First In Flight / The First American Aviator


There are many fine aviation museums in the United States which make great additions to vacation planners and short weekend trips. We’ve listed several of our favorites near the end of this article. Each one is unique and makes an excellent fun stop.

Connecticut Mulls Change

The story below addresses a controversy in Connecticut which may indeed result in a new law being passed in that state which in essence declares that the Wright Brothers were not the first in flight.

A Connecticut House Bill which is being prepared for the governors approval states…“The Governor shall proclaim a date certain in each year as Powered Flight Day to honor the first powered flight by [the Wright brothers] Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry,” Republican state Sen. Mike McLachlan made the statement…”There’s no question that the Wright brothers will retain their place in aviation history and rightfully so. They just weren’t first.”

The following story addresses the subject of who exactly can claim the phrase “First in flight.” Who really could claim that they were the first to successfully fly an aircraft?

The Controversy

wright flyer

Wright Flyer I in 1903

One of the biggest controversies concerning early aviation revolves around the questions of...Who was the first in flight in the United States? Were the Wright brothers the first to succeed with a controlled flight within the borders of the U.S.? While the common wisdom has always been that indeed it certainly was the Wright brothers and the flight took place in 1903, the naysayers to this claim say it is untrue. Thus the continued controversy, at least with some doubters.

The “First in Flight” Controversy

The Smithsonian Museum displays the Wright Brothers 1903 Wright Flyer,  described as the world’s first successful airplane. The exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. also displays historic photographs and cultural artifacts, along with instruments and personal items associated with the Wright Brothers.

There have been some historians who contended that an earlier powered flight took place aside from the hot air balloons of the 1800’s. In other words, some have stated that a powered airplane or aeroplane flight took place in St. Joseph Michigan in 1898.

A man named Augustus Moore Herring who had some background with gliders had carried out a several gliding experiments.  Herring found financial backing and constructed a biplane hang glider in 1898. The glider was equipped with a small compressed air engine. Newspapers reported that Herring flew this powered, heavier-than-air craft 50 feet on October 10, 1898  over the lakeside sand dunes of St. Joseph, Michigan.

gustav whitehead flight

Drawing of Whitehead’s 1901 flight that appeared in newspaper

The Case For Gustav Whitehead

Another story involves a man named Gustav Whitehead and this is the claim now accepted by Connecticut lawmakers. . Whitehead increased his knowledge step by step and evolved a series of both gliders and airplanes, each one a modification of its predecessor.

It was reported that Whitehead flew several times in his own powered aircraft (high wing monoplane) design in both 1901 and 1902. The 1901 flight, which is the event most discussed, apparently took place in Fairfield Connecticut in August of that year. A newspaper story at the time, which seemed to lack an author, reported that Whitehead’s heavier than air craft flew about one-half mile and reached up to 50 feet in height.

To this day there are historians who do credit Gustav Whitehead with this flight experiment. Conversely there are those who do not. The doubters point to the lack of concrete evidence that the event actually took place. In other words, an absence of solid documentation. Although, in addition to local coverage, it’s been reported that the Evening World newspaper in New York reported on the event. There were also stories about Whitehead’s achievements in a 1903 Scientific American. There were additional reports as well. Supposedly Whitehead’s unsheltered craft was destroyed during a storm and hence there wasn’t a craft to display to the public as the Wrights were able to do.

wright brothers airplane

Wright Flyer II in 1904

The Whitehead doubters also point out that Whitehead’s control of the craft was by shifting body weight which they claim would not be sufficient to control an aircraft. In addition, it’s quite questionable that a charcoal fueled steam engine, which was reportedly used, could provide enough power to lift itself off the ground.

In Whitehead’s favor however is the fact that today’s light aircraft have many similarities to the high wing monoplane design of his 1901 flight.

Whitehead Ignored?

The real story about Gustav Whitehead’s achievements faded from the public eye until the mid 1930’s. At that time Popular Aviation magazine published articles where the author obtained affidavits from people insisting they witnessed Gustav Whitehead’s flights. The witnesses had several different recollections of what they saw in regards to height and distance. A year after the Popular Aviation story, a Harvard professor disputed the claim in an article and then, after further investigation and speaking with witnesses, wrote another article supporting Whitehead’s claims.

heath parasol airplane

Heath Super Parasol

There were articles written decades after that criticizing the Smithsonian in particular with giving scant attention to the achievements of Gustav Whitehead.

It does appear that Whitehead’s flights received much more credit in publications and articles other  than from anything the Smithsonian put forward.

As it turned out, in 1968 the state of Connecticut honored Gustav Whitehead with the recognition of “Father of Connecticut Aviation“.

