Is Everything We Know About the History of Flight Wrong?

Warren Buffet has a known distaste for airline investing (that didn’t keep him from putting money into fractional jet ownership). His 1989 investment of over $350 million in US Air ultimately returned his full principle and all interest payments but never paid off big the way he had hoped and provided plenty of heartburn along the way.

It led him in 2002 to declare,

If a capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk back in the early 1900s, he should have shot Orville Wright. He would have saved his progeny money.

This isn’t right, though, because:

  • If the Wright Brothers hadn’t flown, someone else certainly would have.
  • It turns out that maybe someone else did even before Kitty Hawk.

A New York Times piece covers the controversy.

It turns out:

  • Gustave Whitehead might have been first, flying 2 years ahead of the Wright Brothers above Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1901 — “climbing 50 feet into the air and traveling more than a mile”

  • The claim generates an outpouring of furor in North Carolina and Ohio.

    “This is the first time North Carolina and Ohio have ever agreed on anything regarding the origin of flight,” State Representative Rick Perales of Ohio, a Republican, said in a recent telephone interview.

  • Legislatures in these states are voting on history. In Ohio,

    “Whereas the states of Ohio and North Carolina share and cherish the legacy of the Wright brothers,” it reads, “now therefore be it resolved, that Gustave Whitehead did not fly a powered, heavier than air machine of his own design on August 14, 1901, or on any other date.”

  • The Smithsonian is contractually obligated to claim and defend the argument that the Wright Brothers were the first.

Is everything we know about the inception of flight wrong? It doesn’t ultimately matter of course, because around the same time there were clearly multiple innovators working on the same problems. Who was first matters for individual glory in this case more than social achievement. Shooting Orville Wright wouldn’t have helped investment returns.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I can definitely report first-hand that pictures showing the Wrights flying on a NC beach are suspect. The monuments at Kill Devil Hills documenting the “first flights ” are almost a mile from the ocean. That is a lot of land to have been added in the last 100 years especially since beach erosion has been actually removing land from the Banks.

  2. Buffett, not Buffet. Very common, albeit rookie, mistake.

    Jimmy’s cousin. Not a Vegas dinner line.

  3. In 1970, a few in our 5th grade class debated another school about this same question. Luckily, our side defended Gustave Whitehead’s claims. We wiped the floor with the other guys.

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