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The Flight Claims of Gustave Whitehead

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Glider

1897 Whitehead triplane hang glider

Gustave Whitehead is back in the news. Whitehead (1874-1927), a native of Leutershausen, Bavaria, who immigrated to the United States, probably in 1894, claimed to have made a sustained powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine on August  14, 1901, two years before the Wright brothers. He further claimed that he had made additional flights of two and seven miles in January 1902. The standard arguments in favor of Whitehead’s flight claims were first put forward in a book published in 1937, and have been restated many times, most recently in a controversial website that persuaded the editor of aviation reference annual, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft to support the claims.

The evidence in the Whitehead case includes questionable news articles, much testimony both for and against the claims, and a supposed photograph of Whitehead’s Number 22 machine in the air, which, if it ever existed, has not been seen since 1906. Supporters of the claims have been arguing in favor of Whitehead for many years, while the critics, like me, have been vigorously refuting their evidence. I believe that the time has come to move beyond the confusing mass of contradictory detail, rising out of the trees to gain a view of the forest and reach a rational conclusion.

Why do I reject the Whitehead claims? Consider this sequence of events.

Triplane

Chanute Herring triplane, 1896-1897

  • Fall 1897: In October 1897 a reporter for the New York Herald interviewed Whitehead at his boarding house at 130 Prince Street, where he saw two flying machines. The first was a triplane hang glider clearly based on a similar craft designed the year  before by Chicago engineer Octave Chanute and his assistant, Augustus Moore Herring, and flown by Herring in the dunes ringing the southern shore of Lake Michigan in the summer of 1896, and again in 1897.The fact that Whitehead was flying a copy of the Chanute-Herring original indicates that he was working with the most advanced aircraft structure of the era. But Whitehead showed the reporter a second machine that was under construction. This craft was very different, with bird or bat-like wings that would have been much more frail than the sturdy, braced triplane wings.
  • Whitehead

    Whitehead with his Number 21 machine.

    1901-1902: Whitehead, now living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, claimed that on August 14, 1901 he had flown a machine that he identified as Number 21 for a distance of one-half mile. He later claimed to have flown Number 22, a heavier version of his basic design with a metal structure, for flights of two and seven miles over Long Island Sound.With their birdlike wings, Numbers 21 and 22 had obviously evolved from the original craft shown to the reporter in 1897. They represent a step backwards from the trussed beam structure of his Chanute-Herring glider.

  • September 1903: In the fall of 1903, a reporter for the Scientific American visited Whitehead in Bridgeport.Twenty months after he claimed to have made a seven mile flight in the bird-like Number 22, Whitehead is once again experimenting with a new version of the Chanute-Herring triplane hang glider. The questions are apparent.

 

Scientific American

September 19, 1903 issue of Scientific American page 204.

Why was Whitehead no longer flying Numbers 21, 22, or a more developed version of the configuration in which he claimed to have enjoyed such success?

 

Why did Whitehead abandon a configuration that he claimed had enabled him to make flights of up to seven miles, in favor of returning to a design that was now eight years old and obsolete?

 

Why did Whitehead not call the attention of the readers of the Scientific American to his claim to have flown a very different powered machine over considerable distances less than two years before?

 

Over the next decade, as aviators in American and Europe took to the sky following the pattern established by the Wright brothers, Whitehead would continue to build aircraft for other enthusiasts. Not one of those powered machines ever left the ground.

 

My conclusion–either Whitehead had somehow forgotten the secrets of flight, or he had never flown a powered machine at all.

Helicopter

A Whitehead “helicopter” design of 1908

In its issue of December 26, 1903, just three months after Scientific American had reported Whitehead’s experiments with an obsolete hang glider, the journal noted that the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had made some “successful experiments” with a powered flying machine operating under the complete control of a pilot.  Unlike Whitehead, who had kept virtually no record his experiments, the Wrights had documented their work in detailed, notebooks, letters, and photographs, including what is arguably the most famous photograph ever taken.

 

Wright Flyer

With Orville Wright at the controls and Wilbur Wright mid-stride, right, the 1903 Wright Flyer makes its first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, December 17, 1903.

I rest my case.

 

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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35 thoughts on “The Flight Claims of Gustave Whitehead

  1. Despite protests by academia and the press about the Wright-Smithsonian Contract’s bias, rather than recuse himself, Dr. Crouch opines further on Gustave Whitehead. He cites no relevant facts. His opinion is supported by nothing else but his opinion.

    Americans deserve better from their chief aviation historian.

    In the meantime, historians from around the world have begun checking their national news archives for reports about Whitehead. Just this morning, I received five 1901 reports; 3 from Holland, 1 from France and one from Indonesia.

