B.C. connection to first flight dispute
Claire Whitehead sits in a replica of her great uncle's early Condor aircraft. (Inset) more than a dozen people signed affidavits in the 1930s indicating they had seen Whitehead fly prior to 1903. The affidavits were requested by researchers writing a book on Whitehead's early flights. (COURTESY OF CLAIRE WHITEHEAD)
A story creating turbulence in the aviation world and making headlines in the U.S. is considered common knowledge and family history for a Vancouver woman.
When the respected aviation journal Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft wrote this year that Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant, flew an aircraft in Connecticut two years before the Wright brothers, it was a long-awaited victory for his great niece.
“It’s been a story that I’ve had in my life all my life,” said Claire Whitehead in an exclusive interview with 24 hours.
Since childhood she had grown up hearing tales of her great uncle’s triumph of flight through her uncle, Ernest Gustave Whitehead, nephew of the aviator.
Gustave Whitehead is now said to have flown his Condor aircraft 2.4 kilometres at an altitude of about 15 meters in 1901 in front of witnesses. Years later, many people signed affidavits swearing they had seen Whitehead fly numerous times before 1903.
Claire Whitehead said the family moved from Bridgeport, Conn., to central B.C. 10 years after Gustave Whitehead is said to have made his first flight, drawn by the offerings of free farmland in the Shuswap region.
As a child, Claire Whitehead said her uncle Ernest would tell her about the family history while flying around Shuswap Lake looking for hot fishing spots and mountain vegetables.
“He got me interested,” she said. “He was actually born in Bridgeport, which is where this (first flight) all happened.”
Uncle Ernest died in a plane crash in 1987 at age 80 in central B.C. while flying to one of the small lakes he used to fish.
With Ernest gone, the family legend lived on as others picked up the cause to have great uncle Gustave’s accomplishment recognized. Despite the boost from the article, Whitehead said one major organization, however, refuses to accept the story – the famed Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
She alleged the Wright brothers and the Smithsonian had a written agreement that gave the museum organization custody of the plane the brothers flew — the Wright Flyer — on the grounds they never acknowledge anyone else flew first.
The Smithsonian told 24 hours such an agreement does exist, but it is because of a dispute with another aviator in the 1930s.
Dr. Peter Jakab of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum said the evidence supporting Whitehead’s claim falls apart when examined.
“I find it rather puzzling that they (Jane's) would not be able to see the problems with the evidence that all other historians have seen for decades,” he said. “They probably looked at the story on its surface.”
He said the Smithsonian would change its view if what it considered to be definitive evidence that someone other than the Wrights flew first emerged.
Jakab also said none of Gustave Whitehead’s later models were known to have flown and one witness disputed he ever told a newspaper at the time he’d witnessed the flight.
Claire Whitehead maintains she has affidavits from eyewitnesses who claim to have seen her great uncle fly in 1901 and that the Smithsonian is sticking to its story due to the agreement with the Wright family.
“It’s called history by contract,” she said. “It’s not the way to establish history.”