History – what really happened or what’s the truth?

Beating the Big Drum

The American interpretation of history or the question: who’s ever heard of Richard Bong?

On the threshold to the 20th century tinkers and dreamers the world over, began to contemplate the idea of powered flight. Maybe that’s why the answer to the question ”Who was the first?” is as futile as it is superfluous. However the Jatho project is legitimate for the very reason that people on the other side of the Atlantic have created the impression that it was predominantly Americans who got things moving in air and space travel. And now, more than a hundred years  after the first documented powered flight, when the world’s leading aviation magazine, the American ”Aviation Week”, began an action to rank and honour the 100 most outstanding forerunners in air and space travel it is only right and proper for ”old Europe” to question the results. Aviation historians in Germany have learnt a lot since then.

Manfred von Richthofen

For example, that a certain Richard Bong was awarded an illustrious place in the ranking of the top 100 stars by virtue of the fact that he achieved 40 enemy hits in the second world war and so rates as the best American fighter pilot. It’s small consolation that the ”Red Baron”, Manfred von Richthofen, is also mentioned – probably due to the numerous movies that made him well-known in the USA. But what about Hans Joachim Marseille (158 hits) or even Erich Hartmann (352)? Of course it is somewhat perverse to argue about who shot down more enemy planes. But selec




HE 178 and Ernst Heinkel

ting Richard Bong just goes to show that the criteria for ranking the ”Top 100 Stars of Aerospace” can obviously not be taken seriously – and not just because Karl Jatho isn’t listed. To ignore, however, one such as Hugo Junkers in the category ”Constructors” or to make no mention of Ernst Heinkel and to leave out the names Dornier, Focke and Fokker, borders on ignorance.

wernher-von-braun-Hermann Oberth

Werner von Braun
Hermann Oberth

On the initiative of ”Aviation Week” in cooperation with the ICAS (International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences) and AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) the outstanding heroes of air and space travel were selected and highlighted from a list of 760 candidates in 15 categories via a competition for subscribers’ and on the Internet. Excuses such as ”We only offered the platform, others did the voting”, are unacceptable. For it was Kenneth E.Gazzola, the chief editor of  ”Aviation Week”, who commented on the action with the unequivocal words: ”A truly international list has been created…” . Indeed? Because Wernher von Braun, who was German at least for a time, is ranked second place immediately after Wilbur and Orville Wright, followed by Robert Goddard and the Italian artist and aviation visionary Leonardo da Vinci?


Hans von Ohain


Hans von Ohain

Otto Lilienthal also gets a mention, then, too, Ferdinand von Zeppelin and Willy Messerschmidt. And that was it, as far as the Germans go. Frank Whittle invented the jet turbine, no question! And who on earth was Pabst von Ohain? And what about the Rumanian Henri Coanda, who was experimenting as early as 1910 with a thrust engine? Was not Eugen Sänger an outstanding visionary? And, as tragic as the catastrophe was: what are the crew of the space shuttle ”Challenger” doing on this list?

On the other hand we can be grateful for certain flukes. It is fairly surprising that Konstantin Ziolkovsky made it, albeit 62 places below Robert Goddard, although the Russian had developed the principle of the liquid fuel rocket long before his American counterpart.

Alexander Lippisch

Dr. Alexander Lippisch (1894-
1976) constructed  the rocket
Me 163 “Komet" in 1939

Alexander Lippisch? Not a word! Neither did it impress anyone in the USA that theRussian Alexander Fedorovich Moshaiski got his aircraft moving with two 15-hp- steamengines way back in 1884. And what of the Frenchman Felix du Temple de la Croix, who constructed the first powered aircraft using a hot-air engine in 1874? His failure to make the list can probably be put down to his name, which no one in the USA can spell, let alone pronounce. And the fact that Gustave Whitehead, alias Weißkopf, and Karl Jatho didn’t get a look in, let alone rate towards the bottom of the list, doesn’t make the publication any the more comprehensible. The logic of the selection and ranking will forever remain the secret of ”Aviation Week”.   

Gunter Hartung

Interpreting History?

It is not only specialist magazines, like the one described above, that warp historical facts, but institutions, too, apparently, let themselves be drawn in.


Smithonian Institution


photo of the Smithsonian Institute

After the death of his brother Wilbur, Orville Wright was at pains to get the Smithsonian Institution to accredit him as the first in the world to fly a powered aircraft. The Smithsonian Institute is seen as the leading scientific authority in the USA.

Towards the end of the 20’s the Smithsonian Institution refused to recognise the Wrights and Orville Wright knew why. So he decided to give his 1903 ”Flyer1” on loan to the Museum of Science in London. It was here that people got to know about the Wrights as the world’s first powered flyers. In 1942 American Congress pressurised the Smithsonian Institution to recognise the Wrights as the first to fly a powered aircraft. This decision finally led Orville Wright to agree to return his ”Flyer 1”  to the USA.

Due to the turmoil of the war years it wasn’t until 1948, after the death of Orville Wright, that the heirs to his estate gave the original ”Flyer1” to the Smithsonian Institution for the price of one dollar in cash.

This deal incorporated a number of conditions which have lost none of their significance to this day. Some of these stipulations were published by Albert Wüst in his book ”Gustav Weißkopf: I flew before the Wrights”, a summary of the results from his research on Gustav Weißkopf. (Leutershausen, 2. edition 2000, ISBN: 3-922175-39-2)

He writes, that the heirs to Wright’s estate had the exclusive authority to formulate the text on the display plaque that would inform visitors about the ”Flyer 1”. The text reads:

Flyer One

The “Flyer 1”, on exhibition at the
National Air and Space Museum
attached to the Smithsonian

”The Original Wright Brother’s Aeroplane
The World’s First Power-Driven Heavier-than-Air Machine
in Which Man Made Free, Controlled, and Sustained Flight
Invented and Built by Wilbur and Orville Wright
Flown by Them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
December 17, 1903
By Original Scientific Research the Wright Brothers Discovered
the Principles of Human Flight
They Further Developed the Aeroplane
Taught man to Fly and Opened the Era of Aviation
Deposited by the Estate of Orville Wright.”

A further stipulation was:

„Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities, adminis- tered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”

Furthermore the contract stated, that failure to uphold these conditions would result in the Smithsonian Institution having to return the ”Flyer1” to the executors of the Wright estate.

These and other inconsistencies have been followed up by Professor Weißenborn of St. Michael’s College and William O’Dwyer in the book “History by Contract”.

It is also extremely curious to discover that the contract between the Wrights and the Smithsonian Institution refers quite clearly to the original ”Flyer1”, although the original aircraft was completely destroyed after the fourth flight on the 7th December 1903 when it was destabilised by a gust of wind. This incident is described in books such as ”History of Aviation” Streit / Taylor and “Kill Devil Hill”, Harry Combs (in the German version “Brüder des Windes”). On the website of the “OFFICIAL Map of the North Carolina Coast” Eric Hause reports in his article on the “Wright Brothers” about a “gust of wind”.

And so the question remains, history – or what really happened?
Andreas Asche


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