First in Flight

May 4, 2015
First in Flight

Gustave Whitehead was the first “to take flight”; it happened in Connecticut in 1901, aboard his “No. 21” aircraft.

Many have tried to say this is not true. But I say Connecticut’s recognition of Gustave Whitehead as “first in powered flight”, rights the wrong in our nation’s history.

Gustave Whitehead

History is constantly evolving. We are constantly learning new things about our past. Sometimes, we even learn that there are errors in our history. We owe it to our nation to make corrections and set the record straight when needed.

People used to think the world was flat. We know now that’s not true. People still think Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, even though it was already well established before his legendary “key-and-kite” experiment. History is like a game of telephone sometimes. Over the years, many stories and accounts are told and retold and sometimes errors emerge and stick around.

Gustave Whitehead is an important aviation pioneer in American history who has been overlooked for far too long. As German immigrant who came to the United States in 1893, he embodied the American dream and spirit of innovation. While many have tried to deny the legitimacy of Whitehead’s inventions and first flights, Connecticut has officially recognized Whitehead as “first in powered flight, ahead of the Wrights”; credit that has been embraced by the entire Connecticut General Assembly and Governor. This year, I am fighting for a bill, to establish a “Gustave Whitehead Day” in Connecticut, to be celebrated every year on August 14th.

Whitehead actually made numerous short flights in Bridgeport, Fairfield, and Stratford Connecticut in 1901-1902, observed by at least a dozen local residents, each of whom later signed sworn affidavits. On August 14th, 1901, a respected newspaper editor observed Whitehead make a half mile flight, 50 feet in the air. This became the first true sustained, manned, powered, controlled flight of an airplane – which occurred two years before the Wright brothers flew in Kitty Hawk, N.C. This was documented on August 18th in the Bridgeport Herald, a Sunday newspaper.

The stories of Whitehead’s flights have been celebrated over the years, but they have also been lost to the most popular historic aviation records. Yet, there is still strong documentation and growing recognition that we cannot turn our backs on.

In 1937, Stella Randolph wrote the book The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead after interviewing his family, friends and workers who helped build the “No. 21” airplane and later designs. Maj. William J. O’Dwyer of Fairfield researched Whitehead for 45 years, becoming a world authority; his documented findings are at the Fairfield Museum. More recently, John Brown, a pilot, airplane instructor and builder, and aviation historian, has also conducted research and connected with the Smithsonian. He has uncovered hundreds of newspaper articles from around the world which reported Whitehead flights in 1901-1902. His efforts led to the public support of the Whitehead accounts by “Jane’s All the Worlds Aircraft” – the leading aviation reference.

Despite the evidence, doubters still exist, including one of the most respected voices in American history: the Smithsonian. But while the Smithsonian is trusted, we have to look at their statements quizzically. In the book History by Contract (1978) by Major William O’Dwyer and Stella Randolph, a contract was revealed between the Smithsonian and the estate of Orville Wright which requires that the Smithsonian maintain recognition of the Wrights as first in flight in order to keep possession of the Wright Flyer.

This agreement over the years has led to an almost complete disappearance of recognition for Whitehead’s contributions. In 2013, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum discussed the existence of such a contract and Senior Curator Tom Crouch released a statement saying, “The contract remains in force today, a healthy reminder of a less than exemplary moment in Smithsonian history…I can only hope that, should persuasive evidence for a prior flight be presented, my colleagues and I would have the courage and the honesty to admit the new evidence and risk the loss of the Wright Flyer”. I believe it is time for them to show their courage and honesty.

In addition to the research and the questionable relationship that has preserved the Wright brother’s place in history as told by the Smithsonian, all physical evidence points to Whitehead’s early successes. While aviation technology looks very different today, Whitehead’s “No. 21” aircraft was where it all began. Shaped with bamboo ribs and bat-like wings, running on acetylene gas, the “No. 21” looked like a broad glider. But it flew and it was first. Careful reconstructions of this aircraft, true to the original design and engine power have also flown in the United States and abroad, up to a half mile, further solidifying the facts.

While the Wright Brothers have consistently been recognized for their contributions to aviation development, we cannot ignore another major piece of our history – a piece that has gone under the radar and has been left out of the history books for far too long.