    In the face of new facts, Dr. Crouch has retreated steadily from earlier arguments and long-held positions. He now declares the case closed and appears to be hunkering down to sit it out – as he once did in the early 1980s before the dawn of the internet age.

    Dr. Crouch now maintains, his interpretation of circumstances both before 1897 and after 1903 are somehow more relevant than the facts of what actually happened in 1901. He still hasn’t told us why we should ignore 17 witnesses and almost 100 news articles of Whitehead’s 1901 flights. Neither has he addressed why we should ignore 4 reports which describe a photo of Whitehead in powered flight in 1901. If he claims they were all conspirators, it’s now time he produced some evidence.

    Rather than praise Whitehead for holding a press conference in Manhattan in 1897 for what may have been the world’s first public showing of a powered airplane, instead Crouch claims the other airplane Whitehead showed (historically and technically also of great interest) was a copy of someone else’s glider (Chanute/Herring). Crouch cites no proof for his claim. But the questions it raises are;
    - why doesn’t America’s chief aviation historian want to investigate further?
    - why didn’t Crouch even mention Whitehead’s 1897 press conference or his public flight displays watched by hundreds of New Yorkers when he published a history of New York aviation last year?

    What’s more, Crouch ignores my research indicating the exact opposite, i.e. that Herring and Chanute may have actually copied Whitehead:
    - There’s doubt about whether their triplane glider was publicly disclosed before Whitehead’s;
    - two years earlier, Chanute was contributing financially to Whitehead’s research;
    - Herring was present and watching when Whitehead flew his glider; &
    - Herring & his partner, Arnot, bought engines from Whitehead for years thereafter.
    It defies logic why Crouch would not merit these associations as cause for further investigation. That is, unless, he was actually referring to someone named ‘Red Herring’.

    Post 1903, Crouch suggests Whitehead’s devotion to his lucrative engine business somehow meant he’d “forgotten how to fly”. At the time, Whitehead was broke. There was no “market” for selling aircraft yet. And he was building a house for his wife and two infant children. He wouldn’t be the only man to give up flying under such circumstances – but possibly the first. It’s similar with the Wrights. Years after they flew, they abandoned aircraft construction to focus on money-making air shows. Their C-model sold only 7 units, six of which crashed, killing 5 Army pilots. Did they “forget how to fly?”. Such circumstantial arguments are non-conclusive and irrelevant.

    There’s nothing wrong with extolling the Wrights. But defending a contract in which the Wrights dictated their own place in history is incompatible with the Smithsonian’s mission. It’s time for impartial, dispassionate research at the Smithsonian. Dayton-native, Tom Crouch, needs to stop using the Smithsonian’s bully pulpit to pursue his own Wright wing agenda.

  2. Your reasoning is weak, If you have read the recorded history of Gustave Whitehead you would know the answers to your listed first three reasons. And as far as your last reason, it not factual at all. Seems to me you have not even looked at the history on Whitehead. I used to be a Smithsonian member, but now it seems that you do not examine history at all. Could it be, the rumors I have heard are true? History by Contract! Our is it a matter of dollars and cents, or are you afraid of losing your job? From all that I have read, I would guess that its all the above.

  3. Tom: Thank you for your brief review of the GW claims. I have been studying those claims for over 30 years , and have long since agreed with Sam Cabot’s opinion of him, as he expressed it in his 5/7/1897 letter to Octave Chanute. John Brown’s recent opus on GW is just a more comprehensive review of the same tired claims. Your “Dream of Wings” and “Eagle Aloft” occupy honored spots in my Aviation Library.

  4. Way to go, John. You didn’t address a single point Dr. Crouch raised, and in the face of tough questions reverted back to your typical pattern of personal attacks and poor excuses for Whitehead’s failures.

  5. Uh… Tom Crouch cited a half-dozen sources in his blog post here, so Mr. Brown’s claim in the first paragraph of his reply that “He [Dr. Crouch] cites no relevant facts. His opinion is supported by nothing else but his opinion.” is easily and demonstrably false. If Mr. Brown is so obviously careless in his opening paragraph, I can only wonder how scrupulous he is to the facts in the rest of his work.

    Mr. Whitehead’s Number 21 machine seems rather well documented. Has no one built a replica of it, and attempted to fly it?

    Frankly, the craft simply doesn’t look very sound. I don’t see how it could attain sufficient forward thrust necessary for flight, nor do I trust the attachment of the wings to the fuselage to hold them fast when the combined airborne weight of fuselage and pilot is put to them.

