We all know who “they” is, don’t we? It’s that generic word that lends credence to anything we want to put forth as truth regardless of its validity. Gustave Whitehead, a Bavarian engineer, was born in 1874 who became a pioneer in aviation. His claim to fame is the fact that he was the man responsible for the first powered machine to successfully leave the ground several times between 1901 and 1902.
In early 1901, Gustav built his 21st manned aircraft he called the Condor. During that summer Whitehead made what history had forgotten, his first manned powered, controlled sustained flight in a heavier than air aircraft. Trained as an engine-builder in Germany, Whitehead had always been fascinated by flight, building models, performing lift measurements, even jumping from a roof with self-built wings. Arriving in the USA in 1893 he met James Means, a retired manufacturer who had just published a booklet on “Manned Flight”. Means established the Boston Aeronautical Society in March of 1895 hiring none other than Gustave Whitehead as one of his mechanics.
Gustave Whitehead built several gliders for the Boston society, the first appears to have been a biplane glider with an air paddle propulsion. Although photos exist for this glider, it is not known to have flown. However, photos exist of two other gliders he built flying above the ground. Whitehead left the society upon the request of the organizer of the 1892 New York’s World’s Fair, Edward Horsman, to join his “Scientific Kite Team. It was here that Whitehead performed meteorological experiments, aerial photography, and kite displays for New York and other cities. By 1897, “Gus” as he was referred to by a newspaper article, was performing experiments on the lift of kites up to 100 pounds.
The Scientific Team headed by Horsman continued to experiment with kites lifting sandbags and humans with plans to add motors and rudders. The problem of who was on first and who on second appears to have reared its ugly head when the Wright Brothers, in 1899, began experiments with kites referring to them as “Scientific Kite Flying”. In 1897, Gustave invited reporters from at least 6 New York newspapers for the unveiling of his two new aircraft in the courtyard of his home in New York with the articles describing the future addition of a 3 hp gasoline motor. Reports of the craft lifting from the air were circulated as witnessed by hundreds of spectators.
Eventually arriving in Bridgeport, CT, Whitehead’s press coverage continued in June of 1901 where it was reported that his flight test of an acetylene-powered monoplane with sandbags in the cockpit. This test took place 1.5 miles from Bridgeport near the village of Fairfield. Two months later, on August 14 1901, he invited the press to witness his first successful, manned, powered flight.
This early aircraft was “road able” folding its wings and having wheel power was driven to the same Fairfield site as the previous airlift flight. Whitehead took off at dawn flying half a mile at a height of 50’, making a shallow turn along the way to avoid a clump of chestnut trees. At least 300 newspapers reported Whitehead’s 1901-1902 flights, many of them on the front page. Orville Wright maintained that the flight was a myth because it was reported on the back page of a local newspaper and nowhere else. He also maintained that if the flight had been so important, why was it reported 4 days later. He failed to realize that the paper was a weekly. He also neglected to mention that a year later, an eye-witness to the flight tried to give his story to Scientific American but was refused for the story “being too farfetched”.
The Bridgeport Herald, a noted paper of the town, reported that the Chief Editor had witnessed Whitehead’s flight with a lithograph included in the report. He continued to make short flights over the next 5 months, developing stronger and more powerful diesel motors performing longer flights including a full circle. Flying a 360-degree circle was the accepted standard for proving an aircraft was controllable in early aviation. The circular flight was made over the shallows between Charles Island and Bridgeport on January 17 1902.
As briefly mentioned, one of the Wright brothers made extensive, negative remarks about Whitehead’s flight although affidavits and statements by 17 people, some of them recorded, who witnessed the many powered flights made by Gustave Whitehead. Extensive statements by Whitehead himself survive illustrating his advanced thinking as compared to his contemporaries. Spies began following Gustave in his endeavors to perfect his “aircraft” but the Wright brothers deny being among them although there are reports they did visit Whitehead and Bridgeport.
There is circumstantial evidence that the brothers visited Bridgeport in their friendship with Milford’s Simon Lake, inventor of the submarine. Also, they applied for a patent in 1903 for a wing-warping system which Whitehead had disclosed 4 months earlier. Methinks there is a scoundrel or two afoot. Whitehead turned to producing motors that were accepted worldwide. In the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Whitehead exhibited one of his motors. The winning dirigible at the flying machine contest was equipped with a Whitehead motor. In 1907 one of Whitehead’s motors powered the first US Military aircraft.
On June 25, 2013, The State of Connecticut declared Powered Flight Day from the Wright Brothers to Gustave Whitehead. The former CT Troubadour has a wonderful folk song about Gustave in his CD of CT Folksongs. Long live the true history of “first in flight,” Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, CT.