Connecticut is home to several museums dedicated to our state's aviation heritage.
"There is a law applied to all motions or mechanical movements and in order to fly man must understand the laws of flight." — Gustave Whitehead
Andy Kosch did not intend to fly. Not today.
His plane, if you could call it that, had white wings that unfurled from an open-air, all-wood, canoe-size fuselage complete with a pole in its center acting as a makeshift mast for the sail-like wings. The craft seemed part steampunk-art project and part bird-sculpture parade float, or a mythical Viking vessel — more suited to carrying the heroes of Valhalla into battle than a mere mortal of the modern era.
It was Dec. 7, 1986, at Bridgeport Airport (today called Sikorsky Memorial Airport). Kosch’s craft was a re-creation, with modern materials added, of the No. 21 Condor, an early plane that may have flown in Connecticut before the Wright brothers made their famous first flight. Kosch, currently a science teacher at Platt Technical High School in Milford, had built the vessel with the help of volunteers over the previous year and a half, at a hangar at Captain’s Cove Seaport in Bridgeport. This was a preliminary test to check the aircraft’s capabilities. As Kosch raced it down the runway, reaching an estimated speed of 20 mph, a strong gust of wind hit the craft, and in an instantaneous jolt of excitement and fear, Kosch realized the plane was lifting off the ground.
Eight and a half decades earlier on Aug. 18, 1901, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald ran a detailed but disputed article reporting the flight of the original No. 21, invented by Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant from Leutershausen, Bavaria. The flight by Whitehead would predate the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight of 1903 by two years.
The article ran without a byline but was later credited to Richard Howell. It describes how Whitehead flew his No. 21 aircraft in Fairfield on Aug. 14, 1901, for a half-mile, getting as high as 50 feet and shifting his weight to steer the craft.
The article describes the flight in vivid detail:
The nervous tension was growing at every clock tick and no one showed it more than Whitehead. … 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 his position in the great bird. He opened the throttle of the ground propeller and shot along the green sod 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 cargo.
The article has been at the heart of a fierce debate about Whitehead’s flights that has raged on and off since the 1930s, with critics dismissing it as what we might today call “fake news.”
“This whole Whitehead thing seems to reappear every 20 or 30 years and obviously we’re back in full swing now,” says Jerry Roberts, executive director of the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, who is wary of Whitehead discussions and says that though a Whitehead flight is possible, “there is no definitive proof.”
The current cycle of interest in Whitehead’s flights — there are less-detailed accounts of other successful Whitehead flights in Connecticut — began in 2013 when the respected aviation publication Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft published an editorial asserting that Whitehead had beaten the Wrights to the air. The editorial was based on the research of German aviation expert John Brown and prompted the Connecticut legislature to pass a resolution recognizing Connecticut as “First in Flight.”
But, the issue was far from settled. Lawmakers in Ohio, where the Wright brothers lived and studied aviation, and North Carolina, where they made their first flight, put aside their own debates about which state can lay bigger claim to the Wright brothers’ legacy and repudiated Connecticut’s first-in-flight claims.
To Whitehead believers, the debate is a classic David vs. Goliath tale, with Whitehead, a poor immigrant, playing the Nikola Tesla to the Wright brothers’ Thomas Edison. To Wright proponents, it’s a nagging myth that refuses to die.
Whitehead’s flights first garnered renewed interest in the 1930s when journalist Stella Randolph began researching Whitehead, work that culminated in her 1937 book Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead. For the book she collected more than a dozen affidavits from people who remembered seeing Whitehead fly. She also helped re-publicize the Bridgeport Sunday Herald article. These affidavits are dismissed by critics who say that more than 30 years after the fact, people’s memories could be tainted and they may have mistook Whitehead flights in unpowered gliders for powered flights.
“Because of everything we know today about the vagaries of human memory, I just don’t think the witness testimony is any sort of proof that he made significant powered, controlled flights before the Wrights,” says Tom Crouch, senior curator at the Aeronautics National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
This is where the Bridgeport Sunday Herald comes into play. Unlike those later accounts, it was published just days after the flight. Orville Wright, whose brother Wilbur died in 1912, attempted to refute the Whitehead claims in 1945, writing that although the “mythical flight was alleged to have taken place on August 14th, and to have been witnessed by a Herald reporter, the news was withheld four days and appeared as a feature story in a Sunday edition.”
