Round & Round It Goes...

GUSTAVE WHITEHEAD - The Tethered "Flights"
© 2013 - Carroll F. Gray — Posted: September 5, 2013

      One of the enduring and lesser known mysteries about Gustave Whitehead's activities involves his use of smaller powered machines, meant to fly while tethered and without an operator aboard. No known photographs or drawings or other depictions exist of any of those smaller powered machines he might have built. The only "evidence" that such things existed are statements by people whom Stella Randolph, and others, interviewed. The emphasis of those interviews was on flights with people aboard, primarily "flights" of his No. 21 machine, and so the issue of tethered "flights" was not seen to be so important.

      There are several mentions in statements of related matters, which give some hint that something of that nature (tethered flights of powered smaller machines) might well have happened. This discussion requires speculation due to the limited amount of information available on the topic of Whitehead testing flying machine models on a tether, and while speculation is not a desirable tool for historical inquiry, it can serve a limited purpose.

      Consider what Cecil A. Steeves had to say to Stella Randolph, almost in passing, on February 1, 1937…

      "Many and many a time I have watched him test a plane while it traveled around and around, in a circle, these tests taking place in his yard, with the plane tied by a rope to a stake which had been driven into the ground, the yard being so small that the plane would have had to have been dismantled in order to have tested it elsewhere. During these tests the plane would rise from three to five feet off the ground."

      Louis Lazay, on January 4, 1936, stated…

      "I remember when he had a large boat shaped plane, circling it about a stake driven into the ground and held by cement. The place was about 100 feet in diameter I should judge."

      Randolph's interview notes of Joseph D. Ratzenberger - on the same date as Louis Lazay's interview - state…

      "He recalled seeing Whitehead fly his planes attached to a stake fastened to the ground with concrete."

      Ratzenberger's affidavit, dated January 28, 1936, states…

      "I recall other planes constructed by Gustave Whitehead which he tested by attaching them to a stake in his yard and letting the motor drive them so that they were kept going about in a circle."

      Respected British aeronautical historian Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith had this response to Ratzenberger's statement about a "plane" tethered to a stake… "Mr. Ratzenberger goes on to say that he remembers Whitehead attaching other powered planes to a central post and flying them tethered; this could only have referred to models."

      One reason the tethered "flights" are of interest is their effect on the statements made by "witnesses" decades later. Several of the witness statements could well be about these tethered powered smaller machines, and it is the interpretation of those statements by Randolph and O'Dwyer (especially by O'Dwyer) which pushed them into the category of full-fledged flying machines. Had more detail been developed about the tethered machines, perhaps much of the confusion which surrounds what Whitehead did and did not do would be greatly reduced.

      It is certainly possible that when people, some at least, recalled seeing a machine fly they were referring to observing the tethered powered smaller machines circling around, many decades before.

      In 1936, during his interview by Randolph, John Lesko remembered a concrete runway which Whitehead began to build in the vicinity of the present St. Stephen's School. "He never finished the runway because he could not get permission from the owner of the land to use it." In his affidavit - dated September 3, 1964, some 28 years after the events he described - Lesko stated

      "After making tests of the engine and propellers for some time, Whitehead built a concrete, almost semi-circular runway and a small wooden platform from which to take off. After several attempts at flight, his plane flew a distance of 30 to 50 feet at a height of approximately 4 feet. This was his first flying so far as I know."

      In a letter to Randolph, dated April 22, 1950, Junius Harworth wrote…

      "W. [note: "Whitehead"] had a way of reworking a model and giving it a new number. Affidavit #8 was plane 21. W constructed a circular concrete track on Wordin avenue just west of Bostwick. This track was about 60 feet in diameter, four or five feet wide and cement just shovelled and trayed over the sod. Today, as I know cement work this was a very poor job, however W set his Pacific Iron Works steam boiler in the center of the track and with a rotary line fed the steam to his plane. I was present during tests and the plane did rise on application of full steam power. W was convinced at this time and enthusiastically told the crowd about that his plane was designed correct and that his next power plant installed aboard would make his plane fly. Lesko affidavit, page 89 states that W built a runway on St. Stephens property and that it was never finished. That is true but W's second track was constructed and used a[s] explained above as a circular track etc."


(Locations of the Whitehead home at 241-½ Pine St., Whitehead's Cherry St. shop, Wilmot & Hobbs metal works, St. Stephen's School, and the approximate location of the 60 ft. concrete circular track)

      The evidence, thin as it is, appears to indicate that Whitehead constructed two circular concrete tracks, one, some 100 ft. in diameter, was only partially completed because Whitehead did not have the permission of that parcel's owner to build the remaining part of the track - the track seems to have occupied two separate parcels. Parcels in that area of Bridgeport were commonly either 50 ft. or 60 ft. wide, so two would have been needed for a 100 ft. diameter track.

