❝ We had to prove that women were as good pilots… in an age where some men didn’t think a woman should drive a horse and buggy, much less drive an automobile, it was a job to prove that females could fly.❞
~ Louise Thaden
⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆
The other afternoon the resident ABC evangelist on the wireless was rabbiting on that the PC word to describe female pilots, especially those early pilots of the airways, was aviator … he was saying that the term aviatrix was de rigueur, we should use only the ‘correct’ gender-neutral term ‘aviator’ which doesn’t make a distinction between the two sexes, etc, etc.
And in a purely technical sense the government-sanctioned radio evangelist is right, the name ‘aviator’ does better represent the spirit of our contemporary times, after all no one (hardly anyone, right?) these days uses poetess or even authoress – these descriptors sound a bit cumbersome and more than slightly ridiculous in 2017 … although I note that the staunchly conservative Oscar ‘cinemarati’ dole out prizes to screen actors every March for what they still insist on calling the “best actress” and “best supporting actress”. Notwithstanding all this, my preference to describe those pioneering women of the skies is for ‘aviatrix’, quaintly old-fashioned as the term may be … to me it does set them apart, identifying the uniqueness of their important role in the evolution of aviation history and as pathfinders for new female work roles, and in doing so, demonstrating that women were capable of doing anything than men could do.
The internet is awash with studies and information on untold number of pioneer aviatrices. A casual googling of “aviatrix history” will turn up a host of sites with titles like “Harriet Quimbey – First U.S. Aviatrix”, “Lores Bonney – the forgotten aviatrix”, “The History Chicks Aviatrix Archives”, “LadiesLoveTailDraggers | Aviatrix History”; “Aviatrix – Sheroes of History”, “BBC – Forgotten record of aviatrix Beryl Markham”, “Aviatrix You Should Know: China’s Amelia Earhart” and “Our History | Women in Aviation History | “Sharpie: The Life Story of Evelyn Sharpie – Nebraska’s Aviatrix”. Clearly, most who write on the subject, on the World Wide Webosphere anyway, seem to concur with my preference for ‘aviatrix’.
France gold, the US silver …
What becomes readily apparent when you delve into the history of the early, formative phase of aviation, is how internationally diverse the phenomenon of the aviatrix was. France and the United States led the way with the earliest pioneering achievements❈ – first woman to earn a pilot’s licence (Frenchwoman Baroness Raymondé de Laroche, 1910); first woman to pilot a motorised aircraft solo (American Aida de Acosta in France, 1903, in a dirigible owned by Alberto Santos-Dumont – six months before the famous Wright Brothers’ flight). Not to be outdone, women aviatrices in the English-speaking world were also quick out of the blocks – Anglo-Irish aviatrix Lilian Bland in Belfast 1910/1911 was one of the first to design, build and fly her own aircraft (which she called the Mayfly⌖).
In the first 40 years of the 20th century the appearance of women pilots became a worldwide craze. Aviatrices took to the air in Belgium, Germany, Britain and Eire, Russia, Estonia, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Japan, China, Korea, Italy, Australasia, Canada, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Persia, in fact from any country that had a viable even if rudimentary aircraft industry.
Aviatrix “rock stars”
The public at large is familiar possibly only with a few of these pioneer aviatrices, the “glamour-pus” headline grabbers like American Amelia Earhart and England’s Amy Johnson, or if you are from the USA you probably have also heard of Ruth Law, Louise Thaden, Jacky Cochran and Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes. All of these high-flyers (literally) broke numerous records and won continent-to-continent, long-distance air races¤ and have been the subject of various biographies, television documentaries or biopics.
There was a lot of women pilots by the twenties and thirties (especially in the USA), and the great majority of them weren’t as fortunate as Earhart and a select few of the elite aviatrices who could elicit sponsorship from newspapers and the like. There were few posts for commercial pilots available to women at the time (primarily due to systemic and deeply ingrained sexism), therefore many women pilots in the “Roaring Twenties” turned to barnstorming and if they could to working as a stunt pilot in the movies. Barnstormers moved around the country performing aerial tricks and manoeuvres, for audiences, either individually or in orchestrated clusters of Gipsy Moth type crafts (known as “flying circuses”). Barnstormers also made money by taking local townspeople up for joy rides.
