Statement: Jane’s revision of first flight history rejects scholarly research for enthusiast’s claims

In NAHA News Release /

For immediate release
March 20, 2013

Timothy R. Gaffney
Director of Communications
(937) 219-8277 (mobile)

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DAYTON, Ohio—The National Aviation Heritage Alliance is disappointed that a prestigious aeronautical journal has chosen to ignore years of scholarly research and embrace the claims of an individual who asserts the Wright brothers did not make the first successful powered flights in 1903.

Even more disappointing is the unquestioning press coverage that has followed in the wake of the March 8 column by Paul Jackson, editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, endorsing the claim that Gustave Whitehead (1874-1927) flew more than two years before the Wrights.

Jane’s has endorsed the claim of Australian aviation enthusiast John Brown, who says his research for a book about flying cars unearthed fresh evidence that Whitehead made the first powered flight in Bridgeport, CT, on Aug. 14, 1901, in a flying car with folding wings.

It’s a claim that, if popularized, could boost interest in a tiny German startup company where Brown is employed. Carplane GmbH is developing a concept for a flying car with folding wings. Brown is the company’s project manager.

Brown’s revised history might also boost popular homeland support for Carplane, whose website says it is funded by the German government.  Whitehead was born in Germany and received training as a mechanic there before immigrating to the United States.

In endorsing Brown’s claim, Jackson describes him as an “Australian aviation historian.” It did not mention his connection to Carplane or cite his academic credentials.

While Brown claims to have uncovered important new evidence, he mainly cites fanciful and conflicting newspaper reports and eyewitness accounts that have been familiar to researchers for decades.

These sources have been examined, and the claims dismissed, by scholarly researchers including Tom D. Crouch, Ph.D., senior curator of aeronautics for the Smithsonian Institution and a NAHA trustee. Dr. Crouch’s essay can be read here:

Jane’s editor Jackson gives great weight to the original newspaper report of Whitehead’s 1901 flight. Jackson notes the report in the Aug. 18, 1901 edition of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald was written as an eyewitness account by the newspaper’s editor and included two additional eyewitnesses who were Whitehead’s assistants.

Jackson also points out the article was accompanied by an illustration purportedly made from a photograph of the plane in flight.

Jackson neglected to mention the article also was accompanied by a drawing of four witches flying on broomsticks, raising the question of just how seriously the newspaper’s editor took his own story. More importantly, as Crouch writes, a researcher who followed up on the claim in 1936 could only find one of the supposed eyewitnesses, James Dickie, who denied it.

Brown’s biggest discovery appears to be the large amount newspaper coverage Whitehead received about his presumed flight, mainly from reprints and adaptations of the original report. But a false report that’s repeated 100 times is still false—something Jane’s would have been wise to remember.

About the Wright brothers

Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane in their West Dayton bicycle shop and tested it on the Outer Banks of North Carolina at Kitty Hawk. Historians worldwide consider Orville’s 12-second flight on Dec. 17, 1903 to be the first sustained, controlled flight in a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft. The photograph of Orville airborne in the Flyer is considered one of the world’s most iconic images.

About the National Aviation Heritage Area

The National Aviation Heritage Area includes Montgomery, Greene, Miami, Clark, Warren, Champaign, Shelby and Auglaize counties in southwestern Ohio. It is one of 49 Areas in the National Park Service’s National Heritage Area program. The National Aviation Heritage Alliance is a not-for-profit corporation designated by Congress as the management entity of the Area. Go to to learn more.