A Trained Abnormally Large Condor - Whitehead's Pre-August 14, 1901, Claim of Flight

Falsehood Upon Falsehood

The 1897 or 1898 Four & One-Half Mile "Flight"
The Four-Winged Flapping-Wing Steel-Framed "Condor"
© 2013 - Carroll F. Gray
Posted : July 29, 2013

      Some of the difficulty with accepting any of the claims made by and on behalf of Gustave Whitehead stems from the highly dubious claims made by Whitehead prior to the August 14, 1901, Bridgeport Sunday Herald story of a half-mile 10 minute "flight" made as day was breaking.

      'Gus' Whitehead was finishing his "Condor" flying machine during the fall of 1897. A reporter from the New York WORLD came by on October 5, 1897, apparently invited as were other reporters, for a "private" viewing of the "Condor"- in the yard of the boarding house run by Mrs. Getzinger at 130 Prince St., in Lower Manhattan, New York. Whitehead told the reporter that the "Condor" was about 20 feet long and "nearly as wide." 'Gus' estimated that the machine would lift between 700 and 800 pounds and travel 50 miles per hour, as a gasoline engine flapped the four bat-like "condor" wings up and down. Whitehead told the reporter that he planned to test the machine near Highbridge, 11 miles to the north, on the next Sunday, the 10th. He said he'd been associated with Otto Lilienthal prior to Lilienthal's death (August 10, 1896) - he also mentioned that after a running start down a hillside, he, Whitehead, had made a soaring flight of four and one-half miles.

It's significant to note that Otto Lilienthal - "The Gliding King" - made flights of up to one-quarter kilometer (some 820 ft.) - Whitehead claimed a soaring flight of about 7,242m (23,760 ft.) or about 29 times as far as any Lilienthal was able to accomplish. Whitehead's claim is certainly a fantasy.

      A New York TRIBUNE member of the working press was in the yard at 130 Prince St., that same October day in 1897, and reported that Whitehead said of the "Condor" flapping wing machine - he "… has tried it several times in his courtyard, and is convinced that the machine is all right. Soon, on next Sunday, if the weather is favorable, he will take it over to Highbridge and fly about all the afternoon. He won't fly out to Highbridge with it, however." "... he declares he has in the last twelve years constructed and put to the test forty-two airships."

      (Whitehead would call his next flying machine "No. 21" - we're left to wonder why it wasn't called "No. 43"…)

      The March 4, 1898, issue of the New York WORLD clustered seven airship and flying machine stories together in a block, on page 2. The cluster was headlined "Airships Which Can Navigate The Skies According To Their Inventors." Most prominent of them was the story about "'Gus' Whitehead of Baltimore" and two of his aerial machines.

      The six other stories were about Archidas Fariner, of Auburn, Indiana, and his cigar-shaped airship; Don B. Adams, of Texas, and his model flying machine inspired by crows; the "Giant Man-Lifting Kites at Fort Logan"; Michael McKenna seeking a $7,000 investment in airships "… to make your everlasting fortune and, incidentally, prove your patriotism…" the airship will "… make an eagle insane with jealousy."; D. R. Proctor, of Chicago, Illinois, who after 25 years study has solved the aerial navigation problem, so "Here Is Another Chicago Airship"; and "Airship Crazy, He Took His Own Life" - distraught San Franciscan Max Pauly, alias Robert J. Bley, shoots himself as his airship is a failure.

      Line drawings illustrated the article, one showing the "Don B. Adams Airship" aloft - a winged airship with a pusher propeller behind a gasbag and a vertical control surface in front. Dominating the visual was a potrait of 'Gus' and two of his aerial machines… one an unpowered triplane with wheeled undercarriage, similar to the patented "Chanute-Herring Three-Surface Powered Machine" of 1896.

Condor Article

      The other machine - the remarkable "Condor" - featured a bicycle-wheel undercarriage and two sets of bat-wings (said to be like condor's wings), 20 feet from tip to tip, which were linked to a central steel frame to permit them being flapped up and down - by a gasoline engine or an electric motor. As with so many inventors of such machines, 'Gus' was of the opinion that the lack of a suitable powerplant was a problem, and claimed that "With a first-class motor, he says, the machine can sail at the rate of fifty miles an hour."

