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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 10:31 GMT
Flights of fancy?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

Ader's Eole III
Ader's Eole III. Claims it flew before the Wrights have been dismissed
As the official 100th anniversary of flight approaches, there are some who dispute the Wright brothers' claim to being first off the ground. Who are these "pretenders" to this celebrated crown?

It was the era of those magnificent men in their flying machines; a time when anything seemed possible as one pioneering invention triumphed over another.

The diesel engine, the pneumatic tyre, the radio, the escalator, the neon light - all things we take for granted today - emerged as the twilight of the 19th Century gave way to a new dawn.

The crowning achievement came on 17 December, 1903, in North Carolina, with the very first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight, by Orville and Wilbur Wright.

But were the Wright brothers really first? Over the years, many have challenged their claim.


One of the most hard-fought campaigns to oust the Wright brothers has been waged by supporters of Richard Pearse, a New Zealander. Pearse is said to have beaten the Wrights by nine months, making the first flight on 31 March, 1903 (some allege it was 1902).

Pre-eminence will undoubtedly be given to the Wright brothers of America when the history of the aeroplane is written, as they were the first to actually make successful flights with a motor-driven aeroplane
Richard Pearse in a 1915 newspaper
A farmer and small-time inventor - his first patented invention, in 1902, was a bamboo-framed bicycle - Pearse himself stated, in letters to local newspapers, that he did not achieve proper flight before the Wright brothers.

But since his death a campaign has grown on New Zealand's South Island to re-write the history books and see him acknowledged as the first man to achieve powered flight.

Aeronautical historian Philip Jarrett calls the claims "grossly misleading". "This is local hero stuff. They choose to ignore their hero's own simple factual statements," says Mr Jarrett.

More credible though was Pearse's aircraft: a monoplane (as opposed to biplane) with steerable nose-wheel, it was a more faithful forerunner of modern plane design than the Wrights' plane.


A self-taught engineer and aviation enthusiast, in 1890 Ader unveiled a steam-powered plane, with bat-like wings, called Eole. But the Frenchman's legacy is tainted by his belated claims to having beaten the Wright brothers.

In October that year, he flew the craft 50 metres, in what was described as more of a "hop" than a flight. It failed to meet the standards of powered and sustained flight. Ader later claimed he had been the first to achieve powered flight, with his Avion III (see top of page), in 1897.

But when a French military report of the test was later declassified, it confirmed the flight had been unsuccessful. "Ader was a self publicist," says Mr Jarrett. "He made no claims whatsoever before the Wright brothers. He was obviously incensed and angry."


Wright brothers' Flyer
The Wright brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio
They ran a bicycle repair and manufacturing company
They entered the history books with a flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

A German immigrant to America, Gustave Whitehead claimed powered flights as early as 1898, first in a steam plane then in a gas-powered craft that looked like a bath tub with fanned-out wings on either side. While there were apparently many eye-witness statements, the flights were never officially verified. The claims did, however, resurface in 1935, eight years after Whitehead's death.

An article in the Popular Aviation magazine carried eyewitness accounts, of flights in 1898, 1901 and 1902. Experts however, say the story lacks credibility. Some even credit it to the "hoax journalism" trend of the day while others believe the "myth" was perpetuated by Albert Zahm, an arch enemy of the Wright brothers, who was involved in a patent dispute with them.


The "original" Flying Scotsman, Preston Watson, like Richard Pearse, did not himself lay claim to being first into the skies. Instead, a fan club has grown up to do the bidding of the late Scot.

His feat is said to have taken place in the summer of 1903, when Watson, just 23 at the time, launched a plane with him in it using a catapult attached to two pulleys. The plane was said to have been powered by a "tractor-type propeller".

Like many examples at the time, there is no verifiable evidence to support Watson's flight except vague eye-witness reports. Watson died in World War I.


Rev Burrell's inspiration to go aloft derived from the Bible's Book of Ezekiel, after which he named his rudimentary plane. Ezekiel's vision of living creatures lifted up from earth by wheels, particularly intrigued him.

In 1900 the Texan set up a company to help pursue his vision and raised $20,000. The result was a craft with fabric covered wings and an engine that turned four sets of paddles.

It is said to have been "briefly airborne" in 1902. But disaster intervened as Rev Cannon was travelling to the St Louis World Fair the following year, where a $100,000 reward was being offered for the first flight. A storm blew the plane off a flatbed rail car, smashing it to pieces.

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