Gustave Whitehead
1874 - 1927

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Gustave Whitehead

      Gustave Whitehead (born "Gustav Albin Wei├čkopf" on January 1, 1874, at Leutershausen, Germany) first became interested in flight while he was a youngster in Bavaria, Germany. He made parachutes made of tissue paper and studied birds at close range. When he was 13, he leapt from a roof attached to a pair of cloth wings. He also reportedly met and assisted Otto Lilienthal with his glider experiments for a short period of time, but that did not happened. Lilienthal's glider experiments didn't begin until 1891 by which time young Whitehead had traveled to Brazil and was working as a sailor. Whitehead moved to the U.S. in 1893 and immediately began to actively pursue his dream of flight. In 1897, Whitehead (he anglicized his name upon his entry into the U.S.) built a flapping-wing glider, which did not glide, for a member of the Boston Aeronautical Society, and soon thereafter constructed a Lilienthal-type glider with which he had limited success.

      In 1896 E. I. Horsman of New York, New York, hired Whitehead to advise him on construction of kites and Lilienthal-type gliders which Horsman sold at his large toy store. By 1898 Whitehead was married with a child and living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where one person affirmed he made a flight in a steam-powered machine for about a half-mile during April or May of 1899. This assertion is almost impossible to believe, for in addition to the remarkable distance supposedly flown, the flight's sole witness claimed to have gone along for the ride. No record of this "flight" has been found. That Whitehead built a steam-powered aeroplane while living in Pittsburgh is not in doubt, he did. That it did not fly in 1899 (with one or two people aboard) is also certainly not in doubt. By 1900 Gustave Whitehead and his family were living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Whitehead found employment as a mechanic, and where he continued his aerial experiments.

Stella Randolph Books - 1937 & 1966
(Left) Cover Of The 1937 Book Which Sought To Establish That
Gustave Whitehead First Flew In 1901
(Right) Cover Of The 1966 Book Which Added Some New Material To The Whitehead Story

      Stella Randolph's 1937 book "Lost Flights Of Gustave Whitehead" presented what evidence there was that Whitehead flew aboard a powered flying machine in 1899, or 1901, or 1902 (all were claimed as years in which Whitehead flew). It is an interesting book which includes signed affidavits attesting that flights were made and witnessed, but it fails to be convincing. That Whitehead designed and built (and flew) gliders and designed and built powered flying machines is not in dispute. That any of his heavier-than-air powered machines flew is. Recent reconstructions of Whitehead's most famous flying machine, his "#21," have apparently made short hops, but even that "evidence" is oblique, since it sheds no light on whether Whitehead flew before 1903. The newspaper reports made about his supposed flights all seem to be burdened by phrases such as "... flew at night to avoid crowds" and "It was reported that..." which hardly bolsters the argument made on his behalf. At least a few of the witnesses to Whitehead's endeavors stated reasonable observations, such as those of John S. Lesko, who affirmed in 1934 that "About September, 1901, I was present on the occasion when Mr. Whitehead succeeded in flying his machine propelled by motor, on a flight of 50-foot intervals at about four feet off the ground, for a length of time approximating a few seconds at a time." Perhaps the last word in the matter should be left to Gustave Whitehead's wife, Louise Tuba Whitehead, who could not recall ever seeing her husband fly in his flying machines.

Whitehead #21 imagined aloft

Imaginative Drawing Of Gustave Whitehead Aloft In His Whitehead #21 appearing in the weekly Bridgeport Sunday Herald of August 18, 1901. In the same article witches on broomsticks are used as part of the headline Flying, and a drawing of the fantasy eight-flapping-winged Custead's Air Ship also appears

      As with many other aerial investigators and experimenters of the time, Gustave Whitehead worked for years to perfect his version of a proper flying machine, and whatever else may be said about his machine #21, it was beautiful. It was the very image of how a proper flying machine of that time should appear, great white cloth folding wings (similar to those of Otto Lilienthal from 1896), small wheels under a boat-like hull, definitely nautical in its design and appearance, and powered by compressed air. Later #21 was powered by a carbide/acetylene engine driving the two propellers while another smaller engine drove two of the machine's four wheels. It also bore some resemblance to Percy Pilcher's powered Hawk glider, and to the "Soaring Machine" of Count D'Esterno. But the Whitehead #21 also appears now to be naive and delicate, a dreamlike device.

Whitehead #21 side view
Gustave Whitehead With Daughter Rose & Whitehead #21 - ca. 1901

Whitehead #21 rear view
Gustave Whitehead With Daughter Rose, Others & Whitehead #21 (rear view) - ca. 1901

      In addition to flying machines, Whitehead designed and built at least a few engines, of different types, meant to power aeroplanes, and he succeeded with those endeavors to the point that he advertised the availability of the "Whitehead Motor" for aeronautical use.

Whitehead Motor Ad - July 1910
Whitehead Motor Advertisement - July 1910

      The exaggerated claims made by him, such as reaching speeds of 70 miles an hour in flight (which was why, he naively wrote at the time, that no photographs could be taken of his machine in flight... it was simply too fast), and those made on his behalf by others have only served to undercut his case. Briefly, the claims of powered flight with Whitehead aboard were 1) a flight of a half-mile, with a passenger, in April or May of 1899; 2) a total of four flights on August 14, 1901, one of a half-mile at 2 a.m. ("early dawn,") another of one and a half-miles at an altitude of 200 feet; and 3) two flights on January 17, 1902, one of two miles and one of seven miles. Had the claims been that his #21 had lifted off the ground and had flown along for 100 feet or so during daylight hours in front of witnesses, those claims would not be so difficult to believe. Whitehead's genuine enthusiasm for and strong commitment to aeronautics (even if he was not as committed to the absolute truth), as well as his design and actual construction of machines (including a large biplane built about 1908 and a helicopter built in 1911) and engines meant to fly them, should be enough to secure his place in the history of aviation. Gustave Whitehead died at Bridgeport, Connecticut, on October 10, 1927.

Whitehead Albatross-type Glider - ca. 1905 - 1906
Whitehead's Large Albatross-type Glider - ca. 1905 - 1906

Whitehead Albatross-type Aeroplane - ca. 1905 - 1906
Whitehead's Large Albatross-type Aeroplane (note propeller) - ca. 1905 - 1906

CLICK HERE for the 13 page article (pdf)
Understanding Gustave Whitehead's Aerial Adventures
from WW1 AERO - The Journal Of The Early Aeroplane
Issue #183, February 2004

SUGGESTED READING: The Story of Gustave Whitehead - Before the Wrights Flew
by Stella Randolph, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1966
(covers much the same material as the original 1937 edition and is easier to find)

SUGGESTED READING: First-Flight Controversy
by Frank J. DeLear, Aviation History, March 1996
(summarizes the Whitehead matter and attempts to fly Whitehead #21 reproductions)

by Wm. J. O'Dwyer and Stella Randolph, Fritz Majer & Sohn, 1978
(contains some new material and the matter of the "Agreement" - termed a "Contract" by O'Dwyer -
between the Smithsonian Institution and the Wright Family heirs, regarding display and labeling of the
Langley Large Aerodrome "A" and the Wright 1903 Flyer, which O'Dwyer inelegantly attempts
to make relevant to the Whitehead story - also contains assumptions raised to level of supposed fact,
misleading statements and mischaracterizations of events and information - inadequately indexed)

Photograph Of The Modern Reproduction Of The Whitehead #21 On The Cover Of May 1999 Issue Of WWI AERO Magazine
Photograph Of A Modern Reproduction Of The Whitehead #21
On The Cover Of The May 1999 Issue Of WWI AERO Magazine

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