In March 2013, this claim was echoed by Crouch, who released a statement from the Smithsonian in response to Brown’s research. “The editor did not rush into print with a front-page story. The article appeared on page five, four days after the event,” Crouch wrote.
The problem with the timeline critique — as Crouch now acknowledges — is that the Bridgeport Sunday Herald was a weekly, only distributed on Sundays. The Whitehead story appeared in the first issue after the flight.
Harder to dismiss is the question of why the achievement, an unprecedented one in human history, was not considered front-page news.
The Whitehead story is on page 5, behind a front page that contained headlines about a New York City trolley accident that killed seven, an ongoing steelworkers’ strike in Pittsburgh and the results of a yacht race on Long Island Sound. It is behind page-2 stories on a boxer training for a fight at a Stratford resort and an ad for a New Haven physician advertising a lifetime cure for syphilis.
Confronted with the question of the story’s page-5 placement, Brown says it was not uncommon for early airplane experiments to get overshadowed by the more successful lighter-than-air experiments of the day in blimps and balloons. He points to a quote from Orville Wright explaining he and his brother’s early publicity efforts were hampered by the lighter-than-air experiments of people like Alberto Santos-Dumont: “We got off for a long time without much notice, because the public did not seem to know the difference between dirigible balloons and aeroplanes,” Orville told the Victoria Colonist in story that appeared on Nov. 20, 1908. “They were both called airships. And with Santos-Dumont staying up for half an hour in his balloon and two young bicycle makers in Dayton only a few minutes, the home news didn’t attract.”
Brown says it could be that, “At the time somebody flying in a field in Fairfield for half a mile isn’t really interesting compared to someone in Paris flying for 20 miles and going around the Eiffel Tower because people didn’t understand or appreciate what the difference was between lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air aviation. But that’s pure speculation.”
In any case, on Nov. 17, 1901, not long after the original Aug. 18 account, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald did run a front-page story about Whitehead that mentioned the Whitehead flight described in the original August story.
Kosch first heard the story of Gustave Whitehead 35 years ago while attending a lecture on aviation in Fairfield given by Major William J. O’Dwyer, a U.S. Air Force Reserve officer, author and champion of Whitehead’s cause. At the time, Kosch was teaching people to fly hang gliders from a hill near Fairfield Ludlowe High School where Kosch, who is now in his late 70s, still teaches.
During the lecture Kosch was impressed by the reaction of others in attendance. “There were a lot of older people in the audience who came up with stories saying, ‘My mother told me about this guy,’ or, ‘My grandfather saw this guy fly.’”
Kosch was also struck by how Whitehead’s craft looked like a hang glider. He thought, “‘Gee, I can build that airplane.’”
He received support from the owner of Captain’s Cove Seaport, who put up $10,000 and gave him space at the seaport to work.
See also: FROM THE ARCHIVES: Proving the Wrights Wrong (Connecticut Magazine, April 1986)
Working on the weekends at Captain’s Cove, he quickly attracted enthusiastic onlookers who wandered up the boardwalk into the hangar. Many brought with them stories of Whitehead’s flights in the area, passed down from relatives, and others offered to help, pitching in with various aspects of aircraft design and becoming integral parts of the project.
“Every week somebody new would come along. We had probably a dozen or two people who did a little bit of everything on the airplane. It was just wonderful,” Kosch says.
Beyond the page-5 placement of the 1901 story, critics of the Whitehead claim question the authenticity of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald in general and stories that appeared on page 5 in particular. “Page 5 is where they put their kind of, shall we say, eccentric stories. Feature stories with a strange twist to them, not normal news stories,” Crouch says.
An examination of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald archives reveals a mix of eccentric feature stories and other coverage on page 5. A page-5 story a week after the Whitehead story carries the headline: “The Woodbury Kleptomaniac,” and tells of a Woodbury woman who stole “chickens and rare plants.” On July 14 the headline was “The Dog Man of Windham.”
