- - Wednesday, July 3, 2013

You’d think a country celebrating its 237th birthday would have some basic facts about its history and geography nailed down.

But a recent dust-up between Connecticut and North Carolina about who first flew an airplane shows there are still a number of juicy historical debates within the American family to chew over along with the hot dogs and sweet corn this Fourth of July.

Big questions — What caused the Civil War? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Who really invented baseball? — naturally generate vast reams of historical argument, but even smaller matters of simple fact can spark controversy, from where the president on the $20 bill was actually born to which state can claim to be the birthplace of one of the country’s two major political parties.

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The most recent dispute takes on two icons in the pantheon of American tinkerers — Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stirred up a historical hornet’s next late last month, endorsing a drive by state lawmakers that rejects the long-standing narrative that the Wright brothers were the first to fly a heavier-than-air powered aircraft in 1903, contending the first flight actually took place two years earlier in the Nutmeg State, not over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

The governor on June 25 signed into law a measure rejecting the Wright brothers’ claim, citing new evidence published in March by Australian historian John Brown. Mr. Brown contends the credit belongs to German immigrant Gustave Whitehead, who allegedly flew on Aug. 14, 1901 in Bridgeport, Conn. — two years before the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight.

Mr. Brown’s brief includes a blurry photograph of Whitehead’s 1901 flight, enlarged by 3,500 percent, and numerous old newspaper accounts of the event. He published everything on the website gustave-whitehead.com.

“This is clear and convincing evidence,” Mr. Brown said. “If this was a court case about a crime committed in D.C. and you had 17 witnesses, 14 of them state under oath that they saw it happen, and there was a video surveillance camera with a blurred image, there’s no court anywhere that wouldn’t convict them.”

Mr. Brown’s claims have been endorsed by Paul Jackson, the editor-in-chief of the authoritative Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. “The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead,” wrote Mr. Jackson in the foreword of the 100th edition of Jane’s.

“Our license plate should say, ‘Firster in Flight,’” said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch — a dig on North Carolina’s license plates, which are proudly stamped with “First in Flight.”

Mr. Brown pointed to a contract between the Smithsonian and the Wright brothers that required the Smithsonian to recognize the Wright brothers as first in flight in order to obtain the Wright’s plane in 1948.

But Tom Crouch, senior aeronautics curator for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, said the contract was necessary and logical because of conflicting “first in flight” claims back then from other aviators.

“I don’t regard it as binding. … If I ever thought there was evidence that somebody had made a significant sustained power-controlled flight before the Wright brothers, I’d say so,” Mr. Crouch said. “But that hasn’t happened yet, and Whitehead doesn’t even come close.”

Mr. Crouch said Mr. Whitehead continued to build flying machines after 1901, but not one of them ever left the ground.

“What, did he forget how to fly?” Mr. Crouch said. “When you look at the details of the Whitehead claims, I think it falls apart like a house of cards.”

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