    Mr. Brown is the one making the assertions. The burden of proof rests with him. Let him shoulder the burden of proof, build a faithful replica of Whitehead’s machine and fly it.

    Then, at least, we will have something demonstrable to talk about.

    Until then, these Whitehead claims are closer to the `Face-On-Mars’ pseudo-controversy of the 1990s then they are to anything like historical scholarship.

  6. Before anyone accept’s Brown’s claims, he needs to admit the following, all of which I have proved and pointed out to him, and to which he has failed to respond:
    1. The conclusions he has drawn regarding the alleged image depicted in the much enlarged blowup fly in the face of your some of the probabilities postulated in his own earlier ‘analysis’.
    2. He has deliberately misled people as to the true nature of the agreement between the Wrights and the Smithsonian.
    3. He has deliberately created a falsehood in respect of the Scientific American’s descriptions of the image displayed at the Aero Club of America’s Exhibit of Aeronautical Apparatus in New York in January 1906. The actual description as published is far less specific than he would have people believe, and suggests that the machine depicted was not a full-size aircraft, as it was powered by compressed air, whereas Whitehead himself said the No 21 had an acetylene engine.
    4. The claim he makes in respect of this image is not substantiated by the manufactured ‘evidence’.

  7. Rather than responding in detail to Mr. Brown’s comment on my blog post, I will follow the advice of Mark Twain: “Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

  8. Mr. Brown:

    In the interest of disclosure, I am a volunteer at the Smithsonian, but I have followed the claims of Mr. Whitehead/Weisskoph for a number of years, including Ms. Randolph’s and Mr. O’Dwyer’s books. I certainly agree that there is some evidence that Mr. Whitehead flew, but I also think there are significant questions about the veracity of the flights, so of which have been raised by Mr. Crouch and others.

    One question for you that I do not understand. The issue of Mr. Whitehead’s flights was raised many times, most prominently in 1937 with Mr. Randolph’s first book. Many of the arguments about the Smithsonian’s opposition to Mr. Whitehead’s claims rest on the purchase contract of the Wright Flyer–you mentioned it several times in your earlier post on this blog. However, that purchase occurred in 1948. Why would the head curator, Paul Garber, be biased against Mr. Whitehead by a contract when all this controversy really started back in 1937 or before? In fact, between 1914 and 1942, Orville Wright was in a dispute with the Smithsonian–a dispute sufficiently serious for Mr. Wright to send the Flyer to Britain in 1928, an event which caused a national outrage (some directed against the Smithsonian). If the Smithsonian (or Mr. Garber) were going to be biased, why not use Mr. Whitehead’s claims to discredit the Wright’s 1903 flight when it was in Britain and the Smithsonian had little prospect of obtaining it?

    So it seems spurious to use a 1948 contract as a reason for the Smithsonian to be biased when the issue had been addressed well before the contract existed. In fact, had the Museum or Mr. Garber wanted to use Mr. Whitehead’s claims against the Wrights, it would have been very advantageous for the Smithsonian.

    Would appreciate your comments on this facet of the argument–either here or to my email below.

    Best,

    Vince Massimini
    vince@massimini.us

  9. Regardless of the claims of either side (or any other) to this argument, there is a certain disturbing unreality to two issues in aviation history:

    1.) That historians, educators, writers, politicians, and the general public, would continue to push ANY name as the “INVENTOR” of the airplane — when, in fact, the airplane was the product of MANY diverse and critical components — not more than two or three of which were developed by any one person, or team. While the Wright Brothers or Whitehead MAY deserve credit for combining all the critical components into a “FIRST” viable airplane, the reality is that each were utterly deriviative in their proudcts:

    a.) Weisskopf/Whitehead craft were largely derived from Lillienthal’s glider concepts, and others’ engine and automotive designs.

    b.) Wright Brothers craft were conspicuously derived, in part, from Octave Chanute’s biplane hang-gliders (Chanute was in constant correspondence with them, and present during some of their test flights), and somewhat arguably others’ ideas about wing camber, control surfaces and gasoline engines.

    2.) That the dominant force in U.S. (possibly world) aviation historiography is single, staid, federally-funded institution — legally limited in the positions it may take on this issue due to a contract with the Wright family — (the Smithsonian) — which has too little turnover in personnel to permit any really objective introspection about the organization’s findings and reports on ANY controversial issue. In short, the Smithsonian is LOCKED into positions that it cannot change without discrediting itself (more precisely, its current, long-standing staff and leadership), and violating a contractural obligation.

    Does these issues matter? It depends. Do you think the Wright/Weisskopf controversy matters?

    The answer should be the same.

  10. I find it nothing more than arrogant flag waving the arguments here favoring the Wrights. Just because something has better documentation doesn’t necessarily make it better or true. If a tree falls in the woods without documentation; did it not really fall?

