Apr 15, 2014
06:35 PM
Connecticut Today

Gustave Whitehead First to Fly? Maybe. Will His Fairfield House Crash?

The Hartford Courant and Connecticut Post, among other media outlets, are reporting plans to tear down the house in Fairfield once owned by aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead, claimed by some to have flown a powered aircraft before the Wright Brothers. The Courant said a rally against the demolition was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, and the Post said the Stratford developer who owns the property has a demolition permit and razing of the house is imminent.
Here's our 2013 story digging into the claims that Whitehead was the first to fly.

The nervous tension was growing at every clock tick and no one showed it more than Whitehead who still whispered at times but as the light grew stronger began to speak in his normal tone of voice. He stationed his two assistants behind the machine with instructions to hold on to the ropes and not let the machine get away. Then he took up his position in the great bird.

He opened the throttle of the ground propeller and shot along the green at a rapid rate.

“I’m going to start the wings!” he yelled. “Hold her now.” The two assistants held on the best they could but the ship shot up in the air almost like a kite.

It was an exciting moment.

“We can’t hold her!” shrieked one of the rope men.

“Let go then!” shouted Whitehead back. They let go and as they did so the machine darted up through the air like a bird released from a cage. Whitehead was greatly excited and his hands flew from one part of the machine to another.

The newspaper man and the two assistants stood still for a moment watching the air ship in amazement. Then they rushed down the sloping grade after the air ship. She was flying now about fifty feet above the ground and made a noise very much like the “chug, chug, chug,” of an elevator going down the shaft.

—Bridgeport Sunday Herald, August 18, 1901

It's a dramatic account of one of aviation’s seminal moments but the question is: Did it actually happen?

The debate as to who achieved powered flight first—the celebrated Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 or the enigmatic German immigrant Gustave Whitehead (Gustav Weisskopf) in Bridgeport in 1901—has been raging for decades, coming to a head recently after Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, the accepted authority on all things aviation, supported Whitehead’s claim as the first to have flown in the foreward of its most recent edition. The article was based on the exhaustive research of John Brown, an aviation historian who uncovered significant evidence, including long-lost photos, to make a compelling case for Whitehead. 

Following the public confirmation from Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, on June 5, the Connecticut Senate passed House Bill No. 6671, stating that “The Governor shall proclaim a date certain in each year as Powered Flight Day to honor the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry.” Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the bill on June 26, thus officially securing Whitehead’s place in Connecticut’s—if not world—history.

On Saturday, Aug. 17, (almost 112 years to the day—the anniversary of Whitehead's flight is Aug. 14) the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport will be celebrating Whitehead's flights with a gala that includes Brown, actor (and Bridgeport native) John Ratzenberger and other Whitehead proponents as well as a half-scale replica of Whitehead's "No. 21," the first motorized craft alleged to carry a man into the heavens. (Or at least 50 feet above the Earth.)

Despite Whitehead’s recognition here, there are many who are not convinced, among them Wright Brothers biographers and those associated with the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., although the institution can hardly be considered objective in the debate. In order to obtain the Wrights' first flyer for its collection in 1948, the Smithsonian made an agreement with Orville Wright and his estate that "The Smithsonian shall [not state] any aircraft ... earlier than the Wright aeroplane of 1903 ... was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."

When the recent claims of Whitehead's flight came to light, Tom Crouch, the senior curator of aeronautics at the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian vigorously defended the Wrights as first to fly. Crouch disputes many aspects of Brown's findings, concluding, "When it comes to the case of Gustave Whitehead, the decision must remain: not proven."

Aviation historian Brown stands by his research.


“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.


In an effort to help make Whitehead's case, modern engineers and aviation enthusiasts have built replicas of his aircraft. Andy Bosch, a board member of the Connecticut Air & Space Center in Stratford and a Whitehead expert, spearheaded the effort that saw a replica of No. 21 take flight in 1986 in Bridgeport.

A hang-gliding instructor and high school science teacher, Bosch was inspired after attending a lecture about Whitehead at the Fairfield Historical Society. He connected with Kaye Williams, of Captain's Cove Seaport in Bridgeport who provided him with a work space, and Bill Wargo, a carpentry teacher and champion model plane builder, and was able to construct a replica "in no time," says Bosch. "We then took it down to Bridgeport and flew the darn thing!" The first flight was on Dec. 7, 1986, and they then flew it repeatedly on subsequent days, with one flight going well over the length of a football field.

"The most surprising aspect was when it just left the ground," recalls Bosch. "I was just taxiing along at only about 20 mph or so, and a gust of wind came and picked me up about five feet in the air. It was just such a shock to see this thing just lift right up in the air so easily. That just convinced me, right then and there, if I can just pop up off the ground while just taxiing slowly, there's no reason why Gustave Whitehead couldn't have flown."

He then brought the aircraft to the Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisc., where it was spotted by visitors from Whitehead's hometown in Germany, who quickly arranged for it to be transported to Germany. While there, Bosch advised as a second replica was built and flown.

"We now have two replicas that have flown," says Bosch, "That demonstrates the Whitehead design was certainly capable of flight."

Last year, an episode of Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum" featured the Gustave Whitehead story, and included an interview with Bosch as well as video of his replica of Whitehead's No. 21 taking flight.

The fact that his designs were solid and that his aircraft could actually fly are just more evidence for those who believe Whitehead was first.

Between the newspaper accounts, eyewitnesses and other evidence, historian Brown feels that the evidence in Whitehead's corner is solid. "You can’t ignore it, but people do try," he says. "They come up with all sorts of hearsay, but if you just stick to the rules of evidence it leads you to the conclusion that Whitehead flew first."

"As we spread the story of Whitehead, more and more people will begin to investigate it, and then they'll have to look at the evidence and make up their own minds," says Bosch. "I think they will believe and accept the story of Whitehead when they really look at the facts."

Ironically, Brown, a project manager for a German aircraft manufacturer, would never have gotten involved in the Whitehead saga if not for Crouch and the Smithsonian, who had asked him to do some research for a Smithsonian Channel program about the history of roadable aircraft. "[Crouch] was so insistent that Whitehead had never flown, it just got me very curious," says Brown. "When I started researching for the special, I thought I was going to be going back to the 1950s, maybe the 1940s, but then I got back to pre-Wright Brothers, and I found several balloons that were attached to bicycles in the 1880s and stuff like that, and realized that this subject was much bigger than I thought.”

It was doing this research when Brown came across Whitehead's story. ("Whitehead’s plane could actually fold its wings together and drive along the road to get to the starting point because there were no airports, of course, back in 1901," he says.) The rest is history.

Or at least trying to become history.

"Napoleon said, ‘History is the lie we agree upon,'" says Brown, who is encouraged by the positive recognition from Connecticut and peers like Jane's All the World's Aircraft. "Now society has to agree that Whitehead was first, too. So I think it’s all a very good first step to changing all of these wrongs that have been attributed to the Wrights.”


Gustave Whitehead First to Fly? Maybe. Will His Fairfield House Crash?

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