Gustave Whitehead is back in the news. Whitehead (1874-1927), a native of Leutershausen, Bavaria, who immigrated to the United States, probably in 1894, claimed to have made a sustained powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine on August  14, 1901, two years before the Wright brothers. He further claimed that he had made additional flights of two and seven miles in January 1902. The standard arguments in favor of Whitehead’s flight claims were first put forward in a book published in 1937, and have been restated many times, most recently in a controversial website that persuaded the editor of aviation reference annual, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft to support the claims. The evidence in the Whitehead case includes questionable news articles, much testimony both for and against the claims, and a supposed photograph of Whitehead’s Number 22 machine in the air, which, if it ever existed, has not been seen since 1906. Supporters of the claims have been arguing in favor of Whitehead for many years, while the critics, like me, have been vigorously refuting their evidence. I believe that the time has come to move beyond the confusing mass of contradictory detail, rising out of the trees to gain a view of the forest and reach a rational conclusion. Why do I reject the Whitehead claims? Consider this sequence of events.

  • Fall 1897: In October 1897 a reporter for the New York Herald interviewed Whitehead at his boarding house at 130 Prince Street, where he saw two flying machines. The first was a triplane hang glider clearly based on a similar craft designed the year  before by Chicago engineer Octave Chanute and his assistant, Augustus Moore Herring, and flown by Herring in the dunes ringing the southern shore of Lake Michigan in the summer of 1896, and again in 1897.The fact that Whitehead was flying a copy of the Chanute-Herring original indicates that he was working with the most advanced aircraft structure of the era. But Whitehead showed the reporter a second machine that was under construction. This craft was very different, with bird or bat-like wings that would have been much more frail than the sturdy, braced triplane wings.
  • 1901-1902: Whitehead, now living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, claimed that on August 14, 1901 he had flown a machine that he identified as Number 21 for a distance of one-half mile. He later claimed to have flown Number 22, a heavier version of his basic design with a metal structure, for flights of two and seven miles over Long Island Sound.With their birdlike wings, Numbers 21 and 22 had obviously evolved from the original craft shown to the reporter in 1897. They represent a step backwards from the trussed beam structure of his Chanute-Herring glider.
  • September 1903: In the fall of 1903, a reporter for the Scientific American visited Whitehead in Bridgeport.Twenty months after he claimed to have made a seven mile flight in the bird-like Number 22, Whitehead is once again experimenting with a new version of the Chanute-Herring triplane hang glider. The questions are apparent.

Why was Whitehead no longer flying Numbers 21, 22, or a more developed version of the configuration in which he claimed to have enjoyed such success?   Why did Whitehead abandon a configuration that he claimed had enabled him to make flights of up to seven miles, in favor of returning to a design that was now eight years old and obsolete?   Why did Whitehead not call the attention of the readers of the Scientific American to his claim to have flown a very different powered machine over considerable distances less than two years before?  

Over the next decade, as aviators in American and Europe took to the sky following the pattern established by the Wright brothers, Whitehead would continue to build aircraft for other enthusiasts. Not one of those powered machines ever left the ground. My conclusion--either Whitehead had somehow forgotten the secrets of flight, or he had never flown a powered machine at all.

In its issue of December 26, 1903, just three months after Scientific American had reported Whitehead’s experiments with an obsolete hang glider, the journal noted that the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had made some “successful experiments” with a powered flying machine operating under the complete control of a pilot.  Unlike Whitehead, who had kept virtually no record his experiments, the Wrights had documented their work in detailed, notebooks, letters, and photographs, including what is arguably the most famous photograph ever taken.  

Wright Flyer With Orville Wright at the controls and Wilbur Wright mid-stride, right, the 1903 Wright Flyer makes its first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, December 17, 1903.


I rest my case.   Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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