STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Just yesterday, my daughter spotted a license plate from North Carolina. It said: First in Flight. That's a reference to the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.
But there is sometimes debate over whether that really was the first flight. New research advances the theory that a German immigrant in Connecticut was responsible for the first powered and controlled flight, rather than the Wright brothers. But as Neena Satija of member station WNPR reports, historians at the Smithsonian are saying not so fast.
NEENA SATIJA, BYLINE: You can now order a No. 21 breakfast at Chip's Family Restaurant here, in Connecticut. It's named after the airplane model that Gustave Whitehead allegedly flew for a half a mile at an altitude of 50 feet, on August 14, 1901. That's more than two years before Orville and Wilbur Wright's famous run in Kitty Hawk.
And the No. 21 is just the beginning. Bill Finch is the mayor of Bridgeport, where the flight supposedly happened.
MAYOR BILL FINCH: Our license plate should say: Firster in Flight.
SATIJA: Historians have known for decades about an article in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald describing Whitehead's 1901 flight, but they haven't seen the original photo that should have accompanied it. John Brown works at an aircraft construction company in Northern Germany. He's also a hobby historian. While rummaging through a dusty museum attic in Bavaria, Brown came across a picture from a 1906 exhibition on flight innovation. On display in the background of that picture was a photo of what looked like Whitehead's No. 21 airplane, in flight. He also found dozens more newspaper articles describing the 1901 flight.
JOHN BROWN: I found out such stunning stuff about Mr. Whitehead. But really, I'm not the highest authority in aviation. I sent all of the stuff that I found to the highest authority, which is "Jane's All the World's Aircraft," in England.
SATIJA: And Paul Jackson, editor of that internationally renowned publication, has ruled Whitehead deserves the honor of first in flight - not the Wright brothers. Jackson says it's not likely the Bridgeport Sunday Herald writer, and dozens others, lied in 1901. And now, there's the original photo to prove it.
PAUL JACKSON: It cannot be shaken off anymore, thanks to John Brown's researches.
PETER JAKAB: Yeah, I find that a little puzzling.
SATIJA: That's Peter Jakab, associate director of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. He says the photo is too blurry. After all, it was enlarged by 3,500 percent.
JAKAB: It's really trying to see what you want to see in the image. It's a picture of a picture, on the back wall of an exhibition. It's very, very indistinct.
SATIJA: Jakab and his colleagues at the Smithsonian firmly believe that the Wright brothers were the first to fly. There are clear and crisp photos, to prove it. And he discounts the large number of newspaper stories about the Whitehead flight.
JAKAB: An AP story is written, and it goes out and it appears in - you know, many, many publications. That doesn't mean that every one of those is a separate eyewitness account.
SATIJA: But Whitehead supporters have a darker explanation for why the Wright brothers have dominated the story. The Smithsonian, they say, has built an empire around the Wright brothers. Walk into the Air and Space Museum, and the first thing you see is the Wright airplane, which was sold to the Smithsonian for a dollar in 1948. But Jane's editor Paul Jackson says there were other conditions.
JACKSON: They had to agree with Orville Wright, that they would never say that anybody else had flown a powered, manned aircraft before they had done.
SATIJA: Jackson thinks the Smithsonian is in a difficult position: Admit that Whitehead was first in flight, and lose one of its most valuable exhibits. Peter Jakab says he would never let a contract stand in the way of historical fact.
JAKAB: If you mean - if that's some sort of personal sanction to how I interpret the evidence, of course not.
SATIJA: If he decides Whitehead flew first and the Smithsonian loses the plane, then so be it, Jakab says. For now, he isn't budging. But whoever's right, there are sure to be new monuments and museum exhibits, and dishes like Whitehead sausage served in Bridgeport. And who knows - maybe even new license plates.
For NPR News, I'm Neena Satija in Hartford.
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