First in Flight: The Wright Brothers or Connecticut's Gustave Whitehead?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 27, 2014

FAIRFIELD, CONNECTICUT—It’s a pleasant bungalow, with a wide porch supported by stone columns, and it’s on a quiet street in suburban Connecticut. But the tranquility is somewhat marred by the big sign announcing the home’s imminent demolition. That’s distressing, because this is no ordinary house—it’s the final residence of one Gustave Whitehead, the man whose aerial loop over Long Island Sound in 1901 (if indeed it happened) will knock the Wright Brothers off the lofty “first in flight” pedestal they’ve occupied for a century.
 Gustave Whitehead's Connecticut home, just days from the wrecking ball. (Jim Motavalli photo)Whitehead, a German immigrant at a time of strong prejudice, has long dwelt in the shadows, but now he’s starting to come into focus. A bitter battle is emerging between Whitehead’s small band of supporters (including replica builders) and Wright’s powerful lobby (including the Smithsonian, which displays the Wright Brothers original plane). Both have had victories lately.
At Fairfield’s Earth Day Celebration, a card table displayed photos of the mustachioed Whitehead and his plane, with contemporary news reports from, among others, the Bridgeport Herald, proclaiming the aviator’s flights. Behind the table was a full-sized replica of Whitehead’s plane, which builder Andy Kosch, who was present in a Whitehead t-shirt, constructed in the 1980s and successfully flew in 1986.  “It’s a very exact replica,” he said, though the Wright forces dispute this, too (they say it’s much better than the original).
 Andy Kosch with the replica of Whitehead's "Old 21" he flew in 1986. (Jim Motavalli photo)Here’s what the Herald said on August 18, 1901:

[T]he machine darted up through the air like a bird released from a cage. Whitehead was greatly excited and his hands flew from one part of the machine to another. The newspaper man and the two assistants stood still for a moment watching the air ship in amazement. Then they rushed down the sloping grade after the air ship. She was flying now about fifty feet above the ground and made a noise very much like the “chug, chug, chug,” of an elevator going down the shaft.

The Wrights’ website makes a big deal of the Herald’s habit of reporting on weirdness, such as a Christmas ghost and the “Dog Man of Windham,” as well as it’s relegating the Whitehead story to page 5. But similar news stories about what was arguably the first automobile’s maiden voyage were in the back of French papers, too.
 The Herald's 1901 illustration of Whitehead in flight. Too bad there's no photo. The case for Whitehead and his “Old 21” plane is made in two old books and a contemporary comic book by supporter Bob Sodaro (who was also present in Fairfield, and calls the aviator “a hero for all of us here in the Nutmeg State”).
The big problem for Whitehead supporters is that there’s no photographic evidence of the man’s plane in the air, as there is for the Wrights’ well-documented flight in 1903. The Herald article is, unfortunately, graced not with a photo but a lovely illustration. That was common practice then, because photo reproduction was poor. Whitehead’s troops maintain that a clear photo of the plane in flight was displayed in the window of a Bridgeport storefront, but if so it’s lost now.
Bob Sodaro created a comic book promoting Whitehead. (Jim Motavalli photo) Some claim to see the long lost photo in the background of a panoramic shot of the 1906 Aero Club of America “Exhibition of Aeronautical Apparatus.” Enlarged, the image is so blurry it could actually show anything. The Whitehead camp says it’s his plane 20 feet off the ground; the Wrights say it’s a California glider. The evidence was compelling enough for the editor of the influential Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, Paul Jackson, to come out in favor of Whitehead’s accomplishments in 2013. He seems to have backtracked since.
The replica of Whitehead's plane displayed at a local Earth Day celebration. (Jim Motavalli photo) At this point, we’re not going to know definitively if Whitehead really did get off the ground in the first powered flight. The Wrights make a pretty compelling case against him here. If Whitehead really did fly that day, why didn’t he repeat the experiment more publicly, with observant hordes and phalanxes of photographers? There are affidavits from the few people who supposedly saw Whitehead fly, but at least one of those witnesses recanted later. And the great man’s later aviation adventures weren’t all that successful. That smoking-gun photo isn’t going to suddenly turn up now, alas, though there are plenty of pictures of the plane on the ground.
 Gustave Whitehead: Did he or didn't he?But they sure believe it in Whitehead’s Connecticut, where the legislature passed a bill honoring “Powered Flight Day” last year. The version of the bill I saw seems a bit ambiguous: It instructs the state to honor “the first powered flight by [the Wright brothers] Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry.” What? Say that again. But in any case the bill ramps up the state’s commitment since 1968, when Whitehead was recognized as “father of Connecticut aviation.”
And Fairfield is getting into the act, too. Last week it weighed in, since town leadership was catching a lot of flak for letting the great aviator’s house be knocked down. When I arrived in Fairfield, Ed Collins was circulating a petition to give the house a stay of execution, and he was taking on all comers who argued otherwise. But the town maintains that it has no justification for stopping the wrecking ball, that the house was extensively modified in any case, and that it’s building support for an historical marker on the site and a “Whitehead Trail” in town.
The whole thing is somewhat comical. I have to say that the Whitehead forces just can’t prove their case, with the available evidence, and the Wrights have formidable allies. The Smithsonian is also powerful, and is bound—now the conspiracy theorists really go into overdrive—by a clause that would remove the Wrights plane from their custody if the institution ever disputes the “first in flight” claim.
I’ve been to both Kitty Hawk and the Fairfield beach where Whitehead (who died in 1927) supposedly flew. Both are plausible locations for that historical first, but only Kitty Hawk is a revered national monument. In the absence of some long-lost evidence, it’s going to stay that way.  

Update: After presstime, the Whitehead house in Fairfield got at least a brief stay of execution as the town tries to figure out if it was more than 100 years old. If so, it gets a short grace period that would possibly allow its supporters to move it somewhere else.

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