|Luckily for the Wright Brothers this famous photo and the presence of un-involved witnesses from the near-by Lifeboat Station helped provide them with documentation of their famed Kitty Hawk flight.
For Americans it is a matter of settled fact that the Wright Brothers achieved the first manned powered flight by a heavier than air craft on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But around the world there are other contenders and claimants. One was nearly 3 years tardy, some of the claimants were fraudulent, and others never really got off the ground at all. some did manage to get airborne, however briefly, mostly clustered within five years of the Wright accomplishment. Much, it turns out, depends on exactly what your definition of a successful powered flight are. And on your national pride. The Russians and Brazilians have never admitted that their favorite sons did not make the first flight.
Part of the blame for the confusion rests with the Wrights themselves. Fearful of competitive efforts and possible patent infringement, after tersely wiring their father in Dayton, Ohio to simply “notify the press” they clammed up about their experiments. After a demonstration flight failed in May 1904, the Wrights did not further publicize their work or show it publicly until they made subsequent design improvements allowing for greater pilot control, flight duration, and altitude. In Wright Flyer III they finally could demonstrate sustained flight—a 39-minute, 24-mile circling flight on October 5, 1905. Their patents were granted in 1906 and in 1908 for the first time the two brothers undertook marketing tours in the U.S. and Europe. Other inventors were either totally unaware of the Wright’s achievement and were working completely independently, or asserted that the Wright 1903 flight was either not substantiated or did not meet the criteria for sustained, controllable flight.
The Wright’s known chief competitor was Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who obtained a contract from the War Department to develop a practical aircraft in 1896. He had already built and flown model gliders with a miniature steam engine for propulsion. Over the next few years he attempted to build an aircraft capable of carrying a human being. Because of his high profile and the fact that he conducted experiments in the heavily populated Washington, D.C. area his work attracted wide attention in the press which assumed it was only a matter of time until he would succeed. By 1903 he had built a full scale aircraft powered by an internal combustion engine dubbed the Aerodrome, which he launched by catapult from a barge on the Potomac River in two tests on October 7 and 8. Both tests failed, after which Langley did not attempt manned flight again. Langley died on February 27, 1906 at the age of 71 without having achieved his dream.
None-the-less, for years the Smithsonian championed the cause of their former head while denigrating the claims of the Wright Brothers. In 1914 they hired the Wright’s bitter rival Glenn Curtis to tinker with a Langley model. After significant modification he was able to get it in the air for a fight of a few hundred feet. Afterward they had to settle for a claim that Langley had been the first to build “the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.” The Wrights objected to this evasive claim and warred with the Institution until they trumped it by agreeing to allow the Flyer to be exhibited there only with the acknowledgement that it was, indeed first.
The earliest claimant was Frenchman Félix du Temple, who had earlier done pioneering work on A steam propelled dirigible. He built a steam monoplane that left the ground with a sailor on board as more or less a passenger. In 1874 it was in the air for a short distance, but the feat was not duplicated. Moreover its launch was gravity assisted going off a small cliff after rolling downhill to pick up speed. At most it can claim to be the first aircraft to take off under power.
|This postal cover celebrates Alexander F. Moshaiski and his 1884 steam powered aircraft which the Russians alone celebrate as the first manned powered flight.
In 1884 the Russian Alexander F. Mozhaiski launched a craft down a steep inclined ramp which seemed to stay in the air for a bit while making forward progress. But because the wings of his monoplane did not have the curvature necessary to create lift modern aeronautical engineers believe that the ship only avoided sinking like a stone because the acceleration off the ramp made up for his underpowered engine and the wings simply braked his fall. However during the Soviet era, authorities aggressively asserted Mozhaiski’s claim and in Russia alone today he is credited with the first manned flight.
In 1890 Clément Ader built a bat-winged monoplane with a tractor—front mounted—propeller that took off from level ground for a short hop. But experts believe the hop was too short to qualify as flight and it was also uncontrolled by the passenger. After others demonstrated successful aircraft in the new Century, Adder did his cause and reputation no good by making exaggerated and outright false claims of having achieved longer flight.
|Gustave Whitehead posed with his daughter and his Condor No. 21 in the spring of 1901. Note the bat wings, dual front mounted propellers, and boat-like body for landing on water.
The most controversial of the early claimants was German born Gustav Weisskopf who adopted the name Gustave Whitehead after immigrating to the United States. He was working on heavier than air craft in the 1890’s. A former collaborator, Louis Darvarich, made a claim that the two of them built a steam powered aircraft in 1899 that they got off the ground in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park in April or May and flew for nearly half a mile before crashing into the side of a building. Whitehead himself never claimed that event nor was it otherwise documented. Even if it had occurred it would have been classified as an apparently uncontrolled hop.
More seriously in 1901 and 1902 Whitehead himself claimed to have achieved flight. On August 14, 1901 the Bridgeport Herald in Connecticut reported that Whitehead piloted his bat winged Number 21 aircraft in a controlled powered flight for about half a mile, reaching a height of 50 feet, and landed safely. That would have bettered the Wright’s Kitty Hawk flight. The article was accompanied by a drawing of the aircraft which was supposedly based on a photograph that has never been located. The plane looked suspiciously like a previously circulated drawings of Ader’s 1890 craft. Other press accounts picked up the Herald story.
In January of 1902 Whitehead claimed to have made two flights over Long Island, New York in his flyer Number 22 which featured a more powerful internal combustion engine of his own design and a tubular aluminum instead of bamboo frame. One flight was said to have gone three miles and the second, seven miles with the airplane landing in the water using its boat-like fuselage—another first, if true. Whitehead publicized his claims, which were picked up in several newspapers but no independent witnesses were ever found to attest to them. The Scientific American published an article in 1903 in which Whitehead described his experiments with unmanned powered flight employing modified gliders, but made no mention of the manned flight.
