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Famous Aviation Records That Aren’t As Solid As You Thought

And the actual winner is...We reconsider some of aviation's most impressive feats.

Many people believe that cherished aviation records are chiseled in stone, but we ask, “What kind of stone? And who did the chiseling?” 

It’s true that some aviation records, like Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight across the pond, would’ve been impossible to fake, and no one doubts Lucky Lindy’s place in history. But other records, especially those of very early flying achievements, are problematic. Given the length of time that has passed and the disappearance of documentation, if it existed, for many early claims, some early milestones are hard to prove conclusively. And back in the days before GPS and digital air data computers, our information collection technologies were primitive, at best. In many cases the data supporting many claims was approximate at best. Often, we had to take pilots at their word.

Then there’s the issue of definition. Why aren’t hot air balloons widely recognized as the first to fly? Some early ones were even powered. Why does the first powered flight have to be of an airplane and not a helicopter? And some of the lines are pretty subjective. What makes for “controlled” flight? How long does a plane have to remain in the air, in terms of both time and distance, for its flight to count? And how much credibility should we give to the people whose word we sometimes need to take in order to verify claims?

None of the answers to these questions are easy, or perhaps even possible, to arrive at. And with this in mind, here are a number of aviation records that might, at the very least, deserve a big fat asterisk, or at least, a closer look.

What Was The First Plane To Fly?

The Wright Flyer on its first flight.
The Wright Flyer on its first flight. Was it really first in flight? Note the track behind it.

First Powered Heavier-Than-Air Plane To Fly: 

Wright Flyer, Dec. 17, 1903. 

Problems: 

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Didn’t take off on its own gear but instead used a rail. On Wilbur’s unsuccessful attempt three days earlier, the rails were pointed downhill, but they were more or less level for Orville’s famous flight. Moreover, on Dec. 17, the Flyer took off into a 20-mph wind. 

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s odd- looking 14-bis.
Alberto Santos-Dumont’s odd- looking 14-bis. Was it actually the first plane to fly?

First Powered Heavier-Than-Air Plane To Take Off On Its Own Gear In No-Wind Conditions: 

Probably Alberto Santos-Dumont’s bizarre-looking 14-bis, which wasn’t a particularly advanced design but could take off all by itself. It was also the first plane to be filmed in flight. 

Lean more about Santos-Dumont here.

When Was The First Flight To The North Pole?

A Fokker Tri-Motor similar to the one flown by Richard Byrd, or so he said.
A Fokker Tri-Motor similar to the one flown by Richard Byrd, or so he said.

First Flight To The North Pole: 

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Richard Byrd, May 9, 1926. Richard Byrd, the explorer, left in his custom-outfitted Fokker Trimotor named The Josephine Ford from an extreme northern base with his co-pilot, Floyd Bennett, after whom the New York City airfield is named. The two arrived back at base after just under 16 hours in the air and proclaimed victory, returning home to the United States to a hero’s welcome. 

The airship Norge, which was flown over the North Pole by Roald Amundsen.
The airship Norge, which was flown over the North Pole by Roald Amundsen a few days after Richard Byrd’s attempt.

Real First Flight To The North Pole: 

Roald Amundsen, May 12, 1926. It was long after Byrd’s flight that questions arose, some based merely on the time it took to fly the 1,335 nm to the Pole from the starting point. It should’ve taken the team about two hours longer than that. Over the years, the evidence and the doubts grew stronger, as details of Byrd’s questionable solar navigation emerged and, later, apparent falsifications of the navigation log, with erasures (still legible) changed to give a more favorable record having been found as well. Today, the best bet is that Byrd and Bennett came up about 80 miles short of the pole. A few days after Byrd’s disputed flight, Amundsen, who also was first to the South Pole, flew from a far northern Alaskan island over the North Pole to a far northern Norwegian island in an airship called The Norge. 

Who Was The First To Fly?

The very first plane ever? Samuel P. Langley’s Aerodrome.
The very first plane ever? Samuel P. Langley’s Aerodrome had the honor for many years, albeit under dubious circumstances.

First Powered Heavier-Than-Air Airplane:

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Samuel P. Langley’s Aerodrome, Oct. 8 and/or Dec. 3, 1903, of course. You might be aware that the Smithsonian Institution, which was headed by Langley until 1906, for a time heralded his Aerodrome as being the first to fly but only by way of very tortured proof. The actual plane, everyone admitted, didn’t fly in 1903, but years later, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss made numerous changes to it and flew it.  Even then, to be honest, it didn’t fly all that well. But it was good enough for the Smithsonian. It declared that the plane had been “capable” of flight in 1903 and stuck by its story. It was a fabrication the Smithsonian not only created but which it stood by until 1942! So, for more than 30 years, the Smithsonian said Langley was first in flight. 