    The truth is nobody of this time will ever know who was first in powered heavier than air flight. It’s also true that some people keep better records than others. And also true that MANY others were working on powered airplane flight at around this same time period.
    But don’t believe me, look it up on Wikipedia to start. You’ll see there were many in Europe. At least one fellow in New Zealand. And Whitehead. And Alexander Graham Bell. Langley and his ill fated Aerodrome. (Which, like Whitehead’s model 21, later flew in either model or replica form but with more modern engines.) There are photos and videos to prove this if you’d only look for them.

    Does a plane HAVE to be original to fly? No. So that argument is invalid and doesn’t mean that somebody didn’t fly (albeit with another’s design). BTW- Whitehead’s glider wasn’t an exact copy of Chanute’s. Anyone looking at the lower wing could verify that for himself and see that it resembled the birdlike No. 21.
    To say that so-and-so was copying the Wright’s is irrelevant. ALL of these early aviation engineers copied one another and that goes for the Wrights as well. The Wrights were aided by Chanute. And took inspiration from Otto Lilienthal. Therefore their work is not original. So does that mean they didn’t fly? Of coarse not. Just because one experiments with this design or that, or goes back to an earlier design, doesnt prove an event never happened. Those claiming an event didn’t happen also bear a burden of proving it didn’t.
    Heck, the Wrights plane couldn’t even get off the ground without a catapult. But Dumont’s did. And Dumont not only had photo proof but video as well.
    So documentation doesn’t mean the Wrights were first or not. It just means they took better notes.

    Do I believe all of Whitehead’s claims? Not in the least. Do I believe (and others) flew (powered) around the same period or earlier than the Wrights? . . . maybe. But at least I’m open minded enough to entertain the possibility. Which doesn’t seem to be the case with many who commented earlier here.

    Google is your friend gentlemen. Do your research. And keep your minds open.
    – Mr. R. Barnett

  11. Mr. Harris:

    The Smithsonian is not “legally locked” by the purchase contract of the 1903 Wright Flyer. The contract specifies that if the Museum chooses to not acknowledge that the Flyer made the first powered and controlled flights by a heavier-than-air craft, then the Wright estate may claim the Flyer and the Museum would have to return it.

    Frankly, I don’t have the slightest doubt that the Museum would have the integrity to return the Flyer to the Wright family if a convincing argument was offered that it was not the first to fly. Neither Mr. Brown nor others have made a convincing argument for Mr. Whitehead (for the last fifty or sixty years). I agree that it cannot be said with certainty that he did not fly, but the claims of powered flight have considerable difficulties.

    Best,

    Vince Massimini (volunteer at the Museum)

  12. Mr. Brown you’re definitely ignorant about aviation history and one wonders why at this time you dredge up an issue long settle. Here’s a contradiction you made immediately after Dr. Crouch’s statement. You said Whitehead could not make any more flights after 1903 because he was broke, then you immediately said he was ‘building’ a house for his wife and kids. How can he build a house if he’s broke? On another forum you stated Wilbur Wright became a fundamentalist preacher and died of an undisclosed illness. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912. You may be confusing Wilbur with his father Milton who was a Bishop in the United Brethren Church.

  13. It seems odd that the first 2 airplanes would only fly (miles not feet) with such a select viewing audience and never make an attempt with a larger crowd.

    Whiteheads claim is just that a claim, with little or no proofs and needs a lot of “faith” to keep the obvious issue of NO REPEAT performances to keep it in the air.

  14. I don’t know a lot about Whitehead’s story, but I know a bit about aircraft design. I cannot believe that either the GW-21 or -22 is capable of flight, or even close. The wing is terrilbe, they propeller is worse. His engines couldn’t produce anywhere near the horsepower it would take to get those planes off the ground. The reproduction that flew had modern engines and propellers. This isn’t worth further discussion until someone flies the replica with replica propellers and shows us how much power that would take.

  15. It’s been asked if anyone has sought to replicate the bat-winged Whitehead aircraft and fly it. In 2003, as aviation reporter for The Hartford Courant, I interviewed Andrew J. Kosch Jr., a science teacher and hang-gliding instructor who said he spent $10,000 to build a replica in 1986, using spruce for the fuselage, bamboo for the wing spars and a covering of canvas and silk. Kosch said he made more than 20 takeoff runs at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, Conn., and managed to rise about 6 feet off the ground, with his longest flight covering 330 feet. Sustained, powered flight was not achieved. I have not spoken with Andy since then.

