The Non-Event's Non-Anniversary

© 2016 - Carroll F. Gray — Posted: August 14, 2016




      August 14, 2016, would have been the 115th anniversary of Gustave Whitehead's flight - that is it would have been if Gustave Whitehead had flown, which he did not.

      His flight was a fantasy, but that has not stopped some people from celebrating the date as The First Flight. The non-event is most notably celebrated in Connecticut, where the flight was supposed to have happened and in Germany, where Whitehead was born as Gustav Albin Weisskopf.

      Two recent repetitive, speculative and error-filled books (the more worthy one by Susan Brinchman and a less rigorous one, in German, by John Brown) have been published on the subject, and an Australian "docu-drama" (heavy on "drama" and very light on "documentary") was televised last month in Germany.

      The story of Whitehead's attempt to fly has evolved into an elaborate self-referencing myth, with speculation and even outright fabrication helping to build and sustain the myth.

      Opportunistic politicians in Connecticut and Germany have adopted the Whitehead Myth as their own, sensing some political advantage in supporting a popular myth.

      The editor of the aerospace industry annual Jane's All The World's Aircraft declared Whitehead had flown prior to the Wright brothers, seduced by the fantasy, even though the publishers of Jane's disavowed their editor's position.

      Two "replicas" of Whitehead's No. 21 machine have been built and film exists showing them seemingly in flight.

      However, these "replicas" are significantly strengthened and highly modified, and benefit from more powerful modern engines and more efficient modern propellers as well as from modern knowledge of aircraft design. The "replicas" also benefit from what is known as "ground effect" - being supported by a cushion of air beneath the wings.

      Moving along in "ground effect" is not flying - true flying at altitude involves "lift" from above, not merely "ground effect" from below. "Ground effect" is only effective up to an altitude of about one wingspan.

      The Whitehead Myth began (after earlier failed attempts) with the August 18, 1901, issue of the Sunday Bridgeport Herald, which published a patchwork of a tall tale about Whitehead supposedly 'flying' on August 14, 1901.

      The Herald article was anonymous - no one saw fit to claim authorship of that misbegotten article - and was published on page 5, which that paper commonly reserved for odd-ball and false tabloid stories of strange events and eccentric people.

      One of the least appealing aspects of the argument in favor of Whitehead involves an attack on the accomplishments of the Wright brothers. If, as Whitehead advocates say, Whitehead had flown in 1901, what relevance would there be in attacking the 1903 flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright ?

      The Whitehead Myth was born and is kept alive in large part by the untruths and exaggerations told by Whitehead and others, by rank speculation, by glaring misinterpretations and raw emotion.

      The Whitehead Myth cannot be sustained by hard facts.


(Click HERE to enter the Gustave Whitehead - What Did He Do website)