C.A.H.A.'s Position on Gustave Whitehead - February 20, 1963

The Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association's Newsletter No. 10
Gustave Whitehead

(The following appeared in the C.A.H.A. Newsletter No. 10, February 20, 1963, page 4)

The Strange Story Of Gustave Whitehead Of Bridgeport

      The publishing of an article on Gustave Whitehead in the magazine: Argosy for December, 1962* has created much interest and evoked many inquiries of the CAHA as to what we believe concerning facts of the situation.

      The Whitehead article was written in such a manner to create sensationalism and controversy so as to attract reader interest. The article boldly stated that Whitehead flew before the Wright Brothers. Unfortunately the article did not include the contradictions which even Whitehead and his associates introduced into the story or the findings of the world's aeronautical historians after long study of the Whitehead claim. Regrettably the Argosy article was not objective and added nothing to the history of Whitehead that was already known.

      Gustave Whitehead emigrated from Germany in 1895 and changed his name from Weisskopf to Whitehead. He was a mechanic of some ability, though he had little education. He had great imaginative powers and certainly great conviction and determination to pursue his dream of flight. A poor man who spent every spare nickle and spare moment of time upon his aeronautical work, Whitehead worked in a period (1890-1911) when few souls had the courage or the vision to stand before a sceptical (sic) and critical public and experiment in aeronautics. This was a time (before actual flight had been demonstrated in 1908 by both the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss before the public) that this same public considered anyone working in aeronautics to be an escapee from the insane asylum. The pioneers of this early period in aeronautics (1890-1905) were few in number and regardless of what they accomplished, they and their work are very interesting. Whitehead and his work, regardless of whether or not he actually flew, certainly is a fascinating bit of history and should have better recognition than has been afforded him.

      To us in Connecticut he has particular interest. There seems to be no question that he possessed and built the first airplanes in this State. He built not just one, but several airplanes. He also built the first aircraft engines in this State and also an early, though unsuccessful helicopter. These facts still stand regardless of the success of this equipment. He also put forth a number of interesting conceptions and ideas which were incorporated into aircraft of a later day. That these various ideas were directly descended from Whitehead is debatable, as much of his work and concepts were not particularly well described in writings or publications.

      Whitehead was an eccentric. His accounts of what he did varied nearly every time he retold them which caused confusion and eventual disbelief of his accomplishments. Whitehead failed to keep proper records, both written and photographic, of his work and trials. The Wrights did do this. Whitehead failed to have available credible and adult witnesses of his flight trials. The Wrights had these. Most of Whitehead's witnesses were children whose judgement of height, distance and events, which were not recorded until thirty-five years later, certainly leaves their memories open to question. It is this lack of an authentic record, attested by credible witnesses, which has prompted the world's scholars to deny Whitehead the honor of flying before the Wrights. At this late date and after much research by Stella Randolph, Crane, the Smithsonian Institution and other individuals, it is likely that such a record probably does not exist or its discovery will never be made. If Whitehead did actually fly, this failure on his part to maintain proper records and witnesses cost him the recognition which he claimed was due him.

      Whitehead claimed that in his airplane No. 21 he made several flights on August 14, 1901 at Bridgeport of from one-half mile to one and one-half miles. In his airplane No. 22 he claimed that he made two flights over Long Island Sound on January 17, 1902. The first was a straight flight of two miles and the second a circular flight of seven miles. There are claims of numerous short hops and flights in his various airplanes and gliders. His engines apparently worked, at least some of them did. There are reports that many were not satisfactory. His helicopter equipped with sixty rotors did not fly.

      Airplanes Nos. 21 and 22 were monoplanes based upon the Lilienthal design. The wings and tail were quite faithful patterns of the Lilienthal gliders which were successful. A hull-like body was suspended beneath the wings. The body of No. 22 was of boat construction and was water-proof. The plane is reported to have taken off from land and then landed on the water. In both airplanes, wheels were incorporated in the hull and they were rotated by a separate engine. Two propellers were mounted in front of the wings on each side of the hull. During take-off the wheels were powered to pull the airplane along the ground. Then the separate engine for the propellers was started to get the airplane into the air, after which the engine for the wheels was shut down, according to reports. No. 21 had no movable controls, while No. 22 had a movable rudder. Both airplanes had propellers which could be speeded up or slowed individually to facilitate aerial turns. There was no wing warping nor ailerons. Lilienthal obtained aerodynamic control by shifting the center of gravity of the glider by swinging his body weigh as required. Whitehead also shifted weight by movement around the hull of his body weight.

      Later Whitehead appears to have been influenced by the Chanute gliders and structure of a trussed biplane which the Wrights also adapted. These later airplanes are reported to have had some degree of success.

      It seems that Whitehead had trouble with every backer he had. Each relationship usually broke up into bitterness and squabbling. The usual complaint from each backer was that Whitehead did not produce results. He is accused of accepting money to build engines on order and instead of building the engines with it, the money was applied to his other experimental works. He was known to destroy an airplane in a fit of rage and begin all over again, rather than try to correct the problem presented. He exhibited a great degree of impulsiveness and a lack of an orderly, coordinated effort. He succeeded in alienating those who could have helped him most. He apparently tended to over exaggerate and to be contradictory which caused most people to lose faith in his abilities. Following are some excepts from letters of prominent people in aeronautics which indicate the opinion of his contemporaries.