But there are also page 5 stories with more mundane topics. On Sept. 15, 1901, the space was home to several stories, including one about a man entering the race for Bridgeport’s tax collector. Sept. 22 saw a feature on Waterbury’s Great Agricultural Fair, and Sept. 29, the space contained the headline “Citizens! Wake Up To Your Duty on Constitutional Reform.”
There is also a distinction between these other fantastic-seeming stories and the Whitehead story. In researching this story, none of the “eccentric” stories from a few weeks before and after the Whitehead story were written from a first-person perspective. The fantastic accounts were all attributed to people the reporter had interviewed, i.e., “so-and-so says he witnessed a such-and-such thing at such-and-such a time.” A first-person account of something as fantastic as a flying machine appears a significant departure for the standards of the publication.
Elizabeth Rose, library director at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, says the Herald is generally considered a good source. “While I have never done much research on other topics covered by the Herald, and newspaper journalism didn’t have the same standards at this time as it would later, I would say there is no particular reason to doubt the reliability of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald in general — it was one of the city’s main newspapers during that era,” she says.
The most similar article in tone to the Whitehead story discovered while researching this piece was an Aug. 25 (one week after the Whitehead story) page-9 account, headlined “Sea Fighters of The Future.” It described the arrival of a new submarine company, Lake Torpedo Boat, in Bridgeport and its plans to build submarines. Like in the Whitehead story, the descriptions are dramatic. “There will come suddenly and without a moment’s warning a terrible explosion from the depths of the sea on which there had been no previous ripple of danger,” writes the unnamed author in a two-paragraph preamble. And as with the Whitehead story, there are sensational elements and writing: the article paraphrases the company’s president, Simon Lake, saying the ship will have the ability to turn invisible by means of optical illusion. But the company did exist in Bridgeport and did produce early submarines for the U.S. Navy until 1924.
Contemporary papers took the Whitehead account at face value and many reprinted versions of the story. As anyone who has ever seen a modern fake news story shared today on social media knows, people do not always have time to verify information before they redistribute it. But several reporters from daily papers were dispatched to Bridgeport immediately after the story ran. While on the scene in Connecticut, they met with Whitehead and believed his flight claims.
“Eight days after the flight, on August 22, 1901, Whitehead held a press conference,” Brown writes in his book Gustave Whitehead and the Wright Brothers: Who Flew First? “One interview was with a reporter from The New York Sun. That same evening he gave another interview to a reporter from The Boston Globe. A Washington Times journalist filed an original report, too. The longest interview was given to The Boston Journal. In it, Gustave gave a detailed description of the flight and described what it felt like to pilot an airplane.”
To build his craft, Kosch purchased hang-glider materials for the plane’s wings, and the craft utilized two ultralight engines, one for each propeller. Kosch’s re-creation used a 40-horsepower airplane compared to the 30-horsepower craft Whitehead claimed.
In December 1986, Kosch brought it to the airport to test its capabilities without leaving the runway. That was when the plane unexpectedly leapt off the ground.
After that hop in the air, Kosch brought the plane back to the shop to make sure everything was in tiptop shape for a true test of the craft in the air. One thing had already been made clear: this plane wanted to fly.
Crouch points out that James Dickie, who worked for Whitehead, and is listed in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald story as one of two witnesses other than the reporter himself, later told Randolph that he did not witness the flight. “I believe the entire story in the Herald was imaginary and grew out of the comments of Whitehead discussing what he hoped to get from his plane,” Dickie stated. “I was not present and did not witness any airplane flight on August 14, 1901.” In the same statement, Dickie also mentioned he had invested money with Whitehead but never received a return on his investments — a sentiment that has led some Whitehead proponents to speculate he held a grudge against Whitehead.
Whitehead supporters also say that testimony gathered by Randolph is a strange source for Whitehead doubters to cite, since if one counted all the affidavits Randolph gathered and not Dickie’s alone, one would conclude Whitehead flew.