“First-wave” Australasian aviatrices
Gladys Sandford was the first New Zealand woman to be awarded an air pilot’s licence (1925), but without dispute the Shaky Isles’ greatest-ever aviatrix was Jean Gardner Batten. After wrecking her first biplane Batten talked the Castrol Oil Co into buying a second-hand De Havilland Gipsy Moth, in which she was the first woman to complete the solo round trip between England and New Zealand. Batten also won the Harmon Trophy three times and achieved a world record for flying from England to South America. Later in the thirties the relentless Kiwi aviatrix Batten obliterated Amy Johnson’s England to Australia record, bettering it by more than four days!
Australia’s first female flyer in an heavier-than-air plane was Florence Taylor in 1909 at Narrabeen, NSW. Taylor’s flight was in a glider designed by her husband George (which he had adapted from Lawrence Hargrave’s cellular box-kite prototype). Prejudice from male aviators and the industry meant that women in Australia were prevented from holding a commercial pilot’s licence until 1927 (Millicent Bryant was the first to earn her Australian licence in that year).
Other women soon took up the mantle of the earliest Aussie aviatrices, most prominent among these were Maude ‘Lores’ Bonney and the aptly named Nancy-Bird Walton. Lores Bonney, originally from South Africa, in the 1930s was “regarded as perhaps Australia’s most competent aviatrix”. Bonney’s record-breaking feats started in 1932 when she became the first aviatrix to circumnavigate the continent of Australia (embarking on the marathon flight – the equivalent of Darwin to London in distance – after first gaining the permission of her husband). She was the first pilot of either sex to fly from Brisbane to Cape Town, and the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England.
Nancy-Bird Walton got her pilot’s licence at 19 and like Bonney and so many other early aviators (from Charles Lindbergh down) tried initially to make a living out of it through barnstorming. In 1936 Walton won the Ladies Trophy in the Adelaide to Brisbane air race in a record time. As the first woman commercial pilot in Australia Walton was responsible for the operation of a flying medical service in the outback (Royal Far West Children’s Health Service), using her own Leopard Moth as an air ambulance. During WWII she trained a women’s air corps as back up for the men pilots in the RAAF and in 1950 founded the Australian Women Pilot’s Association, paving the way for today’s female commercial pilots to make a career of the profession.
PostScript: Hollywood and the glamorous/socialite aviatrix
In the golden age of aviation aviatrices like Jean Gardner Batten and Beryl Markham were not adverse to infusing a bit of glamour into their public personas. It certainly didn’t hinder their careers and sponsorship was often needed by the young female pilots to finance their attempts to win races and break records. In the twenties and thirties nothing personified the idea of the modern woman more than the aviatrix, she represented the height of glamour and daring … and of course the ubër glam-aviatrix in the world was Earhart whose image and media-savvy husband secured her income from promotional and speaking tours and from product endorsement .
It is hardly surprising then that from early on Hollywood took an interest in the aviatrix, and in the whole burgeoning area of aviation which provided film-makers with fresh new storylines with lots of breath-taking action and thrills. Several of the glamorous aviatrices had stints in movie acting. Ruth Elder for instance, (known as “Miss America of Aviation”) juggled flying with a (part-time) actress job and a (full-time) one as a serial ‘matrimonialist’ (Elder was married six times). RKO cashed in the vogue by casting an up-and-coming Katherine Hepburn as a socialite aviatrix in 1933’s Christopher Strong. Capitalising on the appeal of feminine good looks and the fearless reputation of women pilots, studio photographers cultivated the “glamorous aviatrix look” for movie publicity purposes.
