A German phone number showed up on my cel phone this morning – and in the midst of some work stress (read panic) regarding a web application I am launching next week – I decided to answer it. My family being from Germany originally (more than 100 years ago now), and having visited there in my teens – it seemed plausible that someone from Germany might actually be phoning (as opposed to a telemarketing scam, which mostly seem to come from Quebec and never from mainland Europe).
On the phone was the aviation historian John Brown – and Australian living in Munich – who apparently has been researching my Great-Great-Uncle Gustave’s case for first flight (before the Wright brothers) for some time. For those of you who don’t know, Gustave Whitehead (uncle aforementioned) was a German immigrant to America in the mid 1890s who (after a series of run-ins with the law and cranky neighbours in Pittsburgh and Boston) ended up in Bridgeport Connecticut. It is there, in 1901, that he is said to have flown the first airplane in history – 2 years and some months before the Wright brothers.
While no picture of the aircraft in flight remains, there is plenty of evidence that this flight happened – newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts, and recreations of Whitehead’s plane in the 1980s by Andy Kosch and again by a German group in the 90s which proved it could indeed fly. On the other side are the Wright family and the Smithsonian, with a conspiratorial contract drawn up in 1948 which states that if the Smithsonian is ever to give credence to others who flew before the Wrights, they will lose the famous plane which they have hanging in their aviation museum.
Anyhow – I have a website which documents this history – gustavewhitehead.org, as does John Brown – gustave-whitehead.com if you are interested in reading more about the history, the documentation and the controversy that has raged between the two sides over the past hundred years.
What Brown was calling to tell me in any case is that in its hundredth edition now in print – Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft has included a foreward attesting my Uncle Gustave as the first in powered flight.
This is an incredibly big deal, it turns out. (It took me a few minutes to understand exactly what I was being told). And there are articles coming out shortly in American History and Flight magazines which we hope will carry the same message: The Wrights were not first in powered flight.
Growing up in my family, with the books of Stella Randolph (a journalist who wrote a book about Whitehead first in the 1930s, collecting many of the affidavits that have proven to be invaluable to his case) and family stories floating around – it has never been a question that Gustave Whitehead flew first. Of course it had to be so!
But it’s not a story I share very often just the same because it sounds too “made-up” as my grade 10 social studies teacher told me when he gave me a poor grade on a paper about my not-so-famous relation. Sometimes when there are geeks about my house, I show them my dogeared copy of Randolph’s book from the thirties, and a later book from the sixties as well. But that’s about all. It’s one of those funny-little-facts about the family – and it’s not particularly relevant to anything in my life so it’s not like it comes up very often.
But still! Official recognition from the world’s definitive source on aircraft is exciting! And it was a totally unexpected phone call to be sure (he got my number from the registration for my .org website above). Despite the fact it’s been in the US media, I haven’t seen any stories up here so I would have completely missed this historic moment otherwise.
Apparently there’s going to be some kind of a thing in Connecticut in June and I’m thinking that if it works timewise, and I can get a ticket on points…. hmmm. maybe I might even think about going. Between that and the reunion later this summer, there should be lots to talk about with regards to our family name finally making it into the history books for real.