Southwestern Connecticut is now being recognized as the birthplace of powered flight by at least one of the world’s top aviation experts.
The publication, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, in its 100th anniversary edition March 8, acknowledged that Gustave Whitehead flew his No. 21 aircraft more than two years before the Wright brothers left the ground at Kitty Hawk. Whitehead was a German immigrant who settled in the Bridgeport area.
In its major shift in aviation — and world — history, Jane’s cited recent research and photo analysis presented by John Brown, an Australian researcher who works in the aviation industry in Germany.
Brown did not set out to research Gustave Whitehead. The Smithsonian Channel commissioned him to research flying cars. During that he came upon Whitehead’s name, and descriptions of his craft — as well as of his flight.
Researcher knew little about Whitehead
Brown said during a telephone interview he was aware “in a very superficial way” of Whitehead. “I was in Germany in 2001, the 100th anniversary of Whitehead’s flight,” Brown said. “A friend of mine said he did not fly.”
Brown details his case that Whitehead was first at gustave-whitehead.com.
Not all agree. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum issued a statement March 15 defending the Wrights and dismissing Whitehead for a lack of evidence. Attributed to Senior Aeronautics Curator Tom Crouch, the statement is subtitled, “A fresh look at the evidence.”
Brown said when Whitehead’s name came up during his research at the Smithsonian, “I was almost thrown out.”
The Smithsonian-Wright family contract
The Smithsonian has no choice but to recognize that the Wright brothers were first. The agreement that gives the museum possession of the Wright Flyer includes this legal caveat: “The Smithsonian shall [not state] any aircraft … earlier than the Wright aeroplane of 1903 … was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”
In recognizing Whitehead, Jane’s cited the existence of this clause as evidence that the Bridgeport area was the site of the first flight. Paul Jackson, editor of Jane’s, said this eliminates recognition that lighter-than-air airships flew before fixed-wing aircraft.
Only after a Freedom of Information request from then-U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut in the 1970s was the Smithsonian’s signing on to a legal restriction on history disclosed to the public.
“Without mentioning names, my friends there also find the contract very objectionable,” Brown said.
“History is normally written by researchers who have dispassionately [analyzed] all relevant data and not, as here, by the lawyers of interested parties,” Jackson wrote.
“I see that as a separate issue,” Brown said. “I don’t think there’s anyone involved in science or history on the planet who would not resoundingly condemn the Smithsonian for entering into such an agreement.”
Smithsonian: ‘Unsupported assumptions’
The contract between the museum and the Wright brothers is not mentioned in the Smithsonian’s rebuttal of Jane’s and Brown. The Smithsonian wrote that the decision by Jane’s to credit Whitehead was made “on the basis of biased information and unsupported assumptions offered in the new website. …
“… Mr. Jackson would have been well advised to take a look at the historical record of the case, and not make his decision based on a flawed website,” Crouch continued. “When it comes to the case of Gustave Whitehead, the decision must remain — not proved.”
“In fairness to the Smithsonian,” Brown said before the Smithsonian rebuttal was issued, “ I’d love to have an open debate and peer review of my work. But if the there is a peer reviewing my work and in the back of his mind he knows he’s being fired if he approves of my work, he can’t make a judgment. He has an interest.”
A photo of Whitehead’s flight?
In an argument repeated by the Smithsonian in its latest denial of Whitehead’s claim, doubters have insisted there was no clear photo of Whitehead in flight.
“The Battle of Hastings never happened, the War of Independence never happened, because there is no photo of it,” Brown said. “There’s no historian’s manual that there has to be a photo for it to have happened.”
There is an image, just not a clear one. Brown realized that for decades the wrong photo had been scrutinized, and had another studied using modern technology. That photo strongly resembles the woodcut of Whitehead’s first flight, the adjusted image showing the No. 21 aloft, although the sketch of the scene had been altered before its publication in the Aug. 18, 1901 edition of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald.
Brown and others said it was common for newspapers to do that in the 1900s, pointing out similar alterations to images depicting the Wrights’ first flight.
Smithsonian: Photo documentation for Wrights
Crouch dismisses the photo study by both Brown and Jane’s.