  16. I continue to be , as a casual reader, intrigued by this ongoing “debate”. The Wright’s claim is straightforward, and documented without question. Unless I misread something, those supporting Mr Whitehead have a mixed bag. As a historian, I like unquestioned documentation. Personally, I can’t tell much of anything from the SA photos, much less when they are taken. Why would there be any variance by those in attendance as to what actually occurred- flight or no flight?
    I’m sorry, but the burden of proof lies with the Whitehead claimants. Others do not have to disprove it. Most importantly, if Whitehead claimed to SA a two-year-old success with a different model, why did he not replicate it for them? This is a big claim by him. I’m reminded of Robin William’s comment on Viagra…”If I have something lasting 4 hours, I’m calling everyone I know.” Granted many were experimenting around that time, but as a lay person I’m just not seeing the Whitehead case.

  17. I have also flown, before any man. I built a glider out of popsicle sticks and I jumped off the Empire State building and flew!

  18. Whiteheads claim is just a claim. The Wright’s have pictures, documented research and the plane (shown in pictures flying multiple times with numerous witnesses) hanging in a museum.
    With the type of evidence Whitehead’s supporters supply I could just as credibly claim my grandfather was the first to fly.

  19. As someone who has loved the NASM since I was a child, I have to say I am disappointed by this blog post. It only lends further credence to the idea that the Smithsonian is not willing to do serious analysis of the Whitehead evidence. Asking hypothetical questions such as “Why didn’t Gustave Whitehead do X?” cannot be used as “proof” to counter things like newspaper articles and affidavits. I was further disappointed when I visited the Smithsonian’s early aviation exhibit and found mention of many early aviation pioneers, but no mention of Whitehead. Perhaps I missed it. Whether Whitehead flew or not, I think an objective exhibit would have mentioned him among the inventors contributing to early flight, perhaps highlighting that there were often disputes about actual accomplishments and credit for such (e.g. inventor of ailerons, Langley vs. Wright Bros, etc.)

    I am a huge fan of the Wright Brothers and their research and engineering methodologies. North Carolina is my home. However, I do empathize with the small inventor. I, like the Wright Brothers, know that history is told by the victors. Were it not for the very lucky Wright Flyer photograph shown above (taken by John T. Daniels, who had never used a camera before) and 40 years of persistence by the Wright Brothers, we might still be talking about Samuel Langley as the father of modern aviation. Finding actual truth in events before the internet, before the age of photography and film, before many journalistic standards were established, requires thorough, in-depth study of the facts.

    My conclusion so far is that the Whitehead supporters have compelling evidence that his detractors are unwilling to seriously and objectively consider. At the very least, I think Whitehead deserves a spot in history along side his contemporaries.

  20. I just looked at Brown’s Whitehead web site. Interesting: according to Brown, Wilbur Wright withdrew from the public, “to become a fundamentalist, religious preacher before dying of an infectous disease.” Of course he split his time being president of the Wright Airplane Company, plaintiff in the Wright-Curtiss Patent infringement suit, and being a preacher. I googled that fact of Brown’s. Sez here the traveling preacher was his father, Bishop Milton Wright. Well, what’s one generation.

    The May, 2013, Flying magazine article says Whitehead took off in pre-dawn darkness. First flight of a never tested aircraft after other not-so-good experience…. Wonder if Whitehead had his Instrument certification on his pilot’s license?

  21. To the person who said the Wrights used Chanutes wing, nonsense. Chanute used a semicircular profile. After hundreds of tests in their home made wind tunnel, their wing profile was a parabola. Chanutes’ biplane glider in the Natl Museum of the USAF lacks control surfaces. Wright-employee Charles Taylor developed their cast aluminum, steel cylinder sleeve, 4-cylinder engine when no engine manufacturer would respond to their request for an engine. He even welded aluminum components together – perhaps the 1st person to do that.

    A history of Whitehead’s efforts include building 2 Lilienthal gliders for the Boston Aero Club: 1 bi-plane that didn’t fly; and a monoplane that kinda’ skipped along, but would have done better if he hadn’t weighed so much. He moved. A steam engine powered (Cayley tried it, failed; Maxim tried it, failed) 2-seater that crashed into a building and burned. He moved.

  22. Mr. Brown has managed to package an extraordinary number of erroneous and fundamentally flawed assertions into a flurry of orchestrated press releases and media misdirection, so if that is something which merits any praise, others may do so.

    As for me, I have opened a web site. As I state on the site, “The articles will draw on a large resource base, including much of Stella Randolph’s personal research files, and private correspondence, and will offer information not generally available. The articles will also examine people significantly involved in the Whitehead controversy.”

