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dot_clear.gifExploring the Aviation Adventure

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The first attempt since 1901 to actually study the aerodynamics of Whitehead's design took place at Sikorsky Memorial Airport, Stratford, Connecticut, in 1986. The test pilot was Andrew Kosch (photo by Morgan Kaolian).
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesThe September 19, 1903, Scientific American full-page report by its aeronautical editor Stanley Yale Beach told of Whitehead making powered flights in what had been his triplane glider, which also predates the flights made at Kitty Hawk the following December!
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesBeach reported on page 204 in the September 19, 1903, Scientific American edition: "… By running with the machine against the wind after the motor had been started, the aeroplane was made to skim along above the ground at heights of from 3 to 16 feet for a distance, without the operator touching, of about 350 yards. It was possible to have traveled a much longer distance, without the operator touching terra firma, but for the operator's desire not to get too far above it. Although the motor was not developing its full power, owing to the speed not exceeding 1,000 R.P.M., it developed sufficient to move the machine against the wind …. Having proven that a less powerful motor will do the work, Mr. Whitehead is now constructing one of 6 horsepower which will weigh between 25 and 30 pounds …."
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesThe engine shown in the September 1903 article was the engine exhibited by Whitehead at the Second Annual Exhibit of the Aero Club of America in December 1906 that was shown in the photo between the Curtiss and Wright engines.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesAn identical engine was bought by Thomas "Lucky" Baldwin, who installed it in his California Arrow airship during the preparations to fly it at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. When the Wrights sought a lightweight engine for their powered experiments at Kitty Hawk, Octave Chanute urged Wilbur to look into the ones being built by Gustave Whitehead.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesOrville Wright denied they had ever visited Whitehead at his shop, stating they had only stopped in Bridgeport while on the train to Boston. That seems strange, for the Wrights were lent the use of an office by Simon Lake, Bridgeport's famed pioneer submarine inventor, as was reported in a Bridgeport newspaper. Men who worked in Whitehead's shop on Pine Street also recalled when the Wrights visited Gustave Whitehead.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesBack in the 1960s when we began our investigation, we were informed that the Smithsonian NASM had no knowledge about Whitehead's early claims of powered flight until Stella Randolph's book came out in 1937. Nearly two decades later, we discovered the Smithsonian had produced a "Bibliography of Aeronautics" covering the years up through 1912; in it, a great number of the references are cross-indexed under the names of both Whitehead and Weisskopf. Since the Museum's book covering references on hand in their collection shows they knew a lot about what was being reported about Whitehead's work and claims, it is hard to understand why the Smithsonian never once contacted Whitehead, or for that matter, ever contacted his family after his death in 1927. His engines, papers and original glass negatives were still at his home until the time his family moved to Florida after WW II. Unfortunately, little has survived: five of the books he studied along with a working scale model of his 1898 steam engine and some miscellaneous parts and wooden patterns salvaged by Stella Randolph in the mid-1930s. All else went to the town dump or to scrap-metal yards.

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The Gustav Weisskopf (Gustave Whitehead) monument erected in 1991 near Whitehead's birthplace in Leutershausen, Germany, is crowned by an all-metal, full-scale skeletal airframe. The monument credits Whitehead with successful, sustained, 1901, powered flights. In the America Dienst (America Service) September 14, 1983, news bulletin, the U.S. Embassy in Germany credited Whitehead with successful 1901 (sustained) powered flight. This bulletin appeared during the U.S. government's 1983 tributes to one of the most eminent German geniuses to migrate to America.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesNo marker, other than number 42, marked Whitehead's grave until our squadron and the CAHA dedicated a fitting monument in 1964. Leutershausen, Germany, where he was born in 1874, erected a monument to his memory in 1981 adjacent to a grammar school they renamed after him. In the early 1990s, the town erected a tall obelisk that supports a full-scale metal framework of his 1901 no. 21 powered monoplane.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesWhitehead never claimed he built and flew a practical flying machine. He merely stated he built and tested a pair of silken wings and tasted the winds and saw the promise of yet greater machines that would plod the airborne trails of what he described as "… the only Universal Highway."
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesIn a letter to Fred L. Black dated October 19, 1937, in response to Black's inquiring about Whitehead, Orville Wright states, "In the case of Whitehead, the design of the machine is in itself enough to refute the statements that the machine flew."
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesThe ultimate outcome of all of this was that two Whitehead airframes were built—one by a team here in the USA in 1985 to '86 and one by a team in Germany in the 1990s. As we investigated further, greater detail to the plans was achieved. This allowed a better insight to understanding the Whitehead design.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesThese tests were recorded on videotape, and one evening, I punched the play button on my video machine and watched the German-built reproduction of the Whitehead machine rise into the air and continue down the runway. As it did, Orville Wright's words echoed in my mind, "... the design of the machine is in itself enough to refute the statements that the machine flew ...."
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesNow, having seen the machine fly, it seems the time has come to re-evaluate that statement. It also becomes obvious that it is time for historians to carefully examine the records with an open mind.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesGustave Whitehead was among the first to state that he laid no claim to inventing the first practical flying machine. In all fairness, however, can that claim be laid at the Wright brothers' doorstep based entirely on their 1903 flights?
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesThe definition of "flight" is being applied to history in a subjective manner, and that must cease, if for no other reason than that it confuses the issue. A machine that rises off level ground under its own power with no catapulting devices and stays there is "flying." Examining the records with that definition, it becomes obvious Whitehead "flew" prior to December 17, 1903. But it appears others may have as well.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesDid Whitehead fly first? No one knows for sure. A.M. Herring may have been first. Or maybe Maxim. That isn't important. What is important is that sufficient evidence exists for even the biggest skeptic to re-examine his ironclad position on the Wright brothers.
dot_clear.gif - 43 BytesIn the end, the Wrights can lay clear claim to having developed the first "practical" airplane. But the first "powered flight?" That is debatable! littleplane.gif - 166 Bytes ("Whitehead Reproductions" sidebar, continued)
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