“From my point of view, it does not look anything like a machine in flight, certainly nothing to compare with the brilliant clarity of the images of the 1903 Wright airplane in the air, images that are among the most famous photos ever taken,” Crouch wrote.
“Then there is the missing photo,” Crouch also writes. “In an article describing an indoor New York aeronautical show in 1906, the Scientific American noted that: ‘A single blurred photograph of a large bird-like machine propelled by compressed air, and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901, was the only other photograph beside Langley’s machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight.’
“Another contemporary news article also mentions a photo of a powered Whitehead machine in the air displayed in a shop window,” Crouch continued. “No such photograph has ever been located, in spite of the best efforts of Whitehead supporters to turn one up over the years. This author has always assumed that the photo in question was actually one of the well-known photos of unpowered Whitehead gliders in the air.”
Whitehead photos damaged?
Andrew Kosch, a Platt Tech teacher who has flown a replica of No. 21, said there were photographs of flights but the glass negatives were improperly stacked and were damaged.
Brown said he’s not sure how much the photographic analysis drove Jane’s decision.
“It really depends on how well you can read the mind of Jane’s,” Brown said. “For him, and me too, it’s a combination of all the factors. He attaches lot of significance to the 17 witness statements, that journalists were invited to flight, the extent to which it was covered worldwide. It was very widely reported.”
Brown’s website links to more than 300 articles detailing Whitehead’s flight.
Witnesses to Whitehead’s feat
In addition to the image clarified by modern technology, Brown argues that 17 people from Whitehead’s era signed sworn affidavits indicating that they saw the Whitehead craft airborne in Bridgeport, Fairfield and Stratford.
“We as historians are bound by the same rules courts are,” Brown said.
In legal proceedings, he said, if 17 people said they witnessed a crime and there was surveillance footage, however fuzzy, the burden of proof would have been met.
Crouch, writing for the Smithsonian, dismisses affidavits supporting Whitehead as being obtained decades after the flight would have happened. Witnesses who support Whitehead’s claims are dismissed as having worked for the German for a short time.
Those who gave him money and deny Whitehead left the ground are given more weight by the Smithsonian, citing a 1906 Scientific American article.
Supporters of Whitehead say he made poor choices in business partners, including criminals. One seized aircraft from Whitehead, claiming money owed.
Other flights by Whitehead
Brown said there is circumstantial evidence, such as Whitehead’s experience building gliders. “Whitehead had been building provable planes since 1894,” Brown said. “He had seven years to get ready.”
In later years, Whitehead was a major provider of engines for aircraft built by others.
The Smithsonian cites the lack of reference to future flights by Whitehead as a reason to believe he never left the ground in 1901.
There has been one flight by a replica of No. 21. In 1986, Andy Kosch flew a replica of the aircraft that he built based on Whitehead’s plans, powered by engines from an ultralight plane, at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford to bolster the case that Whitehead’s construction could have gotten off the ground.
That flight is not addressed in the Smithsonian’s three-page rebuttal of Jane’s.
“It’s Gustave Whitehead’s occasion,” said Brown, now working on a Web story about the Wright brothers. “The Wrights are not the issue, Jane’s is not the issue. The issue is Mr. Whitehead and his achievement.”
Brown, Kosch, and Andrew King, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Air and Space Museum in Stratford, all say their goal is not to diminish the Wrights’ place in history.
“They commercialized aviation,” King said.
“Their airplane was better,” Kosch said.
What they want is for Whitehead to be given what they see as his rightful place as being first.
‘A preponderance of evidence’
“I agree the standard has to be high,” Brown said of the witness statements. “I’m not saying it’s clear, I’m saying there’s a preponderance of evidence.”
Jackson wrote that had Jane’s been launched earlier, founder Fred Jane would have recorded Whitehead’s early efforts.
In the case of Whitehead, Jackson wrote that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
He concludes, “… an injustice is rectified with only slight bruising to Wilbur and Orville’s reputation. The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead.”
John Kovach is an editorial director at Hersam Acorn Newspapers, publisher of the Shelton Herald. This is part of a three-part series.