❈ the very first experiments with flight involving women began in France – 1784: first woman to fly in a hot-air balloon, Marie Élisabeth Thible (eight months after the Montgolfier brothers’ first successful accent); 1798: first woman to pilot an airship, Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse (Mme Labrosse was also the first woman to parachute jump from a balloon, 1799), www.centennialofwomenpilots.com. So, in a very real sense aviatrices were in on the ground (umm, off the ground) in aviation from the get-go!
⌖ as in may fly, may not
¤ Earhart and Johnson were both fated to die in mysterious circumstances, tragically if heroically in pursuit of their addiction to flying
 ‘Aviation Pioneer Louise Thaden’, www.arkansasairandmilitarymuseum.com
 K Mitchell, ‘Lilian Bland: Ireland’s first female pilot, the world’s first aviation engineer’, Engineers Journal (Republic of Ireland), 31-May-2016, www.engineersjournal.ie
 ‘Barnstorming’, Wikipedia, http://em.n.wikipedia.org
 Ian Mackersey. ‘Batten, Jean Gardner’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/4b13/batten-jean-gardner (accessed 20 May 2017)
 K Alexander, Taking Flight: Lores Bonney’s Extraordinary Flying Career, (2016)
 ‘Nancy Bird Walton AO’, (Australian Museum), www.australianmuseum.net.au
 K Lubben Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, cited in ‘Why Amelia Bombed’ (V Postrel), 10-Nov-2009, www.vpostrel.com
 S Kelly, Aviators in Early Hollywood (2008)]
In this age of deregulated, worldwide passenger flight with more commercial airlines in the game than there are countries in the world (or so it seems anyway), its interesting to reflect that back in 1906 two American brothers had a monopoly on the very concept of human flight. Of course in 1906 there was no commercial flights – being still at the first dawn of aviation endeavour, but the only attempts at flight at all then (in a legal sense at least) were with the express say-so of those same two brothers.
In 1906 the Wright brothers – Orville and Wilbur – were granted a patent by the US Patent Office (after two earlier failed applications) for their “flying machine”, or more precisely, for their demonstrated method of controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight. The bicycle shop owners-cum-aviation inventors had managed to demonstrate some measure (albeit minimal) of aerial control of the third version of their Wright flyer in all three axes of aerodynamics – pitch, yaw and roll. The basis of the patent was the Wrights’ experiments in 1902-1903 and the successful (852 feet/59 seconds) glider flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903.
The Wright brothers defended their exclusive aircraft patent against all-comers (“copiers and imitators” as they saw everybody else in the game) with a monomaniacal religious zeal that would have befitted their overbearing United Brethren minister father Milton. Orville and Wilbur freely sued and issued writs against anyone who attempted to construct and fly a new aircraft without purchasing a licence from them. As this was the pioneering era of aviation there were a lot of inventors trying to do just this. Accordingly, the Wrights spent a lot of time locked in legal disputes with other manufacturers in America and overseas who were trying to avoid the patent fee. The Wrights staunchly defended their world monopoly over flight in unequivocal terms as a ‘moral’ and a ‘legal’ right, treating all other contemporary inventors in the field as in effect “hobbyists”!.
Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a New York engineer and aviator, was one of many inventors who fell foul of the litigious Wright brothers when he added ailerons (French: “little wing”), a movable attachment to a fixed wing for greater control, to his experimental aircraft. Unfortunately for Curtiss he became the main focus of the Wrights’ wrath and in their eyes their greatest nemesis … in 1913 the Wrights won lawsuits for patent infringement against Curtiss et al, when US courts ruled that ailerons fell under the ambit of the Wright patent. Consequently Curtiss and his business partners (Aerial Experiment Association – AEA) were forced into bankruptcy.
The Wrights’ broad litigious reach was generally less effectively outside of the USA. Many European inventors were able to escape paying the patent fees, sometimes with the aid of sympathetic European courts. The Wrights’ demands for royalties were ignored or evaded, or if they were contested, one strategy was to stretch the case out until the patents had expired.
