HANSON — Quick, who successfully flew the first airplane?
If you are not from Connecticut, you are forgiven for answering. “Orville and Wilbur Wright.”
Constitution State lawmakers, however, unanimously passed a bill in June 2015, recognizing German immigrant Gustave Whitehead (né Weisskopf) as the first in flight and declaring Aug. 14 as Powered Flight Day in recognition of his Aug. 14, 1901 flight. He flew a plane 50 feet off the ground, covering about a half-mile in under 30 minutes, two years before the Dec. 7, 1903 Kittyhawk flight of 15 seconds for about 120 feet and from six to eight feet off the ground, Whitehead’s supporters note.
Connecticut’s declaration came two years after the “industry Bible” Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft published an editorial in 2013 declaring Whitehead First in Flight — and after a century of Whitehead supporters’ tireless work to win him the credit they felt he deserved.
“Does it change history?” asked author and “Chronicle” correspondent for WCVB-TV Channel 5 Ted Reinstein during a visit to the Hanson Public Library Thursday, Jan. 5. “My answer is — and you may think I was leading to a different conclusion — no, it doesn’t. It can’t.”
But, he argues, it places an asterisk on the Wright Brothers’ claim, as there is an “extraordinary possibility” that Whitehead flew first.
Among those not convinced are the states of Ohio and North Carolina and the Smithsonian Institution, where the Wright Brothers’ plane is the centerpiece of the Air and Space Museum.
So, why should we care?
They certainly care in Connecticut.
“It’s a community where they have grown up knowing about someone from their community who did something incredible,” Reinstein said. “In Bridgeport, Conn., they’ve simply taken it as a fact, the way you do about something you grew up with.”
Taking sides in a good feud is quintessentially American — and very much a pastime in New England.
Reinstein appeared at the Hanson Library to discuss his latest book, “Wicked Pissed: New England’s most Famous Fueds” [Globe Pequot Press, 2016, 208 pages, trade paperback, $18.95]
“Think of this as a dinner,” he said. “I’m going to start off with kind of an appetizer round of some tasty little finger-feuds to give you an idea of what’s in the book. Then we’re going to work our way to the main feud — kind of like a main course.”
The talk, sponsored by the Hanson Library Foundation, and the book focus on the Whitehead-Wright Brothers argument as well as some more regional spats.
“I don’t have a horse in this race, so I’m not pushing the Whitehead story,” Reinstein cautioned his audience. “I’m sharing it with you as a journalist who has researched it, because I think it’s fascinating.”
He also writes of arguments between Lexington and Concord over where the Revolution really started, the Bunker Hill vs. Breed’s Hill feud over battle nomenclature and where in New Haven, Conn., can one find the best pizza — as well as fried clam feuds and that baseball rivalry.
But the first in flight saga, touching on a large-scale race to be first, Whitehead’s uncertain immigration status and a language barrier are among the issues that make a good feud story.
“People are fascinated by feuds, but there’s one major exception,” Reinstein said. “Unless it’s your feud.”
Whitehead, nicknamed “The Bird” in his native Bavaria because of his obsession with flight, emigrated to America in 1900. Settling first in Milton, Mass., before moving to Bridgeport, Conn., where he continued work on motorized aircraft prototypes powered by acetylene.
His machine No. 21 made his successful flight in 1901 “when he felt he had a technical edge,” the engine he settled on, according to Reinstein.
“History, with very few exceptions, and as time goes on only records the winners,” he said.
Bridgeport newspapers, however, had recorded Whitehead’s progress and promise that he had created a craft that would fly, as well as eye-witness Bridgeport residents’ accounts after the flight.
But Whitehead flew, for reasons one can only guess, at 5 a.m. in the dark with no photographers present. That omission, Reinstein suggested, may have cost him is claim to fame. Whitehead, who for reasons that are unclear, never flew again and died in Bridgeport in 1927 penniless and unknown.
“The Wright Flyer got into the air using gravity,” he said of the steel ramp, which the plane used to attain lift. “[Whitehead] will taxi to attain critical speed and lift off just like a 747 does today.”
Historians, flight engineers and pilot — and film actor — Cliff Robertson, combined over the years to depose almost 30 witnesses to Whitehead’s flight and later created a duplicate of No. 21, which Robertson successfully flew in 1985 for almost an hour at 50 feet of the ground to prove its air-worthiness.
What was missing was a proper forensic investigation, which only the Smithsonian was capable of doing, but for decades refused to conduct, Reinstein reported. An allegedly “secret contract” through which the Wright family bequeathed the Wright Flyer to the museum, fueled years of conspiracy theories as it limited the Smithsonian from acknowledging any other pilot as conducting the first flight. To do so would cost the Smithsonian possession of the Wright Flyer, Reinstein explained.
In 2000 historian John Brown, hired by the Smithsonian to produce a documentary about the history of flight, discovered Whitehead and his work led to the Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft editorial crediting Whitehead with being First in Flight.
A New England feud was refueled.