Additionally, shortly after Dickie’s statements were made, and the question of Whitehead’s flight was renewed, the Herald stood by its story. In January 1937, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald reprinted the article identifying Howell as its author and with the headline: “Here’s Proof From the Files of the Bridgeport Herald.” The old article ran alongside a new one with the headline “Forgotten Bridgeporter Was First Aviator” that included testimony from Louis Daverich, who said he flew with Whitehead in 1899 and lived with him when he arrived in the U.S. as a teenager. This flight ended in a crash, and according to the Herald, Daverich still had a scar on his leg from the event.
No photos of early Whitehead flights exist. But there are published local and national references to photos having existed. “If anyone doubts that Gustave Whitehead has been able to fly a limited distance at least with his aeroplane, such doubt can be dispelled by viewing the photographs of his flight in the south window of the Lyon & Grumman’s hardware store on Main Street. There are two pictures in the window showing Whitehead in his aeroplane about 20 feet from the ground,” the Bridgeport Daily Standard proclaimed on Oct. 1, 1904. In January 1906, Scientific American mentions a photo of Whitehead’s powered 1901 machine, describing it as “a single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air.”
It was time for Kosch to fly.
On Dec. 29, 1986, he took the craft to Sikorsky Airport. He donned a bulletproof vest — a form of armor, as in the event of a crash, he worried the wood of the craft would splinter and stab him — and a leather jacket which would provide some protection if he was thrown on the runway. He tied himself to the craft with a rope and got ready to take to the air. He took the plane through a series of short jumps, tentatively testing its limits.
Each attempt Kosch went a little faster and flew the plane a little longer. He reached a height of 5 or 6 feet, and traveled 330 feet.
A photographer named Wayne Ratzenberger from a local paper was on the runaway photographing the proceedings. Ratzenberger had positioned himself opposite Kosch on the runway, figuring he would photograph Kosch as he flew overhead, but the plane didn’t fly as high as Ratzenberger anticipated. As Kosch flew over him, one of the wheels of the craft caught the arm Ratzenberger had raised in self-defense. The force drove Ratzenberger to the ground.
When Kosch landed, he saw the photographer sprawled, unresponsive on the ground.
In the 1960s, O’Dwyer, whose lecture inspired Kosch to build his re-creation of Whitehead’s craft, began working with members of the 9315th U.S. Air Force Reserve Squadron to research Whitehead’s flight claims. They interviewed people who lived in the area in search of a photograph of Whitehead’s flights. Ultimately the search for a photograph was unsuccessful, but in 1978 O’Dwyer and Randolph co-wrote History By Contract. In the work they revealed that in 1948, in exchange for being able to display the Wright Flyer, the Smithsonian had agreed to recognize the craft as the first in flight or forfeit the item from its holdings. The contract reads: “Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor its successors, nor any museum or other agency ... or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”
Many Whitehead supporters believe that, by agreeing to the contract, the Smithsonian signed away its historical objectivity and it is the reason the institution won’t recognize Whitehead’s flights. Crouch laughs these claims off while explaining the context of the agreement.
“The Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903. They had a practical airplane by 1905 but they really didn’t fly in public until 1908. They were working on their patents, they wanted to have signed contracts. They were afraid that someone would steal the notion of their control system,” he says.
This and later patent disputes muddied the historical waters of early aviation history. Ironically, one of the chief challengers to the first-in-flight claims of the Wright brothers was the Smithsonian. Samuel Langley, the secretary of the Smithsonian from 1887 to 1906, was a competitor of the Wright brothers who tried but failed to fly his craft, called the Aerodrome, in 1903. After Langley’s death in 1906, his successor at the head of the Smithsonian was Charles Walcott, a friend of Langley’s and a fierce champion of Langley’s legacy. In 1914, the Smithsonian teamed with Glenn Curtiss, an aviation pioneer who was fighting the Wrights’ patent claims, to rebuild the Aerodrome and prove it was capable of flight. Curtiss rebuilt the plane with new technologies, not available in 1903, and the Smithsonian dubbed it the first craft “capable” of flight.
