Aug 13, 2013
06:35 PMConnecticut Today
Case for Gustave Whitehead as First to Fly Keeps Soaring in Connecticut
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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.