      There is no mention, at this point in his career, that 'Gus' has built or intends to build an engine to power his flying machines. There also is no mention of any test of the "Condor" having been made at Highbridge in New York the past October, or any at any other place or time. The "Condor" remained earthbound.

      "'The machine,' he said yesterday in describing it, 'has four moveable wings shaped like those of the condor. The wings are in pairs, twenty feet from tip to tip. They are connected by a framework of steel. The tail extends twenty feet to the rear and is shaped like the tail of the great bird. It is also movable, and can be folded up. The operator has the management of the tail. By sliding his body from side to side on a removable frame he can change the centre of gravity to maintain his balance and steer the machine from right to left.'" (See Article # 3 for a discussion of how Whitehead's own words reveal he did not fly August 14, 1901)

      The WORLD reporter remarked the 20 foot long tail was "immense." The moveable tail - lifted up and dropped down by the operator to provide some measure of control and which could be folded when not in use - was a feature Whitehead retained on his more well-known No. 21 machine.

      Considering the status of the "Condor" as of March 4, 1898, it is doubtful Whitehead was trying to convince anyone that he had made a "soaring" flight with the machine. 'Gus' Whitehead claimed to have "flown four and a half miles across a valley," launching after "a run of thirty feet" and throwing himself and his machine off a mountain top at 2,000 feet altitude, while a 22 mile-an-hour wind blows - at that point his glider "begins to rise and soar away."

      In their 1978 "History by Contract," co-authors Maj. William J. O'Dwyer and Stella Randolph fail to mention Whitehead's claim of making a soaring flight of 4-½ miles from a 2,000 ft. mountain top. They devote two short paragraphs to the matter…

      "The New York Tribune carried an article in its October 11, 1897, [sic] issue concerning the craft which it reported Whitehead was going to test for soaring capabilities without the motor; the motor, it was reported, was a gasoline one. With it, he expected to be able to start from the ground, but the glider would have to take off from an elevation, he explained." (HbC, p.104)

      "The young couple appear not to have remained in Buffalo. The New York World of March 3, 1898 [sic] carried an item from Baltimore, describing Whitehead's aircraft, and stating that Whitehead had flown it, apparently as a glider, starting from a height." (HbC, p.104)

      Note that the absurd details of the "flight" are omitted from both paragraphs.

      The WORLD article told its readers that 'Gus' Whitehead had "caught one of these birds that measured eighteen feet from tip to tip, and, training him, was able to to study his methods of flight and soaring abilities. This knowledge he has used to a great extent." It was "The machine of which he has the greatest hopes…"

      One might wonder what became of this marvelous machine, spawned from the study of a trained captive condor and albatrosses, and capable, in Whitehead's mind, of flight in 1897-98. A New York Sun article of June 9, 1901, provides an answer, mentioning, in passing, that "A few years ago he [Whitehead] built a flying machine in New York which now lies rusting in innocuous desuetude somewhere in Spring street in that city going to decay, Mr. Whitehead says, because of failure to deliver a motor of a certain type which was ordered and never completed and about which there is now legal controversy." In little more than a dozen years, Whitehead would find himself on the other side of a similar legal controversy.

A Study Of Condors & Albatrosses

      The WORLD told readers that Whitehead made a study of condors and albatrosses, to establish the ratio of body weight to wings. "I have watched for years the flight of the condor. And I have gone around the Horn to study the albatross. I have captured both of these great birds, measured their wings and weighed their bodies. My present airship is patterned after the condor." (See Article # 6, to be posted on this web site, for more on Whitehead's time in South America)

      The WORLD also said that Whitehead had "caught one of these birds that measured eighteen feet from tip to tip, and, training him, was able to to study his methods of flight and soaring abilities. This knowledge he has used to a great extent.

      'Gus' is quoted as saying "The wings of my machine, four by sixteen feet, are in the same proportion to the weight of my body, that the condor's wings are to the weight of their body." Apparently Whitehead chose or neglected, for whatever reason, to not include the weight of the machine - the flight apparatus - in his calculations.

      A close examination of 'Gus' Whitehead's calculations is instructive.