The Wright brothers’ obsession with enforcing their legal patent❈ had wider ramifications for the industry to the point of retarding progress in the development of US aviation. Beyond the early breakthroughs in lateral control, the brothers did not really add much to their aviation achievements (consequently in these years Curtiss pulled far ahead of them in design innovation). After America entered the Great War in 1917, the brothers’ perversely rigorous enforcement of the patents left America woefully short of new airplanes at a time they were desperately needed. The upshot was that the US forces in WWI had to secure French fighter planes for their military pilots.
Because of the Wrights’ unwavering stance on their patents (after 1912 Orville alone, as Wilbur died that year), resentment towards the brothers was strong, they were accused of being greedy by licensees, eg, by demanding “money first” from prospective buyers BEFORE giving a demonstration of the prototype flyer, or by setting too high a royalty fee (at one point demanding 20% of sales); after a string of fatal air crashes in Wright planes Orville Wright lost sympathy with the public by attributing the accidents solely to “pilot error” (characteristically giving no consideration to the fact that the Wrights might be at fault for not having tried to make improvements to their prototype Flyer’s basic design.
Eventually, inevitably, the US authorities moved to close down the Wrights’ monopoly. A patent pool system was introduced in 1917 whereby all aircraft manufacturers in the country joined an association requiring the payment of a relatively small fee for patent use. The pooling of the aircraft patents signalled the end of the Wrights’ patent wars … by this time Orville had already sold his interest in the Wright Company at handsome profit and moved on to other (non-aviation) ventures.
Intriguingly Curtiss shared a common background with the brothers Wright, like them he began as a bicycle shop owner, designing, building and repairing bikes in small-town USA. But before moving into aviation Curtiss excelled in another area, motorcycles … he began designing V-8 powered motorcycles. The adventurous Curtiss even raced them, winning several races and setting a world record speed of 136 mph (earning himself the tag of “the fastest man on earth”).
Despite the early setbacks at the hands of the Wrights Curtiss went on to have a stellar career in aviation (and in naval aviation), designing practical seaplanes and airplanes, the viability of which he happily demonstrated in public (cf. the Wrights who tended to shroud their aircraft projects in secrecy). With financial backing from the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell and from Bell’s wife, Curtiss’ international prize-winning planes (“The June Bug”, “The Albany Flyer”, “The Jenny”) completed the first publicly witnessed flight and the first long distance flight in North America (220 km, Albany to New York City). Curtiss, far superior to the Wrights as a pragmatic, go-ahead businessman, quickly became a multimillionaire. Curtiss possessed a flair for publicising and promoting his inventions that the brothers did not exhibit, and turned his inventions into rapid sales of units. In a superb irony given Orville’s fierce, lifelong antipathy to Glenn Curtiss, the two aviation companies eventually merged in 1929❦ to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.
◖◗ See also the related 2014 blog article ‘Wright or Not Right?: the Controversy over who really was “First in Flight?” ‘
❈ the stock joke the Curtiss people liked to tell at the time went … (the brothers were so litigious that) every time somebody jumped in the air and waved his arms, the Wrights would demand a patent royalty or threaten to sue!
❦ by which time neither man had active roles in their respective companies any longer … Notwithstanding that Orville still objected to the new corporation’s title listing Curtiss’ name first!
