Apr 15, 2014
06:35 PMThe Connecticut Story
Gustave Whitehead First to Fly? Maybe. Will His Fairfield House Crash?
(page 2 of 3)
“It’s a very simple open-and-shut case here," he says during a phone interview from his home in Munich, Germany, only a two-hour ride from the Germain Aviation Pioneer Museum Gustav Weisskopf in Leutershausen. "It’s really very hard to challenge, and that’s what convinced me, and that’s what convinced Jane’s."
Brown first points to testimony from 17 eyewitnesses. "We historians use the same rules of evidence that a court uses," he says. "If there was a crime committed somewhere in downtown Hartford, and you have 17 people saying that they’ve seen it, I don’t think you’re going to find any court that’s going to acquit the person.”
One of the next issues was finding physical evidence of the flight. “There were four articles referring to photos of Whitehead in flight being taken in August 1901, and I just assumed that all the searching that had been done had actually been done and the photos were lost forever," says Brown. "But of course, as an investigative historian, it made me curious, so I went to the museum here, which is a big advantage, living in Munich."
It was there at the Gustave Weisskopf Museum that he found a photo of from a January 1906 aviation exhibition. As you can see in the image below, there was a section [highlighted in red] detailing Whitehead's achievements. Included were the supposed photos of Whitehead's aircraft in flight.
With the help of German police forensic experts, Brown has done a detailed photo analysis. "The first thing that came back was that the photos that Whitehead researchers thought might be the photo of Whitehead flying turned out to be the image of a glider of Whitehead’s," he recalls. "So I did disprove that fact, and everyone at the museum was severely depressed at that point, thinking the whole case had been disproved."
Brown asked that additional analysis be done on other parts of the image, which revealed a monoplane off the ground. "That’s all [they] could confirm, so the question is if that is the picture of Whitehead in flight," he says. "A lot of things in the photo, including the shadows, which indicate that it was either taken at sunset or at dawn, would tend to confirm that it was the dawn photo. We’ll never really know for sure because it’s too blurred, but it’s a very strong indication.”
Here's Brown's enhanced version of that image, recreated in part with the help of lithographs from the time.
Brown also offers evidence chronicling Whitehead's devotion to achieving flight and how he spent most of his time trying to get off the ground—as a child, the story goes, the aspiring aeronaut even jumped off of roofs with self-made wings. After arriving in America (via Brazil) in 1893, Whitehead went to Boston where he was experimenting with gliders and kites and models, and then worked at Harvard’s kite-flying meteorological station. He also had a job at the first aviation society in America, and then got another job in New York doing professional kite shows. When he was in Bridgeport, his efforts intensified.
In addition to developing a wing-warping mechanicism, the details of which he published in a December 1902 issue of Aeronautical World—months before the Wright brothers applied for a patent on such a design—Whitehead was building aircraft motors. His engines would eventually power some of the other early aircraft, including dirigables.
Unfortunately, like many engineers and inventors, Whitehead did not have a great head for business, and entered into some bad partnerships that would eventually ruin him financially. His financial woes were also a major reason why he was unable to continue building better aircraft after his first successes—Whitehead allegedly made longer flights at Lordship in Stratford in an aircraft called "No. 22," but without proper funding, he was forced to abandon those efforts to focus on becoming an aircraft engine builder.