    The site, “Gustave Whitehead – What Did He Do ?.” which went up yesterday, currently has an Open Letter to John Brown, wherein I pose a series of questions based on his most recent series of media and web assertions. I also begin what will likely be a long process of examining and exposing the many errors found on his web site.

    I invite all who have an interest in the Whitehead Controversy to visit and take a look. It is an advertisement-free and commercial-free site.

  23. I think Mr. Crouch’s article is quite good and reasonable and sensible — and I thank him for writing it.

    I would add one additional common sense suggestion — there’s no way in heck that the “No.21″ in the photographs could fly. And, I hereby challenge any of you Whitehead conspiracy theorists to build a model of “No.21″ that can replicate anything close to any of Whitehead’s claims.

    1) Wings. They’d tear apart in any normal wind conditions.

    2) Propellers. Aside from the aerodynamic questions (I’ll leave those to others) — they’re way too close to the ground. In any normal ground landing they’d hit the ground, and in any water landing they’d hit the water. I could go on with this point for pages — they wouldn’t work.

    3) “Wheels.” Look at any of those photos of “No.21.” You couldn’t gain enough speed for takeoff on those wheels, and you certainly couldn’t land on them. Really, look at the wheels in proportion to the body — and try to imagine landing that vehicle. Then remember that these Whitehead stories claim multiple landings and takeoffs on both ground and water. Really?

    4) Stability. According to one interview regarding “No.21″ — the pitch, roll, and yaw of the vehicle was controlled by the pilot leaning his body in various directions. (So how were “unmanned tests” possible? Those must have been amazing sandbags) So — with those large wings encountering various winds, undoubtedly shifting in different directions from one another — this means the pilot was leaning in all directions to compensate for all possible winds — and — simultaneously leaning to maintain the vehicle’s stability and control. Whitehead claims he did this for miles of controlled flight. Really?

    So — even if one ignores the complete sensibility of Mr. Crouch’s points — you’re still left with the problem of “No.21″ or “No.22″ being able to fly for miles of controlled flight and make multiple ground and water takeoffs and landings.

    Again — I challenge all of you Whitehead conspiracy people to join together and build a “No.21″ or “No.22″ replica that in any way comes remotely close to replicating any of the Whitehead claims. I will come to your test site and film free of charge.

    Until “No.21″ can be proven to be a viable airplane — there is no true controversy — and all these Whitehead conspiracy claims are pure nonsense.

  24. Please, everybody, read the books before you get as hornswoggled as the Connecticut legislature. The only thing more bewildering than the Whitehead claim is that anyone would believe it after a century of scholarship on early aviation.

  25. @ Andrew Gupta

    One might look upon the Wright Brothers’ aircraft with the same skepticism:

    1. Wings: Whitehead’s were made of silk; the Wrights’ of muslin. Of which material are parachutes fashioned? Actually, both.
    2. The Wright Brothers positioned a liftprop underneath the “car”–hardly likely to avoid contact with whatever surface was selected on which to alight.
    3. Wheels: The Wrights’ plane rested on a wooden dolly that was left behind on takeoff–guided by a bicycle hub attached to the skids the plane landed on. Whitehead’s wheels were powered by a second motor to achieve takeoff speeds.
    4. Stability: No one equates unmanned flight with controlled flight–the sandbags flew where the wind took them. Further, no one who has been at the controls of the Wright Brothers replica–nor any expert who has examined the Wright Flyer itself–has come away without marveling that any human being was able to control it. Of the seven sales the Wright Brothers made to the War Department, six crashed, killing five Army pilots; of the nine exhibition pilots hired to raise commercial interest, six were killed before the brothers disbanded the team.

  26. vaffangool, you’ve made a series of erroneous statements that deserve correction. Taking them in your order…

    1) The wings of the Whitehead No. 21 were not silk, they were muslin. This is an old canard to which you’ve fallen victim.

    2) The “liftprop” you fantasize into existence no doubt derives from an early and error-filled article about the Wright 1903 Flyer. It’s astonishing that anyone these days can believe there was a “liftprop” under the ’03 Flyer.

    3) Yes, the ’03 Flyer and subsequent Wright machines used a dolly for take-off, a far more elegant design that making use of an engine turning wheels, as Whitehead is supposed to have done. Additionally, you mention Whitehead using a “second motor” – there were three compressed air motors mounted on the No. 21 – not two – one 2-cylinder compound motor for each prop and a 1-cylinder motor to drive the wheels under the hull-fuselage.

    4) Perhaps it’s so that modern day pilots would marvel at the Pioneer Era aviators, but the fact is many people flew Wright machines and flew them well and successfully, notably the Wright Model B’s, as well as the Burgess-Wright Model F machines. The Wright Model C machine had aerodynamic and, apparently, structural, problems and military aviators were killed in crashes – flying Curtiss, Wright and other machines.

