The Wright Brothers: First To Fly?

Jeffrey Grimm

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers were credited with the first flight on record (113 years ago today). Near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the brothers flew their aircraft 120 feet over a span of 12 seconds. This historical moment has been a boon for the small town, becoming a popular tourist destination for aerophiles. American education has taught us from a young age that the Wright brothers led us into the age of aviation; however, there are others that aren't so sure.

Critics and cynics alike have taken aim at two different individuals they believe were responsible for the first flight in history: Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont. Alberto Santos-Dumont is a Brazilian who lived the majority of his life in Paris. Although his aircraft is not documented to have flown until November 12, 1906, the details behind his machine are what makes the debate against the Wright brothers interesting.

Unlike the speculation surrounding the Wright brothers, Santos-Dumont had an aircraft that could take off unassisted and he had no problem showing this ability publicly. Additionally, there were questions on what actually constituted a flight instead of a long hop. This wasn't helped by the brother's secrecy, in which they did not divulge their successes until Europe widely praised Santos-Dumont for his accomplishments.

Brazilians citizens also roundly reject the evidence of the Wright brothers and their first flight. Although stark evidence to the contrary was provided, there is still a hesitation to acknowledge the Wright brothers from our South American counterparts.

"There's a strong nationalist issue at play here. Flight was a very important step in human history, in the history of technology. Every country wants to claim priority."

This caused issues with both Ohio and North Carolina, who both claim the Wright brothers as their own. Rewriting the history in which we have been taught since our youth can be perilous. Turning the past on its head to reveal the truth is often difficult, given much of the political and economic ramifications.

The main problem surrounding Whitehead's flight is the lack of evidence. It lacks the amount of documentation and photographic verification the Wright brothers possessed. This can be an example of how history is shaped by the proof provided rather than the truth itself.

There are also details in how the Smithsonian recognizes the Wright brothers. The Smithsonian claimed they had their own member who beat the Wrights to this phenomenal feat. After years of contention, it was finally decided that the Wright brothers would be the de facto pioneers of aviation. This came at a price, as the Smithsonian gained the Wright's plane for show at a bargain, but lost the ability to refute the claim of their achievement.

Alberto Santos-Dumont and his efforts to be the first in flight may be easily discredited. There seems to be too much detail to suggest he has no claim to have been the first to fly. Parsing over the minutiae of what actually is flying doesn't apply, as the Wright Brothers flew multiple times before Santos-Dumont's first attempt. However, Whitehead's accomplishments provide a much more murky scenario that may be perpetually debated. Regardless, the influence of the Wright brothers is immense in the field of aviation. It'll just be difficult to know if history is on their side.

[Featured Image by National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images]