HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Connecticut now officially recognizes a local aviator as the first man to fly.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced Wednesday that he signed into law a measure insisting that German-born aviator and Bridgeport resident Gustave Whitehead flew in 1901, two years before Wilbur and Orville Wright lifted off from Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Whitehead's supporters say they're correcting a historical mistake. Supporters of the Wright brothers, including the Smithsonian Institution that houses the brothers' historic plane, say Whitehead partisans are wrong.
A recent burst of interest in Whitehead followed a documentary by an Australian historian. Whitehead Research Committees in the United States and Germany also have stoked interest.
Jane's All the World's Aircraft, an industry publication, recently cited contemporary news accounts in concluding that Whitehead beat the brothers from Dayton, Ohio, into the air.
"We want to correct something that should have been corrected long ago," said state Rep. Larry Miller, R-Stratford, who spearheaded the legislation. "All we're trying to do is correct history. There's nothing in it for us."
Tom Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution, which displays Wilbur and Orville Wright's plane at the National Air and Space Museum, said Whitehead's backers are "absolutely wrong."
"Whitehead's legend has spawned much speculation and hearsay," he said. "People who have looked at this over the years ... almost unanimously reject the claim."
Connecticut has a long and storied history in aviation. Aircraft engines were made at Pratt and Whitney in East Hartford beginning in 1925, and a desk used by Charles Lindbergh is still on display at the jet engine manufacturer. And famed helicopter maker Igor Sikorsky set up shop in Stratford in 1929 to make seaplanes.
A recent burst of interest in Whitehead followed a documentary by an Australian historian, John Brown. In addition, Whitehead Research Committees in the United States and Germany have stoked interest. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, an influential industry publication, recently cited contemporary news accounts in concluding that Whitehead beat the brothers from Dayton, Ohio, into the air.
Andrew Kosch, a high school science teacher in Milford, said he has been working 30 years to promote Whitehead's achievement. He lobbied the legislature and even persuaded Chip's Family Restaurant in Fairfield to name an omelet the No. 21, for the plane Whitehead flew.
He said the aviator is well-known in Connecticut for flying before the Wright brothers and the world now needs to know it.
"How can you prove someone didn't fly? That's what the Smithsonian is trying to do," Kosch said.
He and Miller said the Smithsonian is forbidden by a contract with the executors of the Wright brothers' estate to admit that anyone else was the first to fly.
Crouch said the Smithsonian signed a contract with two heirs of the Wright brothers' estate in 1948, after the brothers' deaths. The heirs insisted on the provision, he said, because they fought a fraudulent claim of early flights for 20 years.
It doesn't change what he said is the fact that Wilbur and Orville Wright operated the first heavier-than-air machine.
"What they achieved changed the face of the world," he said. "They were the ones who took those final steps. They deserve the credit for it."
Kosch will not be persuaded to reject Whitehead.
"I do everything I can to keep the story alive," he said.
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