The story of the Wright brothers as the first in flight is recognized around the world, but new legislation in Connecticut is trying to change aviation history with a homegrown flying hero.


Wilbur Wright and Orville worked together to build the first airplane to make a successful flight, on December 17, 1903. (Associated Press)

Aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead was prolific in an era when aeronautics was flourishing. He built dozens of aircraft, but his name is not well known and not associated with the first in flight – that honour goes to Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Whitehead, a German mechanic, allegedly made his debut flight in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers' famed flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

"The Wright brothers demeaned this man. They credited everybody helping design airplanes except him. I guess they just didn't want this guy around because they knew he flew before them," said Larry Miller, Republican state representative for Stratford, Conn.

Miller is the driving force behind Substitute House Bill 6671, which "specifies that Powered Flight Day is in honor of the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead, rather than the Wright Brothers."

"It's not going to cost the state any money. It may, in fact in the future, bring some tourism to Connecticut," said Miller.

Whitehead flew his plane at an altitude of four metres for nearly 2.5 kilometres without incident. According to Miller, there was lots of publicity, eyewitness reports and newspaper clippings from all over the country.

"I firmly believe that he flew. It's not fantasy," said Miller.


A portrait of Aviation Pioneer Gustave Whitehead. (Weisskopf Museum/Associated Press)

The Wright brothers managed to fly their plane three to six metres off the ground for less than a minute.

Not only could this debate start a feud between the two states, but supporters of Whitehead are claiming a conspiracy on the part of the legacy of the Wright brothers and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which houses the original plane flown by the famed duo.

According to Miller, the Smithsonian had denied knowledge of a contract that binds them from declaring anyone but the Wright brothers as having taken the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight. But the document was eventually discovered through the U.S. access to information act.

"They finally acknowledged the document when it was produced, after vehemently denying its existence," said Miller.

The bill was passed in the state legislature and is currently awaiting a signature from Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy.

"Connecticut has more aviation history than anywhere in the world," said Miller. "We're not trying to take away from the Wright brothers. They're making a million dollars over there in Kitty Hawk. What we want is to have our Connecticut person acknowledged that he was the first in flight."

with files from CBC's As It Happens