In late 1967 or early 1968, the Board of Directors (“BOD”) of the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (“CAHA”) established an Investigating Committee to examine the claims of Stella Randolph and William O’Dwyer that Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, CT had flown before the Wright Brothers, and to also consider several other of Whitehead’s claims. CAHA is the organization which owns and operates the New England Air Museum (“NEAM”).
Appointed to the Investigating Committee were several aeronautical engineers, a number of pilots, some historians, and William O’Dwyer. Except for O’Dwyer, members were chosen specifically because
, in addition to their professional skills, they were open-minded on the Whitehead question
. O’Dwyer was a BOD Member from Bridgeport, a fervent Whitehead fan, and the representative of Stella Randolph, the author of the 1937 biography of Whitehead. The committee met for quite some time – approximately a year. Eventually, its report was presented to the BOD.
I was a long-term Staff Member of NEAM and was elected to the BOD in 1968. I was present for the events I will discuss. I will be 75 in December 2013, and I am the last surviving member of either the Investigating Committee or the BOD of that time.
It has been the policy of CAHA/NEAM to refuse to comment on the Whitehead controversy during the 45 years since. I was one of the BOD Members who voted to establish that policy. We all promised to obey that policy
. During 2013, a number of incidents arranged by Whitehead supporters have not only tried to distort history, but also dragged CAHA’s and NEAM’s reputation through the mud. The devious distortions of these people and the fact that I alone survive to oppose them with the truth causes me to “break” with the NEAM policy of silence.
The facts are that the CAHA/NEAM policy was adopted in response to threats of litigation by Randolph and O’Dwyer. The facts are that the Investigating Committee report clearly found Whitehead’s claims false and fraudulent.
Before I continue, the reader may want to know my credentials. I am a graduate of MIT in Aeronautical Engineering, with a career of over 40 years in that field. During my career, I also volunteered for the CAHA Staff, and remained a CAHA volunteer for over 15 years while performing several functions including almost 10 years as a member of the BOD, and a term as CAHA’s Executive Vice President. I am a CAHA Life Member, but have lived out-of-state and thus been relatively inactive for several years now. Please also note that I am an historian and have lectured professionally as such, as well as headed up historical research.
The Proceedings of the CAHA BOD and the Investigating Committee
As a BOD Member, I was present for the presentation and discussion of the Investigating Committee report, and the subsequent BOD actions. The report was near-unanimous in rejecting all
of Whitehead’s claims. I say “near unanimous” because every vote
was completely unanimous except
for the opposition vote of William O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer was invited to submit a Minority Report. I do not remember if he did. The reasoning behind every conclusion was provided to the BOD, in O’Dwyer’s presence
, and he was given the opportunity for rebuttal. However, no copies of the report were allowed to be removed from the meeting on advice of CAHA’s Counsel
. O’Dwyer, Randolph, and their lawyer were threatening legal action, and the release of the report was an issue in the case. The BOD discussed this aspect in some detail, and it was obvious that the other members of the BOD disagreed with O’Dwyer’s actions and supported the Committee Report. At that point, William O’Dwyer totally lost his temper and had what, up to then, was the worst adult temper tantrum I had ever witnessed. He ended it by running out of the meeting, hurling profanities at all of us as he left.
My personal contacts with O’Dwyer outside the BOD were because both of us were Air Force Reservists, but not in the same unit. From those contacts, I am of the opinion that his behavior at that BOD meeting typified him. Note that my own Air Force Commissioned Service exceeded 30 years and that I retired as a full Colonel. I believe that qualifies me to have an opinion of the behavior of a fellow Officer.
A meeting or two later, the BOD was asked to ratify a legal agreement concerning the fate of all copies of the committee report, and all supporting documents. In the briefing by the CAHA attorney, and in the discussion which followed, the question repeatedly came up as to why it was necessary to have a binding legal agreement concerning the fate of all copies of the report and all documents. All copies and any supporting analyses or notes were to be sealed and access denied to anyone who did not meet specific requirements laid down in the agreement by Stella Randolph and William O’Dwyer. The agreement could be enforced, if necessary, by the Court. The attorney informed us that O’Dwyer demanded this because release of the report would be very damaging to the claims of both himself and Stella Randolph. I personally believe she was more interested in sales of her book than in the truth of history; O’Dwyer was motivated by temper and ego.