      First of all, we need to know what the wingspan of the condor was, that Whitehead studied. Whitehead tells us he captured an Andean Condor with a wingspan of "eighteen feet from tip to tip" - remarkable to say the least since the average wingspan of a male Andean Condor is some 2.9m (9.5 ft.), while the average wingspan of a California Condor is slightly shorter at about 2.8m (9.1 ft.).

At 5.5m (18 ft.), Whitehead's condor would have been in a category by itself, as having the single greatest wingspan of any condor yet known, about double the average spans of the Andean and California Condors, and fully 7 feet greater in span than that of the bird with the greatest wingspan, the Wandering Albatross, which can reach a span of some 11 ft. The statement by Whitehead that his captured condor had a wingspan of 18 feet can safely be termed "false."

      The average weight of a male Andean Condor's body is about 13kg (28.5 lb) - and the average wingspan is 2.9m (9.5 ft), therefore the ratio of body weight to wingspan is 4.48 kilograms to 1 meter of wingspan. If we calculate based on that highly improbable condor wingspan of 5.5m (18 ft), and scale the average body weight accordingly, we would still, of course, have a ratio of 4.48 kilograms to each 1 meter of wingspan.

      Whitehead was noted as weighing 74.8kg (165 lb), and Whitehead states each pair of his aerial machine's four wings (two sets of two wings) had a wingspan of 6.1m (20 ft). Doing simple calculations, the ratio of body weight to wingspan for Whitehead's machine (doubling the wingspan to allow for the two pair of wings) is about 6.13kg to each 1 meter of wingspan - a ratio of 6.13 to 1. For the second report of a 4.87m (16 ft) wingspan on Whitehead's machine, the ratio (allowing for the double wings) is 7.68kg to each 1 meter of wingspan.

Therefore, Whitehead's "Condor" machine was not built to the ratio of a condor's body weight to wingspan, as Whitehead stated. Adding in the weight of the machine itself, without providing a greater wingspan would, of course, make the ratio even greater and even more out of alignment with a condor's.

      The Whitehead "Condor" machine's design went beyond an imitation of a condor's wing, or what Whitehead thought of as a condor's wing. He also designed the wings to be flappable. As seen in the drawing which accompanied the March 4, 1898, article, the "Condor" is an ornithopter. The wings are not fixed, they are linked in a framework, to be moved by a gasoline engine or an electric motor, to propel the machine and its occupant in flight, it was hoped - they are, as Whitehead says, "movable."

      Before the steel-framed, flapping winged "Condor" was built, Whitehead was hired, in 1897, by the recently formed Boston Aeronautical Society, to build a glider. The first machine he built for the Society was a biplane glider - derived from the then well-known design of the Chanute-Herring biplane glider - with flapping winglets added, to be moved in a rowing motion by the glider's operator, for propulsion, it was hopefully announced. It failed to fly. The flapping winglet glider of 1897 is said, by some, to have been built in 1895, possibly with a view to establishing Whitehead's priority over the 1896 Chanute-Herring glider - but there is no doubt but that Whitehead's flapping winglet glider dates to 1897, after the Chanute-Herring's design was well known.

      After the failure of the 1897 flapping winglet glider, Whitehead built a copy of the successful and proven Lilienthal "Normalsegelapparat" ("Normal soaring apparatus") glider for the Boston Aeronautical Society, with which gliding flights were made.

Progress In Flying Machines

      Despite 'Gus' Whitehead's high expectations for his pre-1898 "Condor" (the "machine of which he has the greatest hopes…"), after Whitehead read Octave Chanute's influential 1894 book "Progress In Flying Machines" (which he borrowed from the Buffalo, New York, Public Library and failed to return) he settled on Count Ferdinand D'Esterno's 1864 design for his next Whitehead flying machine, one which was to be powered by an engine he intended to build.

O'Dwyer Finding Aid As for the claims made in the March 4, 1898, New York WORLD article, even Maj. Wm. J. O'Dwyer, one of Whitehead's most vociferous defenders and supporters, didn't dare to include all the details of the Whitehead "Condor" flapping-wing machine in "History by Contract," and made no mention of the 1897-98 "flight" of four and one-half miles - perhaps he knew such a claim was impossible to believe and would severely damage Whitehead's credibility. O'Dwyer certainly knew what the WORLD article said, as it can be found in his research files, Box 4, Series B, Sub-series I, Folder 8, labeled "New York World, March 1898".