Move over, Wright Brothers

Published 10:55 pm Wednesday, May 7, 2014

By Frank Roberts

Here is a “Jeopardy” puzzle for you. The answer is “North Carolina and Ohio.” The question is: “What states claim the invention of the powered airplane as theirs?”

The Tarheel State is ahead of the game, since Orville and Wilbur flew their craft here first, right? Uh, Wright? Well, not necessarily. Take a nice, short drive to Murfreesboro, N.C., head to the Agricultural Transportation Museum and take a look at a replica of the first airplane, the Gatling Flying Machine.


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Orville piloted the Wright craft in 1903; James Henry Gatling piloted his craft in 1873.

Everyone knows the Wright Brothers’ history, so let’s take a look at Mr. G., a native of Maney’s Neck, near Murfreesboro. He launched his creation from high atop a cotton press after laying out a one-mile route over which he hoped to fly.

The machine took off, and — if you didn’t blink, you could have seen it in flight. He went about 100 feet, then he went down with a thud.

A big, old elm tree got in his way. The pilot suffered only minor injuries, but he never flew again.

“The wrecked machine went into storage,” according to the museum, “and six years later, with his dream to fly still intact, James Gatling was brutally murdered,” near the hog pen on the family farm.

In 2001, carpentry students at Roanoke-Chowan Community College built a full-scale replica of the 1873 Gatling flyer, and that is what you will see at the museum. There were no pictures or sketches available — the model was based on descriptions from onlookers and others who studied the machine.

Here is a fairly complete description of the craft: Twin wooden propellers were powered by cranking a hand wheel. A cockpit lever operated the front elevator, vertical rudder and wings. Using poplar and thin pieces of oak, Gatling built a fuselage and wings light enough to be sustained by muscle power. According to the museum, “he supposed that once his plane was airborne the machine wouldn’t require as much of his energy.”

But the craft was 18 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan, not enough for a successful flight. Still, according to a museum release, “Gatling’s plane embodied features later implemented in the Wright Flyer, such as flexible wings, a movable stabilizer and a vertical rudder at the plane’s end.”

So the Wright Brothers and James Gatling each have a claim to the first flight. But wait; there’s more.

In Ohio, the Wright home state, a gent named Gustave Whitehead claimed — yes — first flight. The year was 1901, before Wright but after Gatling.

So the Buckeye State is claiming the number one spot, and the state’s politicians are bucking for Buckeye recognition. They want the world to know Mr. Whitehead was first to fly. North Carolina politicians are fighting tooth-and-nail for continued recognition as No. 1.

Ohio has a powerful ally. The respected reference book, “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft” backs them up, saying Whitehead was the first to fly a powered, piloted, heavier-than-air machine. As Jane’s editor Paul Jackson put it, “the Wrights were right, but Whitehead was ahead.”

On the other hand, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum says Whitehead’s drawings did not resemble Whitehead’s claims.

All well and good, but — well — it appears Gatling was head of the flight class.

A final note: James Henry Gatling’s brother, Richard Jordan Gatling, invented the first successful machine gun. Quite a family!

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at