 activating the pitch (moving the aircraft’s nose up and down) and yaw (moving the nose side-to-side) of the projectile was the previous, understood (but unsuccessful) method of controlling flight … the Wrights reasoned that these worked only in unison with the third element of rotation, roll (lateral movement through the novel wing-warping feature of the Flyer). Warping (twisting) of part of the wing on either side causes the plane to roll or bank in that direction, Phaedra Hise, ‘The 1903 Wright Flyer’, Air & Space Magazine (Smithsonian), March 2003. The addition of twin-rudders to the rear of the 1902 model of the Flyer helped stabilise it and prevent it spinning out of control, ‘Rudder – Yaw (Wright 1903 Flyer)’, (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), www.wright.nasa.gov
 as W J Boyne described it, the Wrights went about “systematically sueing anyone suspected of infringing their patents, which really meant everyone attempting to make a living from building or flying airplanes”, Walter J Boyne’s “World Aviation History”, (‘The Wright Brothers: The Other Side of the Coin’), 2008, www.wingsoverkansas.com
 Sparks of Invention: Need for Speed, (Series 1, episode 5, TV documentary 2015, 9-NOW Network, screened 23-Oct-2016); ‘Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute’, (letter, Dayton, Oh. 20-Jan-1910), cited in ‘Wright Brothers patent war’, Wikipedia, www.en.m.wikipedia.org
 ‘Wright Brothers patent wars’, ibid.
 Boyne, op.cit.; Phaedra Hise, ‘How the Wright Brothers Blew It’, Forbes, 19-Nov-2003, www.forbes.com
 Wright Brothers patent wars’, op.cit.
 ‘About the Man – Glenn H. Curtiss’, Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, www.glennhcurtissmuseum.org
 Flying (magazine), ‘Century of Flight’, 130(12), Dec 2003
To the vast majority of people, especially in America, the name Wright brothers and the first mechanically-propelled flight in a heavier-than-air craft have always been synonymous with each other. The reality is that the achievement of Orville and Wilbur’s “First Flight” has always been strongly contested from certain quarters within the aviation industry in the United States – and internationally as well.
Not long after the news spread about the momentous event at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December 1903, the significance of what the Wrights’ had done found itself under challenge, especially as time went on from the European aviation community. French newspapers after 1903 described the celebrated American brothers as bluffeurs (bluffers). Doubts were raised about their achievements when the Wrights failed to release the photo of the Wright Flyer in flight at Kitty Hawk until nearly five years after the groundbreaking 1903 flight … newspapers acerbically asked: “Were they fliers or liars?”, Paris edition of the New York Herald (10 Feb 1906); ‘Wright Brothers: European skepticism’, www.spiritus-temporis.com.
The state of North Carolina has harboured no such doubts, proudly displaying the slogan First in Flight on its car number-plates. Whether you accept the Wrights’ claim to be first in flight, or some other contender (of which there are several), in a sense could depend on what is meant by manned, aeronautical flight. Orville Wright’s first successful if brief powered flight was by no measure the first human flight in history. The genesis of intentional manned air travel can be traced back to the late 18th century with the advent of large hot air balloons (starting with the Montgolfier brothers of France in 1783).
As well, in the 30 years preceding Kitty Hawk, there was a host of aviation pioneers experimenting with monoplanes, biplanes, box-kites and gliders including, 1874: Félix du Temple; 1894: Hiram Maxim; 1894: Lawrence Hargrave; 1898: Augustus Moore Herring [B Kampmark, ‘Wright Brothers: Right or Wrong?’, Montréal Review (April 2013]. These flights however were either pre-power ones, or if motorised, they have been largely discredited as having been either unsustained, uncontrolled or as at the least not sufficiently controlled [P Scott, The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919].
The achievements of Orville and Wilbur in their 1903 Wright Flyer moved beyond the brothers’ earlier experiments in motorless gilders, but there are at least two other rival claimants prior to December 1903 whose aeronautical experiments were also mechanically-driven and became airborne albeit briefly – Gustave Whitehead in 1901 and Richard Pearse in 1902/1903. The late 1890s and early 1900s were awash with would-be plane makers, there was a veritable aircraft mania world-wide with people all the way from Austria to Australasia trying to construct workable “flying machines”.
