For over 20 years, historian Bill O’Dwyer of Fairfield has been trying to convince other historians, the public, and most of all, the Smithsonian Institution, that the Wright brothers were not the first men to fly. This month he may succeed when a replica of a queer-looking flying machine is given its first tryout in Bridgeport.
A former Air Force pilot, O’Dwyer was asked by the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Society to look into reports that Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant who settled in Bridgeport at the turn of the century, flew a plane in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers’ flight. “In the beginning I was skeptical,” says O’Dwyer. “I was out to prove that he didn’t fly.” But the more research he collected, including the testimony of former neighbors who had helped Whitehead sew fabric onto the wings of his plane, the more O’Dwyer became convinced of Whitehead’s 1901 accomplishment. In his A History by Contract (Fritz Mejer and Sons, 1978), O’Dwyer describes Whitehead as a self-taught engineer and machinist who spent nearly all his earnings on materials for his planes.
Despite growing evidence of Whitehead’s early flying machine, the Smithsonian, which houses the Wright brothers’ plane, has refused to budge from its position that Orville and Wilbur were first in flight. O’Dwyer thinks he may have discovered the reason: He recently uncovered a contract between the museum and the Wright brothers’ heirs stipulating that if the Smithsonian reports anyone flying before the Wrights, the plane used at Kitty Hawk will be removed from the museum. "The contract bars freedom of speech,” says O’Dwyer.
Officially, the Smithsonian has argued that the Whitehead plane, as recorded in photographs and notes, was incapable of flight. To solve this controversy, 46-year-old Andy Kosch of Fairfield, a friend of O’Dwyer’s, is supervising a team of volunteers, which includes aeronautical engineers, in the construction of a replica of Whitehead’s plane, the “Model 21,” at Captain’s Cove Seaport. A curious cross between a bird and a boat, the plane’s wings, modeled after the wings of a flying fish, folded back along the fusilage (so Whitehead could easily maneuver his craft along city streets), while the body was pointed at both ends like a canoe.
When the “Model 21” is completed this month, Kosch, a high-school biology teacher who flies hang gliders and ultra-lights, will take the plane to Sikorsky Airport for tow tests. He eventually plans to make a test flight.