    The number you cite of “Wright Team” member deaths is erroneous. The Wright Exhibition Company operated between late March 1910 and November 3, 1911, after which several former members of the “Wright Team” died. There were 14 aviators who flew with the Wright Exhibition Company – not “nine” as you write. Of the “six” aviator deaths you cite, three perished after leaving the Wright Company, and two of those perished while flying non-Wright machines.

    Old stories live a very long time it seems… do yourself and Gustave Whitehead the honor of being factual.

  27. Correction: I wrote that three of the six deaths happened after the aviators left the Wright Exhibition Company, that was a typo, in fact FOUR of the six perished after they were no longer associated with the Wright Co.

  28. John Brown claims to have computer enhanced a photo of Gustave Whitehead’s 4am August 14, 1901, first manned, controlled, sustained, heavier than air flight. Can you say ‘ASA’? The film speed of black and white film in 1901 was about 6. Dawn on Aug 14 was 6:05am. Short of stars, the sky would have been pitch black. No photograph exists.

    Look at the Caspian Sea Monster of Soviet fame – ’70s. The 747 size fuselage had short wings at the CG. 8 engines at the front forced air under the wings, and raised the craft off of the water. The engines then pushed the 500 ton craft to ~500 knots for long range. 700 combat troops could be delivered anywhere. Scared the Pentagon, cause it could pop into NY or DC while running under the radar. At 1 wingspan above the ground, a wing is in Ground Effect. Most of the ‘witnesses’ found by Popular Aviation writer Stella Randolph said Whitehead’s flights were at 4 – 20 feet high. That’s less than the 38 foot wingspan of the Whitehead Condor No. 21.

    Whitehead promised the American Inventor photos of his flights. Then, he said he couldn’t do time lapses, because the Condor moved too fast. Seems the ASA of his film was such, that he couldn’t take…..

    Mr. Brown linked to a Harvard prof who interviewed Bridgeport residents and Whitehead’s family in 1936. Bad link, Mr. Brown. Only one remembered him flying anything. That witness’s older brother said his 11 year old bother never said a word about flight.

    Scientific American’s. Stanley Beach gave Whitehead $10,000 to help his work. They corresponded for 9 years. Beach said Whitehead never said he’d flown.

    The Sunday Herald reported on Whitehead’s flight on August 18, 1901. Cellie and Dickie were named as witnesses. The Harvard prof said no one remembered Cellie, and Dickie said later that he wasn’t there, and never saw or heard of Whitehead flying anything.

    Now, about those secret Smithsonian files….

  29. It is beneath the dignity of the Smithsonian Institution for Tom Crouch, the curator of NASM, to resort to insults in a historical debate. His calling an opponent a ‘”fool” is embarrassing to me, and I feel it should be shameful to all citizens of this country. The Smithsonian represents our nation to the world.

  30. John Brown mentioned that Gustave Whitehead held a news conference in NYC at which he discussed his work. Therefore, it is true! I remember a few years ago when President Clinton began his remarks, “I did not…”

    Brown excused some Whitehead action because he was broke. Mr. Beach of Scientific American talked his father into giving him $10,000 to support his work. Whitehead said several times (in newspaper articles) that he and business partner Wm. Custead had organized a company that had $100,000 in the bank. The average annual income of a family in 1901 was $750. Where did all the money go?

    Before his death of typhoid in 1912, Wilbur Wright conducted public sales demonstrations in the U.S. and Europe. Gustave Whitehead did an unmanned flight of his Condor aircraft No. 21 at 2am, on Aug 14, 1901, if we are to believe the newspaper account. Then, after inspecting it for damage, he hopped in and took off at 4am. Aug 14 had a new (no) moon. Dawn was at 6:05. Moments after takeoff, he realized he was headed for a clump of chestnut trees. Then, he discovered how to turn. I guess no one had done a daylight recon of the farm field to assure that he wouldn’t run into anything. He flew at 4am so spies could not steal his work.

    Sergei Sikorsky evaluated the newspaper account of the 4am flight: he flew 1/2 mile in 10 minutes: 3 mph, good for a balloon, not an airplane.. HIs assistants Cellie and Dickie ran along holding onto ropes before the Condor took off: one uses ropes on a balloon, not an airplane. Oh, and his business partner Wm. Custead of Waco,TX, was in the business of building blimps. With what looks like flapping wings for propulsion. Some articles mention the wings of the Condor flapping. Ya’ don’t suppose…..