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The somewhat erratic Pearse’s aircraft experiments in New Zealand, far away from the salient aeronautical developments in the US Eastern Seaboard and Europe, largely flew under the radar (to invoke an obvious pun!). The evidence suggests that Canterbury farmer Pearse’s home-built glider (equipped with tricycle wheels and an air-compressed engine) made at least one (but probably more) flights, but with little control over the craft. What was to Pearse’s credit was that unlike the Wright Flyer which managed only to travel in a straight line on 17 December 1903, the New Zealander was able to turn right and left during his flight on 11 May 1903 [PS Ward, ‘Richard Pearse, First Flyer’ The Global Life of New Zealanders, www.nzedge.com].
Pearse’s low-key approach to his attempts meant that no photographs were taken, although Geoffrey Rodcliffe identifies over 40 witnesses to Pearce’s flights prior to July 1903 [http://avstop.com]. Pearse did not actively promote his own claims for a place in aviation history (unlike the consistently determined and even pathological efforts of the Wright brothers to consolidate their reputation), and he himself conceded that the Wrights’ flight achieved a “sustained and controlled” trajectory, something that he had not. But Pearse did contribute to aviation’s development nonetheless through the creation of a monoplane configuration, wing flaps and rear elevator, tricycle undercarriage with steerable nosewheel, and a propeller with variable-pitch blades driven by a unique double-acting horizontally opposed petrol engine [G Ogilvie, ‘Pearse, Richard William’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (Te Ara) 7 Jan 2014].
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G A Whitehead was a German migrant (born Gustave Weisskopf) living in Connecticut who started experimenting with gliders (variations on the glider prototype design developed by aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal) in the mid-1890s, at a time when Wilbur and Orville were still making and repairing bicycles in Dayton, Ohio. The case in support of the flight made by Whitehead on 14 August 1901 in what must be noted was an improbable-looking, bat-shaped, engine-propelled glider at Fairfield near Bridgeport, was first taken up in 1935 (in an article in an industry magazine, Popular Aviation, entitled ‘Did Whitehead Precede Wright In World’s First Powered Flight?’)回. Whitehead’s claim lay dormant until the 1960s when army reservist William O’Dwyer, took up the German-American engine-maker’s cause and did his upmost to promote his “flying machine”.
Supporters of Whitehead recently received a further boost through the research of Australian aviation historian John Brown who discovered a photo (lost since the 1906 Aero Club of America Exhibition) purporting to be of Whitehead’s Number 21 Gilder in flight. Largely on the basis of this, Brown was able to convince the premier aviation journal, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, to recognise Whitehead’s claim over that of the Wrights’ as the first powered and navigable flight in history [“An airtight case for Whitehead?”, www.fairfield-sun.com, 24 August 2013]. Doubts remain however about the Whitehead thesis. Brown’s reliance on the newly-discovered photo remains problematic, the image even ultra-magnified is indistinct and inconclusive of anything much. In any case the providence is questionable, there is no irrefutable evidence yet unearthed linking it to Whitehead’s 1901 flight. [“The case for Gustave Whitehead”, www.wright-brothers.org]
: The newly-acquired kudos of Connecticut arising from Jane’s recognition of Whitehead, has led to the amusing suggestion from some Connecticuters, that the state’s number-plates now be inscribed (at the risk of some serious grammatical mangling), Firster in Flight“, as a counterfoil to North Carolina’s “First in Flight”❈.
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A case has also been made for Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian aviator-inventor as the first to fly a mechanised aircraft – the 1906 Paris flight of his 14-bis biplane (Condor # 20). Supporters of the Brazilian aviator argue this on the grounds that it, not the Wrights 1903 flight, represented the first officially witnessed, unaided take-off and flight by a heavier-than-air craft. Brazilians, whilst acknowledging that the Wright Brothers conducted a successful flight earlier, argue that Santos-Dumont should be given pre-eminence because the 14-bis‘ take-off was made from fixed wheels (as was Pearse’s flight in NZ incidentally) rather than catapulted into the air from skids as happened with the Wright Flyer in 1903 [‘The case for Santos-Dumont’, www.wright-brothers.org]. The patriotic Brazilians, always ready to embrace a national hero, sporting or otherwise, have gone to great and amusing lengths to register their pride in Santos-Dumont’s achievement. Many Brazilian cities have an Avenida Santos Dumont named in honour of the aviator. In a characteristically Brazilian vein of jocularity, some Brazilians have taken a “stretch-limo” approach, rendering the street name into English thus,
Santos Dumont the True Inventor of the Airplane and Not the Wright Brothers Avenue [V Barbara, ‘Learning to Speak Brazinglish’, New York Times, 8 November 2013].