CAHA/NEAM has obeyed this legal requirement. What I now find ironic is that some Whitehead supporters see nefarious doings on the part of CAHA for not opening up the archives to them. Given the fact that all copies of the report had been sequestered by the attorney at that point, I cannot say with any certainty whether the report was lodged with other Whitehead material which was to be in CAHA custody, but with access severely limited to those approved by the Whitehead faction. I am willing to swear in any Court of Law from my own knowledge that the Investigating Committee did a thorough job and that its conclusion that the Whitehead claims were false was a valid decision. Now let us examine just a few of the specific defects in the Whitehead claims.
The definition of “Flight” used for over a century by historians, scientists, and engineers requires POWERED
(by some device), SUSTAINED
(kept in the air by that powerplant) and CONTROLLED
(about all three axes) motion resulting in progress through the air, and including rising unassisted from the ground and landing at or above the same height
(in other words not using gravity to get where you are going). Also implied are that it be without assistance
and without contact with the ground
. Whitehead fails on a number of these points, but the most important is his total lack of control
, discussed later.
This means that one needs to ask three questions concerning the Whitehead claims:
* Was the machine flyable?
* How does one account for the claimed newspaper articles cited by Whitehead supporters?
* Are the later “eye-witness” claims credible?
Was Whitehead’s machine flyable?
To begin with, Whitehead’s claims depend on whether his craft was capable
of flight. Many investigations have concluded that it was not capable of flight. The modern “replicas” have modified the basic Whitehead craft such that one of them did fly, but Whitehead’s basic design could not have flown.
This contradiction reminds me of when Glenn Curtiss so modified the Langley Aerodrome that it flew, yet subsequent investigations and analyses by engineers and historians have concluded that the modifications were made in light of later knowledge and that the Aerodrome could not and did not fly. Remember, the Langley Aerodrome crashed twice while trying to fly. Remember also that this led to extensive litigation and additional investigations. A similar conclusion was reached by the CAHA investigation concerning Whitehead’s craft. What is particularly relevant and worth stressing is that not only were similar modifications a central issue in the litigation over the Wright patent, but that Whitehead’s claims were carefully examined at the time of the Wright-Curtiss litigation and found to be false!! This determination was by Curtiss’s attorneys. One might think they would very much want Whitehead’s claims to be legitimate as that would then bolster their case. But, no – the Curtiss legal team threw the Whitehead claims out!
There were many important defects in the Whitehead machine. I will discuss only one, but it is extremely important. Every heavier-than-air flight vehicle must
have the ability to roll, in a controlled manner, or it cannot turn. This is a fundamental fact of science, easily proven using Newtonian mechanics. Aircrews learn this when they observe that if the pilot moves the rudder without roll, the aircraft does not change direction – it’s nose simply moves to one side, while the flight path continues in the original direction. I personally have engineering experience in both fixed-wing aircraft (fighters, airliners, trainers, etc.) and rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters, etc.) and this fact is universal. If one carefully examines the Wright Brothers patent, one will find they did not attempt to patent the aircraft – that would have been foolish for many legal and engineering reasons – they primarily patented the ability to provide roll and roll control instead, and to relate it to control around the other two axes.
Returning to Whitehead. His designs did not account for this, and thus even if they got off the ground (which I seriously doubt), they could not have maneuvered in the air nor flown any distance. His roll and pitch control were (respectively) leaning out over the side of the cockpit and leaning forward or backward. As his backside was still on the seat, the moment arm for leverage was nil – these methods just do not work. His yaw control – differential thrust – is used in modern aircraft, but
his design suffers from the inability to this day to replicate his method (his transmission system), and one must again question whether his leverage was adequate and his control precise.
Just because something “looks like an airplane” does not mean it is capable of flight. The modern replicas? They were modified from his original in this and several other respects. The CAHA Investigative Committee carefully examined this and other questions in 1968. Their unanimous conclusion was that Whitehead did not fly
Another item in the claim of the Whitehead adherents are the news articles supposedly backing their claim. Almost every attempt
at flight from about 1880 to 1910 generated an exaggerated fanciful account by some newsman looking for fame. Read the newspapers of the time – claims that we know today were exaggerated, or just plain false, abound. Consider that even the first accounts of the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk flights were thoroughly in error and exaggerated. An accurate report of the Wright flights was first published in 1904 in Root’s “Gleanings in Bee Culture.” Historians discount news stories unless
backed by further credible evidence, which does not exist for Whitehead. The Whitehead newspaper accounts were also considered by the CAHA Investigative Committee in 1968 and found not credible. That same conclusion was reached by several previous investigations.
