Were the Wright Brothers in Second Place?

On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright brothers' Flyer took to the air at Kitty Hawk, N.C. (Image credit: NASA)

Wilbur and Orville who?

If the governor of Connecticut has his way, the famous Wright brothers — long assumed to be the first to fly — will soon be as obscure as Gustave Whitehead is now.

The German immigrant (born Gustave Weisskopf) reportedly flew a heavier-than-air, powered airplane into the skies of Fairfield, Conn., in 1901 — two years before the Wright brothers' 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a bill on Wednesday (June 26) declaring "Powered Flight Day to honor the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry," Fox News reports.

Evidence for Whitehead's flight comes from a number of contemporary newspaper reports: A reporter from the Bridgeport Herald witnessed Whitehead's 1901 flight, and other evidence — including a blurry photograph — corroborate the story.

Whitehead made several flights in his original plane, named No. 21 or "The Condor," and subsequent flights in an updated model called No. 22, the Daily Mail reports.

During the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries, dozens of aviation innovators experimented with different styles of aircraft.

The first powered flight occurred in 1852 in a steam-powered airship built by Henri Giffard, who traveled nearly 17 miles (27 kilometers) from Paris to Trappes, France.

Clément Ader, another Frenchman, went about 150 feet (46 meters) in a bat-winged contraption that some consider the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight in 1890.

Though the dispute over who-flew-what-when may never end, Whitehead's rise from obscurity is due to the efforts of aviation historian John Brown, whose evidence was supported by the editors of aviation journal Jane's All the World's Aircraft.

"After peer review earlier this year confirmed the finding that Gustave Whitehead was the first person to fly a powered airplane (long before the Wright brothers), society at large has now begun commemorating this achievement," Brown told Fox News.

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.