Why Gustave Whitehead's August 14, 1901, "Flight" Did Not Happen

In His Own Words
© 2013 - 2014 Carroll F. Gray
Posted: July 27, 2013

      The August 18, 1901, Bridgeport Sunday Herald provides a rare opportunity to read what Gustave Whitehead had to say about his reported "flight" of August 14th. A lengthy quote is run as a sidebar - "Gustave Whitehead's Story" - to the Sunday Herald article, in which Whitehead shares his feelings and recollections about his supposed early morning "flight" of the 14th:

GW's Story
      "I never felt such a strange sensation as when the machine first left the ground and started on her flight. I heard nothing but the rumbling of the engine and the flapping of the big wings. I don't think I saw anything during the first two minutes of the flight, for I was so excited with the sensations I experienced. When the ship had reached a height of about forty or fifty feet I began to wonder how much higher it would go. But just about that time I observed that she was sailing along easily and not raising any higher. I felt easier, for I still had a feeling of doubt about what was waiting for me further on. I began now to feel that I was safe and all that it would be necessary for me to do to keep from falling was to keep my head and not make any mistakes with the machinery. I never felt such a spirit of freedom as I did during the ten minutes that I was soaring up above my fellow beings in a thing that my own brain had evolved. It was a sweet experience. It made me feel that I was far ahead of my brothers for I could fly like a bird, and they must still walk.

      "And while my brain was whirling with these new sensations of delight I saw ahead a clump of trees that the machine was pointed straight for. I knew that I must in some way steer around those trees or raise above them. I was a hundred yards distant from them and I knew that I could not clear them by raising higher, and also that I had no means of steering around them by using the machinery. Then like a flash a plan to escape the trees came to mind. I had watched the birds when turned out of a straight course to avoid something ahead. They changed their bodies from a horizontal plane to one slightly diagonal to the horizontal. To turn to the left the bird would lower its left wing or side of its body. The machine ought to obey the same principle and when within about fifty yards of the clump of trees I shifted my weight to the left side of the machine. It swung over a little and began to turn from the straight course. And we sailed around the trees as easy as it was to sail straight ahead.

      "This gave me more confidence and I tried steering the machine to the right by shifting my weight to the right past the center of equilibrium. The machine responded to the slightest shifting of weight. It was most sensitive.

      "I had soared through the air now for half a mile and not far ahead the long field ended with a piece of woods. When within a hundred yards of the woods I shut off the power and then began to feel a little nervous about how the machine would act in settling to the ground, for so many flying machines have shown a tendency to fall either on the front or hind end and such a fall means broken bones for the operator. [But] my machine began to settle evenly and I alighted on the [ground] with scarcely a jar. And not a thing was broken.

      "That was the happiest moment of my life for I had demonstrated that the machine I have worked on for so many years would do what I claimed for it. It was a grand sensation to be flying through the air. There is nothing like it."

      Accepting that the quotations are accurate, several items stand out...

1)   Whitehead tells us his supposed flight of August 14, 1901, was a novel experience for him:

      "I never felt such a strange sensation as when the machine first left the ground and started on her flight." "I was so excited with the sensations I experienced..." "... these new sensations of delight..." "I never felt such a spirit of freedom..."

      This raises a stark problem for those who support the Whitehead claims, as the March 4, 1898, New York WORLD ran a story in which Whitehead is quoted as claiming to have "flown four and a half miles across a valley, starting from the top of a mountain 2,000 feet high, with a run of thirty feet" in a flapping-wing machine based on his pet condor's wings, as a twenty-two mile-an-hour wind blew - this fanciful event had supposedly happened at some un-named place on an un-stated date.

      The problem for Whitehead advocates is this: if one accepts that Whitehead made a 4-½ mile flight in a flapping wing glider prior to March of 1898 (and why would a Whitehead advocate not accept his claim ?), then the "novelty" aspect of Whitehead's recounting, in direct quotation, of a "flight" on August 14, 1901, is a self-evident falsehood stated by Whitehead. If, on the other hand, Whitehead advocates reject his claim of a 4-½ mile flight prior to March 1898, on some basis, they are agreeing that claim is absurd.

Either way, the claimed "flight" prior to March 1898 cannot be reconciled with the claimed "flight" of August 14, 1901. There's a whopper of a lie in one or the other or both claims.

2)   The statement that the August 14, 1901, half-mile-flight (plus 100 yards) took 10 minutes to complete, means that the average speed of this "flight" would have been a lazy 5.37 kmh (3.34 m.p.h.) - an average youthful walking speed. No. 21 would have certainly stalled at that speed.

      The results of flights tests with a modern version of No. 21, that used a modern engine turning efficient modern propellers, led to the conclusion that the modern version of the No. 21 had a "calculated flying speed of 52 kmh (32.31 mph), while sustained flight would require a speed of at least 49kmh (30.447 mph)" or about 9 times the speed which Whitehead reported for the alleged August 14, 1901, "flight."

The speed of No. 21 on the supposed August 14, 1901, "flight," derived from Whitehead's statement, is an absurdity.

3)   Whitehead says the "plan" to use shifting body weight to control the machine came to him "like a flash" - an inspired spur-of-the-moment idea. However, Whitehead discussed shifting body weight as a means of flight control some 3-1/2 years earlier, in the March 4, 1898, New York WORLD article, wherein he said "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."

      He also had read in Octave Chanute's 1897 Progress In Flying Machines (one of four aviation books he borrowed from the Buffalo Public Library but never returned, the other three being James Means' Aeronautical Annuals for 1895, 1896 and 1897) that Count D'Esterno, whose 1864 design he had certainly used as the basis for his No. 21 machine, had suggested this very technique for control.