      Apparently, after the first circular track was left uncompleted, a second circular track some 60 ft. in diameter was constructed and completed, and was 4 or 5 ft. in width. A steam boiler taken from a boat was located at the center of the circle and fed live steam through a "rotary line" - which would have been some 30 ft. long - to the flying machine or model being tested. The two compound two-cylinder engines used to turn the propellers of the No. 21 would have worked (as all steam engines can) with compressed air or steam.

      A track 5 ft. wide and 60 ft. in diameter will have a circumference (measured at the center of the track) of some 173 ft, which means that 30 circuits of the track will equal about one mile, while 46 circuits will equal just over one and one-half miles. At an average speed of 30 m.p.h., one mile would be traversed in two minutes, and one and one-half miles in three minutes.

      The impression which arises from all this is that of an amusement ride, with a winged flying machine circling on a track until it was able to lift up, probably under ground effect as opposed to free flight, and circle, a few feet above the track. The weight of the machine, plus that of the rotary line (and the aerodynamic drag of that line), as well as the weight of an operator, if one were ever aboard, would have severely limited any possible "altitude" being reached.

      In order to ensure that the flying machine being "tested" did not flip over or pull the steam feed line loose, as well as to maintain a constant distance from a central pivot point, some sort of fixed suspension assembly would have been required. Horatio Frederick Phillips used a rig with a 200 ft. diameter track which could well have served as a model for Whitehead, again, assuming Whitehead built such a device. The Phillips track was built at Harrow, England, during 1892-93 to test the aerofoils Phillips was designing.

      A description of Phillip's work was included (pp. 166-172) in Octave Chanute's 1894 Progress in Flying Machines, a copy of which Whitehead had taken in 1897 from the Buffalo New York Public Library. The Phillips design incorporated an onboard steam boiler and engine, whereas Whitehead's is said to have had the steam boiler mounted in concrete at the center of the track, with a line feeding steam to the flying machine or model being tested. It is noteworthy that the Phillips section in Progress in Flying Machines mentions that the Phillips wing testing undercarriage had wheels which were 1 ft. in diameter, the same diameter as the wooden wheels on the Whitehead No. 21 machine.

The James Dickie Affidavit
(See Article Fabrications, Oversights, Mistakes, & “later admissions” for a discussion of the Dickie Affidavit and related matters)

      The James Dickie affidavit, dated April 2, 1937, has been the source of much discussion over the years for a number of reasons, with O'Dwyer denouncing it as the statement of someone embittered over not being paid, and pointing to various passages as being ill-informed or simply wrong. The following part of Dickie's affidavit has been especially criticized by Whitehead enthusiasts as being confused - in particular, Dickie's honest mention of a large steam boiler has drawn undeserved sarcastic comments.

      "The airplane shown in pictures no. 32 and 42 in which my picture appears never flew, to the best of my knowledge and belief. Steam was supplied from a boiler from a boat, made by the Pacific Iron works which weighed about 700 to 1000 pounds. It was about 2 1/2 feet wide, 4 feet long and 3 feet high. It was impossible for the plane, constructed as lightly as it was, to carry such a boiler. Furthermore, [following handwritten] 'the boiler was on the ground a hose carried steam to plane engine.' the wheels were of laminated wood, and so far as I can recall had no metal rims. They could not have traveled at any great speed or long distance over the ground. The wings were of cheap canvas and if the plane had traveled in the air at sufficient speed to keep it in the air, the force of the wind through the holes where the canvas was stitched to the bamboo poles would have ripped it from the poles."

      Dickie's statement makes very good sense when read as a description of a track with a steam boiler feeding live steam to a tethered circling flying machine. The text of the statement is apparently jumbled because, it seems, the statement is a series of answers without the questions that prompted the answers. The effect of that is make Dickie's affidavit seem scattered. That would also help to explain why Dickie wanted to add - in handwriting - a further explanation of what he was saying.

The Undiscovered Photograph — A Hypothesis
(See Articles The Photographs - Whitehead Aloft They Are Not and The Search For The Phantom Photograph of Whitehead In Flight" for discussions of "The Photograph")

      Another longstanding mystery related to Whitehead, is what - precisely - did the photograph depict that was on display at the January 1906 Aero Club of America's first exhibition in New York. The photo was described in the January 27, 1906, Scientific American as "A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air, and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901, was the only other photograph besides that of Langley's machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight."

      It is possible that the photograph on display in 1906 was of a Whitehead machine, perhaps No. 21, being "flown" on the tethered rig, without anyone aboard, using compressed air held in reservoirs at the front of the machine.

bow drawing (1936 Harworth drawing cropped and edited for clarity - overhead view of bow section of Whitehead No. 21 machine)

      In 1936, Junius Harworth drew a plan of No. 21 on which he wrote "#21 4-cyl, compressed air motor" and drew an arrow to the bow section of No. 21's hull with the caption "pressure tanks #21").