Angered, Orville restored the Wright Flyer and sent it to England in the 1920s. In the 1940s, the Smithsonian finally relented and agreed that the 1914 test flights did not prove the original Aerodrome was capable of flight. The contract, Crouch says, was to prevent the Smithsonian from repeating the claims about Langley’s Aerodrome in the future.
“The contract is a historical document that has to be understood in the context of the Wright-Langley controversy,” Crouch says. “Gustave Whitehead has nothing to do with it. And if in fact I thought there was evidence indicating somebody else had flown before the Wrights, I hope I would have the intestinal fortitude to say so. I think I would.”
On the other hand, Brown believes the newspaper accounts and later witness testimony are more than enough evidence to prove Whitehouse’s case in a court of law.
“I work as an airplane examiner. Especially if there’s an accident, we do use forensic and detective-type techniques,” he says. “It’s not always that clear what happened if you have a piece of bent metal and a dead pilot, but in the Whitehead case, even though it was about 120 years ago, this is really crystal-clear evidence. It goes way beyond a mere shadow of a doubt. This is clear and convincing evidence of the highest standard.”
As to why Whitehead never developed a practical and commercially successful plane like the Wright brothers did, Brown says the record shows “Whitehead was broke in 1902. Birdlike wings, of the type Whitehead [and others] used, were successful but limited aerodynamically,” and “Whitehead had a young family to support. The conclusion would appear obvious but is still speculative.”
Brown says the Wrights deserve credit for “having designed and built the first somewhat practical airplane and that is a very significant achievement. What I’d like Whitehead to get credit for is having made a flight in 1901. I can’t tell you whether Whitehead was first because I haven’t researched all the other pioneers who claim to have been first. But of the ones I’m aware of, I would say Gustave Whitehead does have the best case.”
Ratzenberger survived being clipped by the plane, but the photographer’s arm was broken and head wounded. The incident stopped short the tests of Kosch’s replica. After Ratzenberger was hospitalized, Kosch says Ratzenberger’s insurance company tried to sue him, though Kosch and Ratzenberger remained friends until the photographer’s death in 2013.
“That was it; we just didn’t fly it again. People were too worried,” Kosch says.
Kosch notes that Ratzenberger foiling a flight of a Whitehead plane was a way of history repeating itself. Decades earlier, a relative of Wayne’s named Joseph Ratzenberger had witnessed one of Whitehead’s flights, and had, in Kosch’s words, “been a pain in the neck.” In testimony gathered by Randolph, Joseph Ratzenberger, then a Bridgeport police officer, recounted how as a boy he grabbed onto Whitehead’s craft as the inventor attempted to take off during one flight.
The test flight was over sooner than Kosch had hoped, but the 330-foot flight of the plane was a moment that has been talked about for three decades. It was discussed on the TV program 60 Minutes and attracted notice from other national news outlets.
After the flight, Kosch traveled to North Carolina to meet Randolph, who was in a nursing home at the time. The craft is today stored at the Connecticut Air and Space Museum in Stratford and often taken out for community events in and around Bridgeport and Fairfield. Kosch was even asked to travel to Germany where another re-creation was built and is housed in a museum dedicated to Whitehead in his hometown of Leutershausen.
And Kosch isn’t done re-creating the Whitehead craft just yet.
A year and a half ago, he and his stepson, Christopher Horesco, completed a new model, but the fuselage was damaged during early flight attempts. He’s rebuilding the fuselage this summer at the same hangar in which he built his original re-creation at Captain’s Cove. He and his stepson hope to have it ready to fly in August to commemorate Whitehead’s 1901 flight.
Another teacher at Platt Tech in Milford, David Tuttle, is working with his students to create a modified steam-engine motor that would be more similar to what Whitehead claimed to have used. The hope is to run the engine with compressed air and “try to fly the airplane with a modified steam engine like Whitehead did,” Kosch says. Whitehead used an acetylene gas engine for his later flights, but Kosch isn’t ready to try that on his craft. “I don’t think we’re ever going to use acetylene the way Whitehead did, but maybe somebody down the road in another 10 or 20 or 30 or 100 years will build an engine just like Whitehead using acetylene.”
There seems to be little chance that the debate over Gustave Whitehead’s proper place in aviation history will be settled before then.