21 Apr 2014

Were the Wrights Second?


It’s been a little over a year since the editors of Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft, the aviation industry’s bible, caused controversy by declaring that the honor of achieving the first powered, fixed-wing flight does not belong to Orville and Wilbur Wright, as long supposed. Instead, Jane’s backed the claims favoring Gustave Whitehead, a German émigré and engineer. Whitehead, based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, began to describe his experiments for the local press with powered flying machines as early as 1901—fully two years before the Wrights’ first flight on December 17, 1903.

Recent research has brought to light more articles and eyewitness statements that lend circumstantial support to the claims in favor of Whitehead— in fact, it was largely the efforts of one historian, John Brown, which convinced the editors of Jane’s Whitehead flew first. In this article, we give an outline of the claim for Whitehead.


The Claim


Gustave Whitehead (or Weisskopf) was born in Germany in 1874. Orphaned at the age of 13, he became a machinist’s apprentice, and after two years emerged as a qualified maker of combustion engines—the eventual key to his flyers’ alleged success. By the time he arrived in America in 1893, he had built up his engine construction skills, spent time as a sailor, and possibly also worked as an assistant to Otto Lilienthal, the German wing aerodynamics pioneer who achieved the first manned, but unpowered, flights.

Certainly, his first job in the US involved aviation: he became chief mechanic to the Boston Aeronautical Society, America’s first aviation society. Whitehead was involved with designing and building kites, gliders, and flyers. He began to build his own flyers at home, seeking to marry a Lilienthal-type glider to the light, powerful engines that were his specialty. Throughout the 1890s he held regular demonstrations of his gliders for the press, and reportedly, in 1899, crashed a powered aircraft in Pittsburgh.

However, it is his 21st aircraft, the “Condor”, that is the controversial one. According to an eyewitness report in the Bridgeport Courier (attributed to the newspaper’s editor), on August 14th, 1901, Whitehead took the Condor to Fairfield, Connecticut. There, he was reportedly able to fly the machine for half a mile, up to a height of 50 feet.

Accompanying the article was a lithograph of Whitehead in action, soaring proudly over a fence, but no photographs of the event are known to exist. More frustratingly, Whitehead kept almost no records of his testing activities, and bad luck with his financial backers (one of whom wound up in a mental institution) meant that he was unable to sustain his powered flight experiments for very long. This inability to produce further airworthy machines seriously undermined Whitehead’s claims, and he died in 1927 of a heart attack.

However, recent research, largely by Australian historian John Brown, has made a persuasive case for Whitehead’s supporters. Brown, hired by the Smithsonian to perform research into other aspects of aviation, stumbled across the Whitehead story while working in the archives. Using today’s technology, he was able to find more accounts and witness statements backing up the 1901 flight. Whitehead’s achievement is still disputed by the Smithsonian. Additionally, it recently came to light that the Smithsonian signed a contract with the Wrights promising never to acknowledge any other aviator as first in flight in exchange for having the Wright Flyer in the museum’s permanent collection.

What if Whitehead Was First?

If smoking-gun photographic evidence of Whitehead’s 1901 flight were suddenly re-discovered, it might cause some re-writing of history books. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the Wright Brothers and their designs were largely responsible for the start of the aviation age. Our military and commercial aircraft all owe a debt to the Wrights’ achievements and engineering prowess, whether it is in the design of their control system or in the idea of wind tunnel testing, a technique the Wrights popularized. A look around at today’s aviation world will show anyone that, even if Whitehead was first, the Wrights have the last word.

Goyer, Robert. “Wright Brothers Not First to Fly.” Flying Magazine. March 14, 2013. http://www.flyingmag.com/pilots-places/pilots-adventures-more/wright-brothers-not-first-fly.