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More seriously, Santos-Dumont’s 1906 successful, powered flight in Paris (dismissed by the Wrights as a series of “long hops”) owed a large debt to Lawrence Hargrave, Santos’ Condor biplane being based on Hargrave’s box-kite construction. The Australian inventor has an under-recognised role in the history of aviation, but he contributed massively to the first successful airplane through the development of three critical aeronautical concepts – the cellular box-kite wing, the curved wing surface, and the thick leading wing edge (aerofoil). The world’s first commercial aircraft built by Frenchman Gabriel Voisin incorporated the stable lifting surfaces of Hargrave’s box kites. In addition, Hargrave invented the radial rotary engine, later used extensively in military aircraft [‘The Pioneers: Aviation and Aeromodelling – Independent Evolutions and Histories’ (Lawrence Hargrave 1850-1915), www.ctie.monash.edu.au].
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Jane’s magazine’s decision in 2013 to jettison the Wrights’ primacy and endorse Whitehead’s claim to be the first powered flight is in marked contrast to the position of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum‘s on the subject. The key to understanding the Smithsonian’s rigid, on-going refusal to countenance the Whitehead case, or even to have an open mind on it (the Smithsonian dismissively refers to it as the “Whitehead Myth”), has its roots in the testy relationship that prevailed between the Wrights and the Institution. From the start the Smithsonian did not immediately and unconditionally embrace the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk achievement. Instead, the Institute sought to elevate Samuel Pierpoint Langley‘s unsuccessful Aerodrome craft on an equal footing with the Wright Flyer (at one point Langley was Secretary of the Smithsonian – a clear suggestion of a conflict of interest within the Institution). In retaliation the Wrights refused to display their 1903 “First Flight” aircraft in the Smithsonian. Orville, after Wilbur’s early death, eventually shipped it off to England where it was exhibited in the Science Museum in South London instead [‘History of the 1903 Wright Flyer’, (Wright State University Libraries) www.libraries.wright.edu]
The intriguing twist in this story occurred in 1942 when the remaining Wright, Orville, relented on the Smithsonian ban, but only after a deal was struck. The Smithsonian recanted its long-standing statement that Langley’s Aerodrome was the first machine capable of flight in favour of the Wrights’ claim. In return the Washington DC Institution was allowed to hold and exhibit the 1903 Wright Flyer. The rider which contractually committed the Smithsonian stated that if the Institute ever deviated from its acknowledgement that the Flyer was the first craft to make a controlled, sustained powered flight, then control of the Flyer would fall into the hands of Orville’s heirs.
Critics of the Institute believe that the Smithsonian’s indebtedness to the Wrights’ legacy (the fear of losing the historic Flyer to the estate executors) prevents it from recognising the merits of Whitehead’s pioneering achievement irrespective of the weight of evidence put forward [J Liotta, ‘Wright Brothers Flight Legacy Hits New Turbulence’, www.news.nationalgeographic.com]. Clearly this is a powerful disincentive to the Smithsonian objectively assessing the merits and new evidence for any rival claims to the Wrights (not just Whitehead’s) which may be unearthed.
There were numerous aviation pioneers, engineers and technologists experimenting with new forms of aircraft at the turn of the 20th century, so what was it that made the Wright brothers stand out from the others? The preservation of identifiable photographic evidence and documentation of the December 1903 attempts certainly contributed to the strengthening of the brothers’ argument for being “First”. Another factor is that the brothers scrupulously consolidated and cultivated their reputation as the foremost air pioneers. Clearly the Wrights had an eye on history which contrasts with the less calculated approach of their rivals (especially Whitehead and Pearse). The Wrights vigorously defended the accomplishments of their Flyer against that of competing airships. They also went to great efforts to protect their technologies against intellectual theft … the propensity of the Wrights to resort to lawsuits when they felt their interests (eg, patent preservation) was threatened, pays testimony to this.