The Historic Significance of the Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers had the advantage of keeping extremely detailed records of both the construction of their aircraft as well as the flights afterward not to mention a surviving model. In some respects you could say that the Wright Brothers were quite successful in touting their accomplishment. In regards to the achievements of Gustav Whitehead, I believe that there is certainly ample evidence that he did experiment with powered flight. He may very well have done this prior to the Wright Brothers four successful flights at Kitty Hawk.

whitehead glider

Gustav Whitehead in one of his gliders

In a way, there is also somewhat of a similarity to the achievements of Henry Ford. There was much experimentation with automobiles in the very late 1800’s. Several people put together motorized buggies with a variety of steering mechanisms and power plants. In fact, some of these were former horse buggy builders. Henry Ford however was recognized as an automobile industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company. While Henry Ford did not invent the concept of the automobile, he developed and manufactured the first automobile that many middle class Americans could afford to buy. He achieved this by creating the assembly line which turned out more cars for less money. There is no better example of Ford’s achievement than the famous Model T.

While there have been questions raised as to who exactly invented the airplane (I’m not sure there will ever be a consensus on that issue), a big factor in favor of the Wright Brothers achievement is the fact that they had controlled flight without using body weight as a primary instrument.

curtiss aircraft

1916 Curtiss Model N

According to the Smithsonian, the instruments the Wright’s employed were arranged so all could be turned off, along with the engine, the instant the flight was over by a single movement of a wooden lever mounted on the lower wing. Instruments the Wright Brothers used included a Richard anemometer and a stopwatch that were mounted on the front strut to the pilot’s right. These recorded distance through the air in meters and the duration of the flight. From these of course airspeed could be calculated. In addition, a Veedor revolution counter was mounted at the base of the engine to record engine revolution.

The Wright Brothers achievement at Kitty Hawk and the design they utilized is said by many to be the model from which aviation grew from. Therefore, the motto “First in Flight”. One might also argue that their Kitty Hawk flights were much more documented. There’s more to the story explaining why the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk accomplishment is presented today the way it is…..

After his brother Wilbur passed away, Orville Wright was determined to defend the fact that the brothers be considered the inventors of the airplane. In fact, the Wright Flyer was actually moved to a London museum during a period of disagreement with how the Smithsonian was presenting the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk achievement. This finally seemed to be settled once and for all in 1948.

An Agreement With The Smithsonian

beechcraft 18

A Beechcraft 18

Not to be understated, and certainly in response to the controversy regarding Gustav Whitehead’s 1901 flight, is an agreement entered into between the Wright heirs and the Smithsonian in 1948.

The agreement reads as such...” Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor its successors nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered by the United States of America, by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight”.

It’s an interesting controversy and one that probably will always be with us for a long time. I think it’s viable that many, including Whitehead, did experiment with powered flight design  at about the same time the Wright Brothers were working on their designs. The question than is...Who of all the inventors or experimenters contributed the most to what today we call the aviation industry? Another way of saying it is...Was there any one early aviation development that stood out from all the others?

curtiss jenny

Curtiss Jenny in 1918

According to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., it is that of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. Smithsonian contends that the Wright Brothers were the  “First in Flight”.

Two links on our Western Trips site you’ll be interested in is to a photo article about the Beechcraft Model 18 and the F-15 First Responder.

Also, on Trips Into History see our article on the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph Missouri. This is one of the 50 most unusual museums in the country.

Some Great Places to Visit

If you’re traveling in the Tucson Arizona area you’ll want to make a stop at the massive Pima Air and Space Museum. The museum is located just off Interstate 10 east of Tucson and covers 80 acres. The museum is open seven days per week and exhibits over 300 aircraft and spacecraft.

pacific coast air museumA much smaller but very unique museum is the Pacific Coast Air Museum located just a few miles north of Santa Rosa California and about 65 miles north of San Francisco. One of their very special displays is of the F-15 First Responder. This is one of the actual aircraft that scrambled during the attacks on September 11th 2001. Many other military aircraft are displayed as well.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque New Mexico is a real treat to visit. Aircraft among their outdoor display include a B-52 Stratofortress and a B-29 Superfortress from 1945. Also many displays of rockets as well as a conning tower fin from a retired nuclear submarine.

b 52 tail photo

B 52 Stratofortress tail close up

While traveling in the state of Oregon make a note to visit Hood River. Here you can explore a fascinating aircraft and vintage automobile museum. The Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) displays one of the largest collections of historic propeller driven airplanes in the United States, with each and every plane in flying condition. Every plane has been beautifully restored and represents the growth of aviation. Among the many aircraft on display is a 1917 Curtiss JN-4D, a 1928 Boeing 40 C, a 1929 Curtiss Robin and a 1929 Heath Parasol. There are many more. The Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum is located just a few miles south of Hood River. The museum also hold a fly-in each year the weekend after Labor Day. Offered are food, fun, exhibits and plane rides.

