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Who Was the First in Flight?

In December 2003, Americans celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' flight. On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew a small powered plane for 12 seconds. Although they lived in Ohio, they flew the plane in North Carolina because of the strong winds there. We know that the Wrights flew their plane that day at Kitty Hawk, but did they actually make the first successful flying machine, as the history books say?

Some people are not so sure. They agree that the Wright brothers flew their plane in 1903, but they say the first powered flight was actually made two years earlier.

Was Whitehead First?

According to a researcher named Andrew Kosch, Gustave Whitehead of Connecticut was the first person to take to the air in a small flying machine. Kosch said Whitehead made four flights on August 14, 1901, near Bridgeport, Connecticut. “My aim is to show Gustave Whitehead flew an airplane in 1901 and he should be in the history books,” Kosch said.

To prove his point, Kosch made and flew a copy of Whitehead's plane, called No. 21. (“No.” is an abbreviation for “Number.”)

Flying a copy, however, does not prove that No. 21 flew in 1901. It proves only that the plane was able to fly.

Yet Kosch has other evidence that Whitehead was first in flight. He has news reports from 1901 that tell of the in-air adventure. He even has a drawing of the soaring plane.

Did Whitehead Fly?

Peter Jakab of the National Air and Space Museum doubts whether No. 21 flew. He notes that no photos of the flight were taken. He says that eyewitnesses mentioned in stories about No. 21 later said they never saw it fly.

For now, history remains unchanged. Whether Whitehead actually flew first remains a mystery.