on Tuesday.
"This is gigantic," said Andrew King, director of the Connecticut Air & Space Center in the former Chance Vought aircraft plant in Stratford. The plant churned out the vaunted Corsair F4U fighter-bomber during the 1940s, an example of which the center is now restoring.
"What this means is that it will remove Whitehead from being a footnote of history and give him the credit that he deserves," King said. "We're incredibly excited about this."
And Connecticut actually passed a state law about it?
They did! In June of 2013—three months later—Connecticut governor Daniel Malloy signed into law "a measure insisting that German-born aviator and Bridgeport resident Gustave Whitehead flew in 1901," the Norwich Bulletin reported. The resolution, which can be read here, declares Connecticut to be "first in flight."
Wait. Did no one contest any of this?
Oh, people sure did! Indeed, there was a slap fight in the op-ed pages of the Connecticut Post. First up: Doug McIntyre, a Los Angeles Daily News columnist and Wright brothers enthusiast, in early July of 2013:
By accepting as fact the highly dubious 1901 "flights" of Bridgeport's Gustave Whitehead, the Nutmeg State has debased history, diminished one of the great achievements of the 20th century and muddied the waters historians work so diligently to clear.
McIntyre goes on to say that, while Whitehead sure tried valiantly, there's no convincing evidence he actually got his place off the ground:
Citing three "eye-witness" accounts published at the time of the alleged Whitehead flights, Brown neglected to mention the story originated with Stanley Yale Beach, the son of the publisher of "Scientific American" and a financial backer of Whitehead. He also failed to note when researchers tried to confirm the Whitehead story in the 1930s, of the three witnesses, one had died, a second could not be located and the third, James Dickie, emphatically denied seeing Whitehead fly and said the story was a hoax.
Next up: Whitehead enthusiast Susan Britchman with the clap-back, a mere week later:
The op-ed piece by Doug McIntyre, "Wronging the Wrights," is a gross misrepresentation of the evidence concerning Gustave Whitehead and an insult to the state of Connecticut, its governor and Legislature.
It's too long and involved to recap here, but Britchman proceeds to dismantle McIntyre's argument point-by-point, concluding with a brutal burn:
A columnist from Los Angeles, with no access to original research, making money off the Wright legend, upset at the Wrights' claim being challenged. Last but not least, wrong on his facts, which he should have checked.
So… when did Ohio get involved?
In May of 2015, the Ohio House passed its own resolution "repudiating Connecticut's claims." Via the Columbus Dispatch:
The resolution says there is “no evidence that Gustave Whitehead ever designed, built, and flew a successful powered flying machine.” It adds, “Scholarly research by respected and academically credentialed historians over many decades has found no evidence to substantiate the Whitehead claims.”
Ohio State Rep. Rick Perales told the Hartford Courant that the alleged photo showing Whitehead in flight was "extremely blurry;" an editorial in the Courant running that same week supported Perales's claim (traitors!). Via the Courant's editorial board:
The problem is that no credible photograph of the event exists, and some newspapers of the time were not averse to exaggerating facts, or even fabricating stories, to boost sales.
Where are we today?
Well, they're both still sniping at each other. Ohio, via The Associated Press…
"I heard Connecticut was also laying claim to Sasqatch and the Loch Ness monster," Ohio state Sen. Bill Coley quipped as the resolution cleared his committee.
"We are an educated people who deserve to know the truth, to know what actually happened, rather than a glorified fairy tale," author Susan Brinchman wrote in releasing the book.
Anyway—after clearing the Ohio House in May, the resolution officially cleared a committee in the Senate; the next step is passing through the whole senate, which will likely occur sometime before the holiday season.
I called up Ohio State Rep. Rick Perales to find out.
"I don't know if much more can or will happen," he told me. "Until someone puts something out there with some substance, I'm perfectly content with getting this resolution done, and storing it in our archives."
After the resolution officially clears the Ohio Senate, they'll hold a little celebration, he told me; they'll find a "nice, pretty place" to hang up the resolution, present it to the historians, and prepare to leave the feud in the past.
Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.