In the next two years Whitehead seemed to return to glider experiments and to refining his engine. In the 1904 St. Louis Exposition he showed his engine and one of his gliders on a ground display. The brochure for the show casually mentioned Whitehead as being among those who had achieved powered flight but provided no details. Whitehead continued to tinker with engines and gliders, even providing an engine for a helicopter prototype built and flown on a tether by Lee Burridge of the Aero Club of America. But he worked in obscurity supporting himself as a factory laborer and mechanic until he died of a heart attack in 1927.
Whiteheads claims of flight were occasionally mentioned in aviation articles in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s but attracted little attention until a photograph was found in 1963 by Air Force Reserve Major William O’Dwyer in which he identified a photo hanging on a background wall as a shot of Whitehead piloting a flying machine. On the basis of this books were written and in 2013 Scientific American backed Whitehead’s claim of first flight. Unfortunately less than three month after that article advanced analysis of O’Dwyer’s picture showed that the wall photo was a known photo of one of Whitehead’s glider flights. Over the years investigators found witnesses claiming to have seen the Philadelphia and especially the Bridgeport flights. Other photos were reported seen but have vanished or been lost. Whitehead still has his staunch advocates, but most experts do not find enough proof to strip the Wright Bros. of their claims.
The most well-known alternate claimant was Brazilian born Alberto Santos-Dumont who had a solid reputation in France for his work with lighter than air craft. On October 23, 1906 he flew his 14-bis biplane, which resembled a box kite for 197 feet at a height of about of about 15 feet which was officially observed and verified by the Aéro-Club de France winning the Deutsch-Archdeacon Prize for the first officially-observed flight of more than 25 meters. A second flight on November 12 covered 772 and was observed by the newly-formed Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) and became the first record in their log book.
As far as the Europeans—and Brazilians were concerned, this was the first flight. They regarded the Wright Brother’s claim as unsubstantiated or dismissed it as uncontrolled. In 1908 Wilber Wright arrived in Europe for his demonstration tour with a vastly improved and reliable Flyer capable of far exceeding what Santos-Dumont had demonstrated. The French were forced to re-evaluate the Wright claims and eventually the FAI acknowledged their primacy but gave Santos-Dumont claim to the first flight in Europe. Brazil, however, still officially claims the glory of first flight for their native son and cannot be dissuaded otherwise.
There were other tinkerers in this period who may, or may not, had achieved powered hops. The most interesting of these was Richard Pearse. Pearse was born on December 3, 1877 in rural New Zealand and was a farmer. He was also the quintessential tinker and had been granted patents for bicycle with vertical crank gears and self-inflating tires.
|New Zealand's Richard Pearse as a young man--the only known photo of the shy, modest, and secretive aviation pioneer.
In 1901, working without knowledge or contact with world-wide efforts, Pearse began to build aircraft. It featured a primitive two-cycle engine mounted on a tricycle undercarriage over which was a linen-covered bamboo wing. It included rudimentary controls—ailerons—and a vertical stabilizer and rudder mounted to the rear. The engine powered a front tractor propeller. Although the wing lacked the curvature of a true airfoil, this machine was actually much closer to the future of aviation that was the Wright Flyer, a bi-plane with a pusher engine, front mounted stabilizers, and control by the dead-end technology of wing warping.
Pearse evidently made his first attempts at flight in 1901 but his engine was not powerful enough for more than the briefest hops. He went to work on an entirely new engine, a light weight marvel that incorporated double-ended cylinders with two pistons each. On March 31, 1903 Pearse took off and was in the air for “several hundred meters” although he struggled for control and crashed into a hedge at the end of the field. The modest Pearse made no claim to a first flight noting in a later press interview that he had made a powered take-off, “but at too low a speed for controls to work.”
He continued to make improvements in his flyer, which was amazingly similar to modern ultra-light kite aircraft, and made at least two more flight—or hops—that year. In the last one, on May 11, he took off along the side of the Opihi River near the the town of Temuka, turned left to fly over the 30 foot tall river-bank, then turned right to fly parallel to the middle of the river. After flying nearly 1,000 yards, his engine began to overheat and lost power, forcing a landing in the almost dry riverbed.
These early attempts were not publicized in the press. Nor did Pearse try to make public claims. He did get patents on his innovations but made no efforts to make them commercially viable. He continued experiments until moving to a hilly area near Christchurch in 1911 which made his experiments to difficult to continue. During World War II he privately experimented with an auto-gyro type contraption which involved a tilting rotor and monoplane wings, which, along with the tail, could fold to allow storage in a garage. Pearse intended the vehicle for driving like a car as well for flying.
As he grew older Pearse became paranoid that spies were out to steal his ideas. He was eventually confined to Sunnyside Mental Hospital in Christchurch where he died, mostly forgotten, on July 29, 1953.
|A model of Richard Pearse's 1903 aircraft is displayed atop the New Zealand monument commemorating his achievement located in the aproximate area of the October take offs.
Pearse’s reputation and claim got a boost in 1963 when researches working on a tip that Pearse had cleaned out his barn in 1911 at the time of his move and put most of his equipment in a local dump, retrieved components of his engine, including cylinders made from cast-iron drainpipes. That allowed working models of the engine to be built which were shown to be 15 horsepower (hp), more than enough to get a craft as light as his off the ground.
Kiwis are proud of their pioneer. A model of his 1903 craft hangs in the South Canterbury Museum, a monument stands near the site of the original flights, and Pearse has been honored on postage. But as modest as Pearse himself, the country makes no grandiose claims of first flight or challenges the Wright’s place.
The Russians and Brazilians could take a hint from them.