A frequently asked question at the New England Air Museum is about Gustave Whitehead and whether he should be credited as the first person to successfully fly an airplane. This great interest in Whitehead is due, in part, because much of Whitehead’s work was done in the Bridgeport, Connecticut area.
This interest in Whitehead is not new. For quite some time the proponents and antagonists of Whitehead have engaged in a spirited debate as to whether the Whitehead claims of flight are accurate. Because the Museum receives so many questions on this issue, we have created this webpage with some background and links to documentation that these groups have put together.
What is an airplane and what does it mean to “fly”?
An airplane is generally defined as a manned heavier-than-air, fixed-wing vehicle providing powered, sustained and controllable flight through the air. Assuming this definition is acceptable to most readers, we would like you to make up your own mind based on the information that we are providing to you. Did Gustave Whitehead fly in an airplane in the 1901-1902 time period or was it the Wright Brothers who achieved this milestone in 1903 with Wilbur controlling the aircraft over an 852 foot flight?
What does "first to fly" mean?
The Wright brothers did fly in 1903 in an airplane whose technology launched aviation. They did leave a legacy of aeronautical engineering that encouraged a great following of airplane designers such as Glenn Curtiss, William Boeing, Glenn Martin and Donald Douglas. Does “first to fly” mean to be the first to get off the ground for a very short time or does it mean to pave the way for the development of aviation?
The Smithsonian Institution has taken a strong stand on this issue, declaring Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to fly. Many Whitehead proponents have denounced the Smithsonian’s position, suggesting that the Smithsonian had ulterior motives in defending the Wright brothers.
Years ago the Smithsonian declared Wilbur and Orville Wright as the first to fly in 1903. They were the first to fly with a powered and controlled man-carrying airplane. Dr. John D. Anderson, Jr., in his book, The Airplane – A History of Its Technology, explained who should get the credit for the first to fly. Dr. Anderson is the Curator of Aerodynamics at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum and was the Chairman of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Maryland. Dr. Anderson claims the Wright brothers invented the first successful airplane. Wilbur and Orville Wright left a legacy of technology that created Aeronautical Engineering. They went on to interest the United States Military in aviation and stimulated the Europeans’ interest in aviation.
In 1908 Orville Wright set a new world’s record in flying for two hours and 20 minutes covering a distance of 78 miles to win the Coupe de Michelin prize in France. Louis Bleriot, the French inventor, engineer, aviator, exclaimed, “This is the beginning of a new phase of mechanical flight. Wright is a genius. He is the master of us all.” Mr. Bleriot went on to build his own airplane to fly across the English Channel the following year. He continued in World War I to build what was considered to be the best Allied fighter, the SPAD.
Once in a while we do hear of stories of others who have been first to fly. One of the most recent and prevalent stories is about Gustave Whitehead, a very clever mechanic and one of Connecticut’s early pioneers in aviation. Tom Crouch, senior curator, Aeronautics Department, National Air and Space Museum, and author of A Dream of Wings, refutes the Whitehead claim when he says, “If Whitehead had flown in 1901-1902, why did he not work to improve his basic design? Why, in fact did he turn his back on machines for which he made such extravagant claims to construct crude copies of gliders designed by men who had never flown more than a few hundred feet? Why did he not repeat his claimed 7-mile flight or even the 200-foot flight in public?”
Whether you agree with Dr. Anderson and Mr. Crouch or not, we encourage you to look at the links to material below to get a feel for both sides of the debate and to decide for yourself.
Gustave Whitehead - An Objective Analysis
by Harvey H. Lippincott
Reprint of the article that first appeared in the Connecticut Aeronautical Association Inc. newsletter from August 15, 1964.
Gustave Whitehead - Pioneer Aviator
A website by John Brown, a proponent of Gustave Whitehead, who backs the claim that Gustave Whithead flew first in 1901.
History or Hogwash? A re-examination of claims that Gustave Whitehead flew an aeroplane before the Wright Brothers
by Mick Oakey, Managing Editor, www.theaviationhistorian.com. An extract from Issue No 4, originally published July 15, 2013.
A site by Carroll F. Gray that debunks the claims made by and for Gustave Whitehead.
A virtual museum of pioneer aviation. The story of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the invention of the airplane, and man's first flights.
Whitehead's Only Flight Was One Of Fancy
Op-Ed by Sergei I. Sikorsky that appeared in The Hartford Courant on June 28, 2013.