Wright Brothers: 

You know the story. The Wrights flew their plane on their Dec. 17, 1903, flight at Kill Devil Hills. It was heavier than air and had an engine and flew kind of under control that day with Orville at the controls. So, it was the Wright Brothers who flew first in the Wright Flyer. The Smithsonian, as you might know, was contractually obligated to recognize The Wrights as first in flight as a part of a deal that gave them stewardship of the Wright Flyer, which we find a very interesting way of showing a commitment to historical accuracy. 

Gustave Whitehead and friends posing behind his plane known only as Number 21.
Gustave Whitehead and friends posing behind his plane known only as Number 21. Subsequent modern reconstructions of the bird-like plane flew, though not very well.

What About Gustave Whitehead?

Gustave Whitehead reportedly flew a plane of his own design near Bridgeport, Connecticut, back in 1901, predating the Wrights’ flight by more than two years. His claim was never widely recognized despite recurring support for his cause over the decades. The proof is strong that Whitehead was a brilliant engineer and craftsman who built not only his airplane but also the engines, powered by compressed air. Modern replicas of his machine, Number 21, have successfully flown with modern engines. But there’s no photographic evidence of any Whitehead flights before the Wrights’ and only skimpy written accounts exist of any such fights, even if there were numerous eyewitness accounts that he did it, though they were gathered 30 years after the disputed fact. Did Whitehead indeed fly in 1901? He might have, but until better evidence emerges, the Wrights will wear the crown. 

What Was The First Helicopter?

Igor Sikorsky flying the first helicopter, the VS-300.
Igor Sikorsky flying the first helicopter, the VS-300. Or was it?

Igor Sikorsky is usually credited with having invented the helicopter, with the first successful flight in 1939 of the VS-300. But the rules for what constitutes a helicopter are very specific, though why that’s true isn’t entirely clear. It had to be a single-lift model, so only one plane of rotating blades, and many expect it to have a single tail rotor, too. In essence, Sikorsky’s flight in 1939 was of a helicopter that looked like what people wanted a helicopter to look like. To be fair, it was a very modern-looking ship, much more modern than the Wrights’ first airplane, though it was 35 years down the line from Kitty Hawk. 

Hermann Ganswindt
Hermann Ganswindt. Was the German man the inventor of and first pilot of an actual helicopter?

First Actual Pretty Much A Helicopter: 

For more than 40 years before Sikorsky’s VS-300 flight, helicopter experimentation was widespread, and in 1901, yes, before the Wrights were “first” to fly, a German inventor named Hermann Ganswindt flew his helicopter in Berlin. Nobody doubted that his aircraft flew, but it was a multi-tiered blade affair, so for some reason that doesn’t count. But, yeah, it was Ganswindt. 

What Is The Fastest Plane Ever?

North American X-15
A North American X-15 shortly after release and light off.

X-15. This one is easy, right? That would be the X-15, a rocket plane that back in the 1960s did Mach 6.7. When it ran out of fuel after about 90 seconds, it was a glider, but was it ever a fast glider and/or airplane. And super cool, too. Huge X-15 fans here. 

Space Shuttle Discovery STS-120
Space Shuttle Discovery STS-120 lifting off from Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

So… Fastest Plane Ever? 

Well, if the X-15 qualifies, wouldn’t the Space Shuttle, too? It was also rocket equipped. So what if it jettisoned those main boosters? Why is that disqualifying? It was way faster than the X-15. On takeoff, or, if you prefer, “launch,” and on its unpowered return to Earth, it reached speeds of Mach 25. So the Space Shuttle is the fastest plane ever. By a lot. Also, it’s got all the altitude records, too. 

Lockheed SR-71
Is the Lockheed SR-71 the real all-time speed champion despite what some would say?

But Fastest Plane Ever…

If you eliminate rocket ship/space planes, which the Space Shuttle definitely was, and which the X-15…okay, it definitely was too—what are you left with? Only the fastest plane ever, the Lockheed SR-71, which is an air-breathing self-powered take-off-on-its-own-gear and land-under-engine power beauty. Its top non-classified speed was Mach 3.3, but it probably got up to Mach 3.5. So the SR-71, introduced in the mid-1960s, really is the fastest human-flown airplane ever. 

Learn more about rocket planes here.

When Was The First Around-The-World Solar-Powered Flight?

Solar Impulse 2
Solar Impulse 2 was the first completely solar-powered plane to circumnavigate the globe, though its journey took almost a year and a half.

The honor goes to Solar Impulse II, which in July 2016 landed in Abu Dhabi to complete the first circumnavigation of the world by a solar-powered aircraft. Hooray! Right? Not so fast. 

Real First Solar-Powered Circumnavigation:

Nobody. Come on. Solar Impulse II left Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015, and it completed its around-the-world flight…16 months later! There were multiple long stops, including a nine-month stop in Hawaii to make major repairs. So can you really count that as a flight? Sure, around-the-world flights that require ground fueling and other short delays count. But did Solar Impulse II’s year-plus-long odyssey really count as a flight? The record books say “yes.” We say “sorry.” While we have the utmost respect for the project, the technology and the stick-to-itiveness, that real solar circumnavigation flight has yet to be flown. 

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