      From a letter dated May 7, 1897 from the wealthy Sam Cabot, of the famous Boston Cabot family, who was supporting aeronautical experiments of Whitehead to develop a glider in Boston, to Octave Chanute, the great Chicago engineer who experimented in aeronautics and supported many struggling inventors and workers in aeronautics: "Weisskopf so far has made a conscious failure with his apparatus and I fear that he is a pure romancer with a supreme mastery of the gentle art of lying."

      In a later letter to Chanute from Cabot dated Sept. 1, 1897: "I had Weisskopf under my eye at Chatham (I, paying expenses) and think he is completely unreliable and much doubt if he ever soared over 50 feet in his life."

      A letter from the great Moedebeck to Chanute dated Sept 3, 1901 stated: "Have you heard anything of a Mr. Whitehead in Bridgeport ? He has built a flying machine but I believe his experiences are humbug."

      Another letter from the famed balloon builder, Carl E. Myers to Chanute dated Dec. 11, 1903 related: "I understand that Whitehead has been promising motors of fabulous lightness but that they have been failures."

      The most damaging evidence to the credence of Whitehead's ability and claim of flight is that he did not bring success upon success. True, the Wright's first flight was puny in comparison with those of today, but it was a true flight. The airplane was continually under control. It landed at the same level that it took off from initially. It was NOT catapulted; it merely rolled along a track. The airplane was pulled into the air by the aid of its own propeller thrust and the 25 mph headwind. (Note: the catapult of the Wright's was developed in 1904 to overcome the lack of a steady and strong wind at Dayton, Ohio.) After this 1903 success, the Wrights built a better airplane in 1904 and a still better one in 1905. Each year the Wrights continued to improve their aircraft and flying ability. They went on to establish a factory and successful business in manufacturing airplanes, schools and exhibitions. Whitehead failed to accomplish this. The Wrights were no more wealthy than Whitehead in 1900-03 nor had they much more education. They were then on a par in mechanical skill and ability. In the early days Whitehead had more wealthy backers than did the Wrights. The difference that made up the success for the Wrights was stability and great mental capacity and ability and good business sense. The Wrights won their place in history, though they were not especially popular because of their squeeze for the nickle and their continued harassment of other airplane builders and pilots for license fees. Whitehead has failed to win a prominent place in history, due to the nature of the man and his failure to present the proper evidence and documentation of his claim. (emphasis added - C.F.G.)

      That he built airplanes, there is ample evidence. Undoubtedly he made many attempts to fly these airplanes. There are pictures of his gliders in flight. There seem to be no bonafide pictures of his airplanes in flight.

      It is quite possible that he made some short hops. His airplanes look capable, they were not freaks, but were based upon Lilienthal and Chanute principles. There were others before the Wrights who made, it appears, short "hops" of a few inches in the air for short distances. But circumstances were such that the observers refused to credit the hops as satisfactory flights under proper control of the pilot. It may be that Whitehead falls into this category. Insufficient proof has been obtained to convince the experts. Undoubtedly it will remain that way.

      Whitehead is reported to have received a visit from the Wright Brothers in the very early 1900's seeking to buy an engine. Junius Harworth, one of the lads who helped Whitehead and who is still living, maintains they did make a visit. Before the Wrights built their first four-cylinder airplane engine, they did make a search for a suitable engine to purchase. In this search they did not succeed and so, they designed and built their first four-cylinder engine with the help of Charles Taylor. Orville Wright denied that this visit ever took place. No acceptable proof exists that the Wrights did make such a visit. We merely have the word of one man against another. (emphasis added - C.F.G.) Who is right and who is wrong ?

      On the assumption that the Wrights had an opportunity to become familiar with Whitehead's airplane and ideas, a study of the Wright airplanes certainly shows no evidence of copying or employing any Whitehead concepts, except the possibility of the use of two propellers.

What Is The CAHA Position On Gustave Whitehead ?

Our position is as follows:

a. CAHA accepts Gustave Whitehead as a valid and bonafide early experimenter and pioneer in aeronautics.

b. CAHA maintains that he has a place in aeronautical history.

c. CAHA will acknowledge Whitehead's claim to flight but will take no stand for or against the claim. CAHA agrees with other historians and authorities that insufficient evidence exists to positively prove that Whitehead actually flew as claimed. CAHA will maintain an open mind upon the subject, willing to examine any evidence or contention. (emphasis added - C.F.G.)

d. CAHA maintains that Whitehead built the first airplane in Connecticut, as well as the first aircraft engines in this State.

What Will CAHA Do To Preserve The History Of Whitehead ?

a. CAHA will attempt to form and maintain for public inspection as complete a file of information on Whitehead as possible.

b. In the CAHA museum Whitehead will receive proper coverage and an exhibit due his importance, with an honest effort to depict his accomplishments.

c. If sufficient technical information can be acquired, a full-sized reproduction of his No. 21 machine will be constructed.

**Additional information including pictures of his aircraft and engines may be found in the book: "Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead" by Stella Randolph. The only source for this book is from Mr. Erik Hildes-Heim, 128 Rowland Road, Fairfield, Connecticut. Cost of the book in new condition is: $7.50 postpaid.

* The December 1962 Argosy magazine article, "He Flew Before The Wrights" was written by Richard Garland, "Photographs Courtesy of Stella Randolph"
** The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead by Stella Randolph, Places, Inc., 1937, is no longer available from Mr. Hildes-Heim