  31. The Soviet’s built a Ground Effect MAchine in the 70′s, called the Caspian Sea Monster. 8 engines on pylons at the cockpit blew air under stub wings at the CG. There’s a natural air cushion between the bottom of the wing and the ground when one is at or below 1 wingspan above the surface. Look up the CSM. It was as 300+ ft long, 128-ish ft winspan, and weighed 550 tons. It could deliver 700 combat troops over several thousand miles at 500 kts.

    The Condor was a GEM: the props and engines were below the center line of the wings. If you watch Andy Kosch’s Connecticut Condor 2A, and Brown’s movie of the German Condor 2G, both got about 6 feet off of a hard surface runway: below the 1 wingspan limit of a GEM. Watch also Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14bis flight. He skipped along the ground a couple of times and landed, because he was starting to roll to the left: no ailerons. The ‘witnesses’ quoted in Stella Randolph’s 1937 book said Whitehead flew on a city street, to an altitude of 4 to 30 ft. Wing span 36′ GEM. One witness said several 4 foot high, 50 foot long skips down the street. Airplane? No. GEM.

  32. Now that we have discussed the History of both aviators – lets enter in with Herring, who Selfridge thought was the first aviator, prior to his death. No one at that time was convinced that they would be the point of discussion 100 years later.
    They all made significant contributions – Lilienthal, Wrights, Chanute, Herring, Santos, Langley, Whitehead and the AEA, especially if we look at the elapsed time prior to the first successful flight demonstrations in 1908. They all had their place the Early History of Aviation.
    I agree that the National Air and Space Museum should purge all of its files of Aviation History and lets get a TEAM together to plot the Early History of Aviation.

  33. As Arty Johnson used to say (dressed as a German soldier) on Laugh In: “Very interests-tink”

    On John Brown’s web page, he has a collection of over 100 newspaper articles about Gustave Whitehead. They are in a few clusters of information:

    a) GW and his business partner formed a company, that had $100,000 capital on hand; both were inventers (he an airplane, Wm. Custead a blimp); and GW flew last week
    b) GW flew last week, and is not building another airplane that will take 6 passengers to New York City and back
    c) GW (published on Aug 18, 1901) flew the Condor from a farm field on August 14, 1901
    d) GW (published in Sep, 1901) flew the Condor from a farm field in July, 1901

    Brown’s copy of the Boston Herald article is illegible: he scanned the document to something like 2 dpi. I got a print out from the Boston Globe. The article was written by Whitehead. It says his first manned flight began at 4 am, August 14, 1901, as the first glints of the sun began to show in the east. Googled it: dawn was 6:05 am.

    Whitehead provided a drawing of the front and rear views of the Condor. I haven’t scaled it yet, but the Condor would have had about a 100 foot wing span. In his text, he said 36 feet. AND IF YOU BELIEVE THE DRAWING FROM A WEEK AFTER THE FIRST MANNED, CONTROLLED, SUSTAINED, POWERED FLIGHT IN HISTORY, the Condor was a glider: no engines, no propellers. Go to Brown’s web site. Open the window of newspaper articles, and just start scolling down below the list of articles, to where he has posted selected articles…. Fuzzy words that can’t be read, except the headline, and 2 views of his glider.

  34. The first thing the Wright Brothers patented was 3-axis control. In order to have “controlled flight” this is essential. The Wright Brothers realized this! Alone of the many technical obstacles they overcame this
    is what they belived was unique to their aircraft. As Lilienthal (whom Whitehead reportedly conferred with)
    learned the hard way weight shift is an inadequate form of control.The Wright’s patent predates Whitehead’s
    patent. What Whitehead’s patent shows I am unsure. The Wright’s knew others had developed airfoils, propellers,ailerons,rudders,elevators, others had ‘flown’ before them, BUT nobody before them have realized the importance of three axis control.The rebuilt Langley Aerodrome flew in 1914 in a straight line
    over water in calm winds. Maxim who’s model-j propeller Whitehead used (picture annotated in Whitehead’s
    copy of James Means Aeronautical Annual in the Whitehead museum in Germany) I belive in 1894 built an aircraft built an aircraft capable of lifting off the ground. Harvey Lippincott in his interview with Major O’Dwyer “Historian Agrees Gustave Whitehead” came to the conclusion that Whitehead’s Model 21 did not have 3 axis control. Still not convinced see the James Dickie affidavit of April 2,1937, one of the men “present” according to the Bridgeport Herald article of August 18,1901 reporting on the “flight” of August 14,1901. Has anybody heard anything from Andrew Celli the other reported witness?

  35. Pingback: Gustave Whitehead - First man to fly a powered aircraft - Historum - History Forums

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