This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on January 10, 1965
Whitehead Or Wrights?
By TED BACHE
THE STATE of Connecticut has named as its “Father of Aviation” a man who claimed to have flown before the Wright Brothers.
He is Gustave Whitehead, a German-born mechanic who came to the United States in 1895 and settled in Bridgeport, Conn. in 1900.
Ceremonies honoring Whitehead in which a headstone was placed on his previously unmarked grave took place Aug. 17 in Bridgeport the date on which in 1901 the immigrant announced he had flown two days earlier.
THE DATE places the flight exactly two years, four months and three days before the Wrights’ flight at Kitty Hawk, N. C., which is historically accepted as man’s first successful powered venture into the air in a heavier-than-air craft.
Did Whitehead’s flight, and others he claimed, actually take place?
An answer to that question is being sought by the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical association (CAHA) which states in its continuing investigation of Whitehead, that it has not come across sufficient evidence (photographs showing the plane in flight) to prove positively that Whitehead flew.
The question is, in effect, still unanswered.
The first aircraft Whitehead said he flew was his No. 21, a monoplane along the Lilienthal design powered by a four cylinder engine designed and constructed by Whitehead.
HE SAID he flew it for a half mile on Aug. 14, 1901, and later on Jan. 17, 1902, for a mile and a half.
At least one Bridgeport newspaper picked up the story after Whitehead’s announcement on Aug. 17 and gave it generous play. The others did not.
There were at least 14 witnesses known to have been at Whitehead’s flights in that August and January, and affidavits from them appear in a book, “The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead,” written by Stella Randolph of Washington, D. C.
The CAHA, as would any historical body, does not accept the testimony given by Miss Randolph’s witnesses in that the witnesses were youths at the time; their testimony was taken too many years later, and many of them, having worked with Whitehead, presumably would not be partial witnesses.
Before Whitehead arrived in Bridgeport, he lived in Boston where, after overselling his aircraft’s abilities, he would up on the short side of backers and contemporaries. One of these was Samuel Cabot, who became so disenchanted with repeated delays and failures of Whitehead’s 1895 machines that he spread the word among the small but influential aeronautical fraternity that Whitehead was an “outright liar.”
WHITEHEAD’S first flight actually may not have occurred in Bridgeport, Conn., but in Pittsburgh, Pa., where there is even less known of his activities, except the story that he was asked to leave town by the Pittsburgh police after a steam-powered aircraft he was experimenting with crashed into an apartment house and its boiler exploded injuring the firetender.
Discredited and rejected once again, Whitehead moved to Bridgeport and began making his flight attempts at night or in early morning when there were no crowds.
In 1902, after making his two reported flights in his No. 21 aircraft, he constructed No. 22, which was similar to its predecessor but contained several refinements including a water tight hull. Whitehead said he made several extensive flights along the Connecticut shoreline off Long Island Sound using the water to land upon. The date is still before the Wright Brothers’ flight.
MUCH enthusiasm has been generated by the CAHA’ s continuing investigation of Gustave White head, and at least two outstanding efforts are being made to uncover material which could bring about the establishment of the Whitehead name in the annals of aeronautical history, where, today, it is not to be heard or seen.
A member of a nearby Bridgeport U. S. Air Force Reserve Squadron, Capt. William J. O’Dwyer, is constructing a full-scale replica of Whitehead’s No. 21 aircraft which he will attempt to fly next Spring.
A local department store located near the site of one of Whitehead’s claimed flights will erect a $10,000 monument to Whitehead if O’Dwyer’s flight is successful.
If Whitehead never flew as he claimed, or if his flights are never proved, there certainly is much to be said for his other contributions to aviation—most notably his engines.
Throughout the entire period of his aeronautical experiments, Whitehead designed and built aircraft engines of all types—steam, kerosene, acetylene and gun-powder.
WHILE MOST of his earlier ones, notably the gunpowder engine, were unsuccessful, his later types, were quite successful.
He had two, three, four, five and eight cylinder engines, spark and compression ignitions; some were water-cooled, others air-cooled.
On the positive side to his claims of flight is the fact that Whitehead engines did successfully power aircraft into flight.
Charles Witteman of Staten Island, N. Y., another early aero experimenter who attended the Whitehead ceremonies in Bridgeport, used a Whitehead engine in his Curtiss type pusher in 1909, and Stanley Yale Beach, an aviation writer for The Scientific American who pumped much money into Whitehead’s operations, used on of the engines in his Beach-Willard Bleriot type craft in 1911.
When Whitehead brought his aeronautical experimenting to an end and before he turned to religious fanaticism, he applied his inventive genius to other fields—developing a horizontal windmill, railroad safety devices, and a concrete road-laying machine.
ACCORDING to Harvey H. Lippincott, president and curator of CAHA, Whitehead devised many ingenious innovations for his day, most of which are commonplace in aircraft today, and was the first to develop and incorporate certain ideas which had been conceived of by earlier persons.
He was the first to fold the wings of an airplane, his No. 21, and drive the aircraft from his home to the flying field under its own power.
Whitehead was the earliest to have built and used a ground-adjustable, variable pitch propeller, and was in the United States, first to use landing wheels, the monoplane configuration, twin propellers, air-cooled engines and a boost control system.
Where is Whitehead’s place in aeronautical history? Lippincott believes his actual accomplishments were equal to, or greater than, most of his contemporaries—Langley, Ader, Chanute, Herring, Tatin, Maxim, Huffaker and others.
WHITEHEAD’S aircraft showed no greater, if not a lesser, ability to fly—but as it were he was primarily a practical mechanic with a passion to fly and less of a promoter and businessman, than say, the Wrights.
Unlike the Wrights, who, after the development of their plane, realized that little would come of it unless they could properly market the plane, Whitehead apparently had no grand design. He moved from one plane to another, sometimes going forwards, other time, moving backwards.
Whether or not Whitehead flew, and whether or not these flights occurred before the Wrights ascent at Kitty Hawk, the people of Connecticut, particularly its aviation leaders, feel strongly that he deserves a niche in aeronautical history.