(Photos of Beechcraft 18, Heath Parasol, Pacific Coast Air Museum, B 52 tail photo from authors collection. Remainder photos and images from the public domain)


The Cliff House of Manitou Springs Colorado


Manitou Springs Colorado, about six miles west of Colorado Springs and about 70 miles south of Denver, is one of the Wests most popular travel destinations and one you’ll surely want to visit if you’re in the area. The main road that runs through Manitou Springs is one of the main routes to Pike Peak. This alone made it a bustling town.

the cliff house at pikes peak

The Cliff House, Manitou Springs CO

Manitou Springs grew as a direct result of the mining going on in the Pikes Peak region during the late 1850’s. Like with many western towns, Manitou Springs has a very rich history and much of it’s history has been preserved to this day allowing travelers from all over the world enjoy.

When you’re looking for things to do in Colorado, one very interesting site is that of today’s Cliff House. If your travels take you to Colorado you will definitely want to add Manitou Springs and the Cliff House to your vacation planner.

The Cliff House

Many historic structures you visit in the west were at one time something else altogether. The Cliff House is no exception. The twenty room boarding house was at one time named simply “The Inn“. The Inn also served as a stage coach stop. Between the mining and the trapping and hunting going on in the area, many people passed through Manitou Springs. Hotel history tells us that at time the traffic through the area was so large that tents actually had to be erected around the inn grounds.

the cliff house manitou springs colorado

Patio at The Cliff House

Over the years this historic hotel has gone from a retreat for the rich and famous to barracks then to apartments and then was abandoned. When mining activity died down in the mid 1870’s The Inn lost a lot of business. After not too many years the mineral springs became quite popular and The Inn enjoyed a renewal of business. The Inn was purchased in 1886 by a man named Edward E. Nichols who had moved to Manitou Springs for health reasons. Nichols changed the name to The Cliff House and converted the structure into a luxury resort. The Cliff House gained quite a big reputation as a retreat for the wealthy. It’s guest list included such names as Theodore Roosevelt; Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Austria; William Henry Jackson; Charles Dickens Jr.; P.T. Barnum; Thomas Edison; Clark Gable; F. W. Woolworth; and, J. Paul Getty.

The structure went through a total renovation in 1999 and now is one of the finest resort hotels in Colorado. The Cliff House in Manitou Springs is a traditional olde world hotel with twenty-first century amenities along with elegance and charm and that Victorian feel.

mineral water at manitou springs

One of the public mineral water outlets at Manitou Springs

If your Colorado vacation includes spending time in Manitou Springs or if you’re headed to Pikes Peak, the Cliff House is one of your best choices in the area. Along with it’s Victorian era charm and it’s over 100 year history, you’ll find the Cliff House is within easy walking distance of everything in Manitou Springs. Another interesting fact is that The Cliff House is older than the state of Colorado itself. The Cliff House has also received the AAA Four Diamond Award.

The Birth of the Mineral Springs Industry

Manitou Springs, as it’s name clearly implies, is located near the springs. A this writing there are eleven springs open to the public.

According to the Manitou Springs Visitors Guide, the process which created the mineral springs begins with rainwater and snow melt from Pikes Peak and surrounding mountains  soak into rock fractures. As the water penetrates to a great depth, it then becomes heated and mineralized. The warm water naturally flows up into cavernous limestone where it becomes carbonated. At that point the water flows upward within the numerous natural and drilled springs throughout Manitou Springs.

manitou springs colorado dining

Outdoor dining at The Cliff House

Native Americans during the 1800’s respected the springs for their spiritual benefits. Anglos eventually traveled to Manitou Springs for the therapeutic benefits of mineral baths.

In the early 1900s, Manitou Springs was well known as a destination for people suffering with tuberculosis. In demand was the clean mountain air and the therapeutic mineral springs. A dry climate which the southwest is noted for was thought to help sufferers with this illness. Doctors prescribed a move west to many patients. Several other locations in the general area were recommended to sufferers such as Las Vegas New Mexico and Santa Fe New Mexico.Some relocated to southern California for the same reason.

miramont castle at manitou springs

Miramont Castle in Manitou Springs

Another site in Manitou Springs you’ll want to add to your Colorado vacation planner is the Miramont Castle. The Miramont Castle was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 1977. The historic structure was built beginning in 1895 and is filled with great Victorian era artifacts which take you back to the very early years of Manitou Springs. Miramont Castle is located at 9 Capitol Hill Ave.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy include a Visit to the Historic Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas New Mexico…..Historic Hotels of America and Could Be The Best Hiking Trail in Sedona Arizona

You’ll also enjoy our photo article…Ghosts in Historic Hotels

Visiting The Cliff House

If you visit The Cliff House you’ll also have many other attractions to enjoy. If you haven’t taken it already you do want to take the Cog Railway up to the top of Pikes Peak and it’s open year around. The Cog Railway departs from Manitou Springs.

The Cliff House offers fifty-four guest rooms including suites. Among the suites are named rooms such as the Teddy Roosevelt Suite and the P.T. Barnum Suite. The hotel’s address is 306 Cannon Avenue, Manitou Springs CO

If you’re visiting the Manitou Springs Colorado area you’ll definitely want to make a stop at The Cliff House, a trip back to the Victorian era.

(Photos from author’s private collection)