The Wrights, unlike most of the competition, kept on improving the quality and capability of their airplanes (at least up until they got bogged down in patent litigation), eg, the development of “wing warping” helped control the aircraft through enhanced aerodynamic balance. [D Schneider, ‘First in Flight?’, American Scientist, 91(6), Nov-Dec 2003]. The patents issue and the brothers’ preparedness to play “hardball” with their rivals led them into questionable ethical terrain, eg, their refusal to acknowledge the influence on their designs of pioneers who came before them, such as the Anglo-Australian Hargrave [‘The Pioneers’ op.cit.].
The credence given to the Wright brothers’ claim to be the first successful flyers should perhaps come with an asterisk, signifying it as heavily qualified, as in David Schneider’s all-inclusive, tongue-in-cheek description: “First in Sustained, Piloted, Controlled, Powered, Heavier-than-air Flight of Lasting Technological Significance” [ibid].
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Can we really say, in this era of start-up aeronautics, that any one of the countless attempts by aviation pioneers was definitive when it came to the question of the flight being sustained or controlled? The differences between what Herring, Whitehead, Pearse and the brothers Wright achieved with their best efforts seems to be one of degree, not kind. Moore Herring, the darling of Michigan aviation enthusiasts, managed a flight of only 73 feet and no more than 10 seconds in duration, no more than an extended hop according to National Air and Space Museum curator, Tom Crouch, but it registered as a lift-off nonetheless [TD Crouch, A Dream of Wings]. “Bamboo Dick” Pearse’s optimal flight in Temuka, NZ, travelled a mere 50 feet or so and abruptly ended 15 feet up in a gorse-hedge! The last and best attempt of Orville in the Wright Flyer lasted 59 seconds and travelled some 852 feet in distance. Gus Whitehead’s best try on 14 August 1901 was half a mile according to him, but it was poorly documented, lacked verification and pellucid images. Given the gaping lack of clearcut proof for Whitehead’s claims, the Wright Flyer on Kill Devil Hills in 1903 achieved something resembling sustained and controlled flight, but did this really amount to a quantum leap in and of itself?
Whilst many in the public would hold with the tradition and still associate the key breakthrough in aerial navigation with the Wright brothers, the embryonic phase of aeronautics brings home just how arbitrary and unsatisfactory the notion of “first in flight” really is. It is more meaningful to see the development of viable flying machines as something that happened incrementally, an aerodynamic puzzle put together piece-by-piece. It was an international effort, the culmination of the accumulated efforts of gifted pioneering aeronautical designers such as George Cayley, Octave Chanute, Lawrence Hargrave and Otto Lilienthal whose experiments made it possible for the Wrights and others to take one more step, coming closer each time to the realisation of successful manned, powered flight.
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In a documentary shown on national ABC television (Australia) John Brown made the case for an even earlier attempt at powered flight by Gus Whitehead, which occurred in the city of Pittsburg in 1899. Brown does not contend that this flight by the German-American should be recognised as the first successful attempt because it was not controlled – to the point that the aircraft actually crash-landed into a brick building, Who Flew First: Challenging the Wright Brothers, (DTV 21, ABC 2016).
回 freelance writer Stella Randolph was responsible for maintaining interest in Whitehead’s aviation pursuits, researching and writing The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead in the 1930s
❈ then there’s the claims of Ohio and specifically Dayton to their part in aviation history, the Wright Flyer being manufactured in Dayton
◖◗ See also the related article on this blogsite – “The Wright Way, the Only Way: the Aviation ‘Patent Wars’ and Glenn Curtiss”