It is generally accepted that the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first people in history to fly a powered airplane, on 17 December 1903.
Some New Zealanders, however, claim the first man to fly was Richard Pearse, who allegedly made his first flight as early as 31 March 1903. However, Pearse himself claimed he only began his experiments in 1904, and had actually been inspired by news of the Wright brothers’ flight.
While Pearse’s aircraft did manage to get off the ground – there were many witnesses – the best they could do was a long, uncontrolled hop. These can’t be considered true flight by any strict definition. Admittedly, neither can the Wright brothers’ flight in 1903, but the Wrights had a network which allowed them to continue and perfect their inventions, something many other inventors lacked.
Still, Pearse’s invention did have some interesting concepts such as a tricycle-type landing gear configuration, and a monoplane design.
Another claimant to the title was Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant who settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and claimed to have made several spectacular flights. While most historians have rejected his claims, some independent researchers continue to support his claims.
While newspaper stories claiming that Whitehead made a flight using a powered aircraft appear as early as 1901, most are considered to be of dubious authenticity. Whitehead continued his efforts to design a working flying machine, but it seems that not even his 1908 machines were capable of flying. This begs the question: would he have “forgotten” how to make them fly if he had previously been successful?
Nonetheless, Whitehead’s supporters point to the existence of a very blurry photo that may depict him making a successful flight. While most historians reject claims that Whitehead managed to beat the Wright brothers, the question is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.