First aircraft and engine builder in Connecticut; inventor; aeronautical experimenter and, quite possibly, the first man to hop a powered airplane off the ground in Connecticut. Born Gustav Weiskopf (sic) in Hochst am Main (sic) (note: Leutershausen) in the Province of Bavaria, Germany, on January 1, 1874, he changed his name to Whitehead shortly after he came to the United States at age of 21 in 1895. As a young man he had helped with some of Otto Lilienthal's historic glider experiments and, until Lilienthal's death in 1896, Whitehead kept in touch with him through correspondence. Though he had but little education, Whitehead was an able mechanic, dedicated to the firm belief that in heavier-than-air flight lay man's future mode of transportation. He was a poor man who had to work hard for a living at whatever job he could find. He possessed great imaginative powers and, working mostly in his spare time and at night, produced an almost continual stream of models, gliders, airplanes and engines.
After first landing at Boston, he stayed at that city just long enough to build an unsuccessful glider. Then, following a short sojourn in New York City, Whitehead went to Buffalo, N.Y. and Johnstown, Pa., all the while working on airplane experiments as time, money and his job at the moment would allow, he moved to Pittsburgh to join friends and work part-time in a coal mine. Here he built a steam-powered airplane that would not fly. He reached Bridgeport, Conn., to permanently settle-down about 1900.
Whitehead claimed that he made several flights with his airplane No. 21, an amphibious-type monoplane with twin propellers whose basic design was patterned after Lilienthal's gliders, on August 14, 1901 at Bridgeport and that he made two flights over Long Island Sound in his No. 22, which was similar, on January 17, 1902. As there is some evidence that he actually did get into the air several times, it is entirely possible that Whitehead did make some hops of several hundred feet, at few inches or feet off the ground, on these dates. Whitehead produced airplanes with both fixed and folding wings and later built biplanes and triplanes along the lines of Octave Chanute's glider designs. He used a wheeled-type landing gear as early as 1899 (note: 1897-98). He developed a moveable rudder for making turns but apparently relied on shifting his weight in flight to achieve lateral stability. The engines he built were designed to operate on everything from steam, gunpowder and acetylene to kerosene and gasoline. Some of them ran quite well; some didn't run at all. One even employed the Diesel principle. His largest, which developed 200 horsepower and weighed 500 pounds, was built in 1905.
But Gustave Whitehead made most of his attempts to fly at dawn without reputable witnesses present and he neither kept records nor measured the length and duration of his hops. And he failed to capitalize upon whatever limited success he may have had, as the Wright Brothers did, to go on making progressively better aircraft until he finally produced an acceptable, flyable airplane. He was an eccentric, unstable man whose habit, often in a fit of rage, was to destroy one design after another by tearing it apart whenever something went wrong, after which he would start all over again from the beginning. Although he had numerous financial backers from time to time, they invariably withdrew their support because, they claimed, Whitehead failed to produce results.
By 1905 (note: 1901), Whitehead had attracted attention of Stanley Y. Beach, the editor (note: automobile editor) of the Scientific American. Beach, like the rest, backed Whitehead in an unsuccessful project. About 1911, Lee S. Burridge of the Aero Club of America advanced money to Whitehead for the development of a helicopter which employed 60 propellers for vertical lift. When this project, too, failed, Burridge brought suit and obtained a lien on Whitehead's property. Discouraged by this turn of events and disheartened as he saw one after another of his pioneering discoveries, inventions and developments credited to others, Whitehead lost interest in aeronautical work. Instead, he turned to religion, becoming a near-fanatic. He died in Bridgeport of a heart attack at the age of 53 on October 10, 1927.
Norman E. Borden, Jr.
Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Assn.