      In addition, if Whitehead actually had spent time assisting Otto Lilienthal, which he more than once claimed, then he would have known this method quite intimately, for it was how Lilienthal maneuvered his gliders. The technique was also well-known as the manner of control used by those who experimented with the Herring-Chanute gliders of 1896.

      Whitehead's claim of being inspired in the wee hours of August 14, 1901, to shift his body as a means of flight control is a clear case of fabrication.

Whitehead told a reporter in 1898 about shifting his body weight on a moveable frame to alter the center of gravity and thus to control his "Condor" flapping-wing machine. In addition, if Whitehead worked with Otto Lilienthal, as he claimed, then his 'inspiration' to use shifting body weight to control No. 21 on the supposed August 14, 1901, "flight," is an obviously false statement.

4)   Whitehead tells us that he did not exercise control over his aerial machine until he noticed the oncoming trees and then experienced his "flash" of inspiration. He admits to being oblivious for the first "two minutes" of the "flight" and reports that "When the ship had reached a height of about forty or fifty feet I began to wonder how much higher it would go. But just about that time I observed that she was sailing along easily and not raising any higher. I felt easier, for I still had a feeling of doubt about what was waiting for me further on."

      He presents all this as a passive event, he doesn't say that he intentionally leveled his machine "about forty or fifty feet." altitude - rather, the craft happens to stop rising at that height. Whitehead is telling us he is a passenger in the machine, not the operator of it, further evidence that a flight was not made. He exercises no control over No. 21 until he has his peculiarly revealing moment of inspiration and shifts his body weight.

This reveals Whitehead's notion of "flying" - a passive act - as if riding on the back of a bird. How, therefore, can a reasonable claim be made that the supposed "flight" of August 14, 1901, was The First Flight ?

5)   Speaking of trees looming ahead, Whitehead states "... I had no means of steering around them by using the machinery." - the Whitehead No. 21, according to Whitehead, was, therefore, not controllable "by using the machinery." No. 21 had no mechanical means of control, no surfaces for controlling yaw, no pitch and no roll controls... so Whitehead is claiming that he flew in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable machine.

This reveals Whitehead's naïve understanding of aerial machines and of flying - he built and is supposedly flying a powered machine with no control systems for roll, pitch or yaw.

6)   Whitehead's method of landing his machine was to "shut off the power" rather than actively flying the machine to a landing. The anonymous reporter tells the reader that the machine "... settled down from a height of about fifty feet in two minutes after the propellers stopped." This yields a sink rate of 25 ft. per min. (0.13 m/s). A modern, aerodynamically sophisticated, sailplane has a minimum sink rate of between 0.4 and 0.6 m/s. It's self-evidently true that the Whitehead machine of 1901 could not have had a sink rate of only about 1/4 that of a modern sailplane.

Whitehead tells us that he landed by stopping the engine, and the supposed "eyewitness" reporter informs us that No. 21 floated down at a dreamy sink rate - further evidence that the claimed "flight" of August 14, 1901, did not happen.

      Considering the matter solely on the information given in the anonymous Sunday Herald article, this "flight" - as Whitehead himself describes it - is not a "flight" at all, it is more akin to an amusement ride, moving along at the leisurely pace of 3 m.p.h. [4.8 kph] and gently floating down at 0.42 ft/sec [0.13 m/s] as the ride concludes.

      Had the event actually been a powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight of an aerial machine, Whitehead's description would have been far different. This leads to the simple conclusion that the "flight" which Whitehead described was a fantasy, which explains the tone, tenor and content of Whitehead's quotes.

      The August 18, 1901, Sunday Herald article is the centerpiece of the claims of "flights" by Whitehead, and yet, Whitehead's supporters (Stella Randolph included) urge us to overlook and ignore what are presented as direct quotes from Whitehead himself, which demonstrates a lack of confidence in the veracity of the Sunday Herald article.

      Some supporters of Whitehead postulate that the florid quotes attributed to him in the Sunday Herald article, in English, could not have been accurate, as Whithead had, they say, limited use of English. Yet, by making that argument they harm their underlying argument. If Whitehead had trouble with the English language, then the quotes might be garbled or fabricated and therefore untrue. Yet, if that is so, then why should the article itself be anything other than garbled, fabricated and untrue ? If, on the other hand, the quotes are translated from Whitehead's German, then they presumably reflect what Whitehead actually said about his "flight."

      Selectively deciding which portions of the article are true and which aren't true, to support claims made by and on behalf of Whitehead, reveals an unwillingness to grapple with the implications of the Whitehead quotes in the Sunday Herald article.

      A reader needn't contemplate the meaning of the cone-hatted multiple witches on broomsticks flying past the moon (which is the artwork above the Sunday Herald story) nor even consider the reasons why the article's writer is anonymous, nor reflect on how ludicrous the fantasy Custead Airship is which appears in the Sunday Herald story and is linked to Whitehead's mysterious "generator" - all of that can be ignored as evidence that this story is false, a hoax and not fact, and we would still know the story is faked, based on Gustave Whitehead's own words.

The Whitehead quotes alone, examined by themselves, provide ample proof that the Bridgeport Sunday Herald article is untrue. That, when coupled with the fact that the Sunday Herald story is a re-write of a story which appeared ten weeks earlier in a different newspaper, demonstrates beyond doubt that the Whitehead story which appeared in the Sunday Herald of August 14, 1901, is a fake.