I have done Oral History studies for not only CAHA, but for other museums as well. They are useful exercises, but without additional physical proof
, they must be regarded with the same skepticism as one reserves for eye-witness accounts in a court-room. “How soon after the event was the statement made?” “Is this person believable?” “Does the event seem plausible?” The Whitehead witness statements, all made between 34 and 64 years after the supposed events
, were also considered by the CAHA Investigative Committee in 1968, and found unconvincing and in many cases misinterpretations or figments of the witnesses’ imaginations.
CAHA’s Relationships “Conspiratorial”??
Whitehead supporters also claim that because the CAHA findings agree with the Smithsonian findings, a nefarious plot exists, and that the friendship of various CAHA officials with officials of other museums implies some sort of conspiracy. This claim of theirs is particularly abhorrent to me because I was often personally involved in museum-to-museum negotiations and I knew the persons involved quite intimately. If both Lou Casey of the Smithsonian and Harvey Lippincott of CAHA/NEAM and I all agree that Lindbergh was a great pilot, or that Glenn Curtiss set some speed records, does that imply that the three of us are all co-conspirators? I take great personal offense at some of the statements of the Whitehead adherents. They know nothing of the complex interactions needed to transfer an aircraft from one museum to another, the complexities of coordinating historical research among institutions, or even the negotiations required to have an important Staff Member of Museum A deliver a paper at a meeting in Museum B. These were the things I and others did, and which require good personal relations with one’s opposite number in the sister museum. They do not imply any conspiracy and the judgment of each historian is independent
– it is not
orchestrated by his institution or by his personal friendships.
In 2013, Janes’ All the World’s Aircraft
(“JAWA”), a widely used reference in aviation, published an editorial claiming that Whitehead should supplant the Wright Brothers in the history of aviation as the first to accomplish successful heavier-than-air powered flight. Although the editor has worked in aviation for several decades, he is neither an engineer nor a historian, and he was never provided with the full evidence. His editorial was a serious error – not the first by JAWA. In this case JAWA is definitely not an authority – it is “out of its depth.” Please note that I have personal knowledge
of JAWA often using simply the advertising claims of aircraft manufacturers without further checking or analysis. If challenged, I can describe these events, but it is not my intent to demean that reference as a whole because it has still, despite many errors, been of important value to aviation.
Also in 2013, the Connecticut State Legislature passed a bill defining Whitehead as the first to fly, replacing the Wright Brothers in the State’s celebration of Powered Flight Day. (Because two of the three most important US aircraft engine manufacturers are located in Connecticut, Powered Flight Day is of some importance in that State.) I refer to Lines 96-102 of the 2013 Connecticut Legislature HB 6771. This can also be found in the Connecticut General Statutes as Subdivision 19, Sub-Section (a) of Section 10-29a. This Bill was passed with no public hearings
, was introduced too late in the Session for normal consideration
, and was attached to legislation the Governor HAD
to sign, thus preventing any opportunity for rational consideration or veto on its own merits
. This is an example of the devious actions of the Whitehead supporters.
Many eminent aviation experts have derided the Whitehead claims after careful consideration from an aeronautical engineering perspective. These include Grover Loening, Sergei Sikorsky (noted test pilot and son of Igor I Sikorsky), and many others. In short, the Whitehead claims are fallacious, and the actions of JAWA and of the Connecticut Legislature are wrong, unfortunate, and reflect persons accepting falsehoods, probably from their lack of knowledge of earlier events. The attempts of Whitehead adherents to involve CAHA/NEAM in this controversy are unjust and mean-spirited because they know that the analyses and data showing the previous investigation’s conclusions that Whitehead did not
fly are sealed at the insistent request of their heroes – William O’Dwyer and Stella Randolph.
Fairness requires that this rebuttal written by the last on-scene witness to the CAHA Investigation be given wide and appropriate distribution. Thank you.