Did an immigrant machinist in Bridgeport successfully fly a motorized airplane two years before the Wright brothers?
If he did, it would create an uproar that would reverberate far beyond the aviation museums into every school in the land. The whole world would have to rearrange its thinking.
In a few days, the Connecticut State Senate is expected to act on a bill already passed by the House asking the Smithsonian Institution to investigate once and for all the claims that Gustave Whitehead flew a half mile in his powered craft on a back lot here on Aug. 14, 1901, creating a tangled controversy that has flared up periodically ever since Whitehead died in obscurity in 1927.
The Smithsonian, says the Whitehead camp, is committed to a 1948 contract with the Wright brothers estate forbidding the institution to "publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903."
A much-handled Xerox of the contract's key provisions, carefully marked up with yellow crayon, is in the possession of retired Air Force major William J. O'Dwyer of Fairfield, whose life's passion is Gustave Whitehead.
O'Dwyer, 65, was cleaning out the garage of a neighbor's estate in 1963 when he came upon three dog-eared photo albums full of faded black-and-white snapshots showing Fairfield at the turn of the century.
He noticed some shots of a curious batwing airplane in a meadow.
"I said, 'What the hell is this?' I was fascinated. Somebody said it was a local plane that flew sometime around 1910, so I went to the Bridgeport Post and looked it up. The Post said, 'Hell no, it was 1901.' They'd been spending so much time checking it out that the editor had to declare a moratorium on the subject."
But there was no moratorium on O'Dwyer.
He started collecting news articles. He rooted out oldtimers who remembered Whitehead. He found a man who had actually helped the inventor fly the thing in 1901, and then another, and another.
He bought a tape recorder. Started taking affidavits. Wrote the Smithsonian. Learned that Whitehead had been born in Leutershausen, a hamlet in Bavaria. Somehow he wangled a trip to Germany, and soon enlisted the entire village in his search for facts.
Before O'Dwyer knew it, he was a local hero in Leutershausen. He learned German, established a Whitehead museum there, brought home plaques, inscribed beer steins and the keys to the town. They made him an honorary citizen. In 1980 he guided a Stuttgart TV team around the Whitehead sites here, showed them the news stories and -- stung by their charge (prompted by the Smithsonian, he believes) that the papers had never followed up the story -- discovered on the spot several more major contemporary pieces.
He has been to Leutershausen 22 times.
And always he spread the word about this man who may have beaten the Wright brothers into history if not the history books. Year after year, he pleaded with various aviation historians at the Smithsonian to please, please, come up and interview this or that witness before the old fellow died. He finally lured one expert to the scene, got him intrigued enough to ask for more information, only to have that particular source, a Whitehead neighbor, die.
"I started with one page," he says, "and now I've got seven file drawers crammed with stuff."
It overflows his tiny office into his living room: letters, articles, tapes and books, just like his conversation. Mention the word "Whitehead" to Bill O'Dwyer and you get an avalanche.
"I'm a man of a few million words," he says.
A little sensitive about being considered obsessive, he emphasizes that he is also a skilled woodcarver (specializing in seashell replicas and tiny models of early aircraft), a nature photographer and a builder. He was a chief warrant officer during World War II, rose to major in the reserves. He and his wife Doris have three children and five grandchildren.
All along, he says, the big problem has been the reluctance of the Smithsonian and others to really take an interest in his claims, and much of his file consists of coolly polite letters from authorities. But he is thrilled that he might get the state of Connecticut to go to bat for Whitehead.
A key element in the case may be the full-scale replica being built here by Whitehead enthusiasts, who include an aeronautical engineer and jet designer, off plans derived from several photographs. Mercedes-Benz engineers in Germany are building a copy of the two-cylinder air-cooled acetylene gas engine, considerably lighter than the Wrights' water-cooled gasoline motor.
"We'll be ready for tests in a few weeks," said 46-year-old Andy Kosch, the man who expects to pilot the craft. A high school biology teacher and instructor in hang-gliding and ultralight planes, Kosch said he hopes to be attempting short flights by June or July. Meanwhile, a scale model will be fitted with a remote control engine and tested in flight.
One problem for the Whitehead people is the plane's appearance.
To a world accustomed to the four-square look of the Wright brothers' famous flyer, Whitehead's No. 21 (his 21st craft) looks dismayingly like something designed by Tom Swift. Or Otto Lilienthal, with whom Whitehead was in contact. It has folding bat wings 35 feet across, a long, triangular, bird tail and a straight-walled, pod-shaped container for the passengers, doubtless an aerodynamic innovation for its time but a shape that today calls to mind the Soapbox Derby.
It is uncertain whether the machine had a vertical rudder, an important factor because the movable rudder is a significant part of the Wright brothers' contribution to fully controlled flight.
As Kosch pointed out, "birds don't have rudders. Neither do hang gliders or flying wings."
The replica has the authentic bamboo struts -- Whitehead bought his from the same firm as the Wrights -- but the sails are nylon. If the plane flies, these will be changed, Kosch said, to the original silk.
If the plane flies . . . will it end the dispute and put the Wright brothers in a back room at the Air and Space Museum? Not likely. Even O'Dwyer says only, "All we want to do is get a full investigation here."
Frankly, it's a can of worms. At the turn of the century people all over the world were trying to fly. In its 1906 New York exhibit of flying machines, the Aero Club of America showed contraptions by Samuel Langley, Lilienthal, Santos-Dumont, parts of A. M. Herring's motorized plane that supposedly flew 72 feet in 1898, "Myer's electrical torpedo and Kimball's helicoptere," various large kites and the crankshaft of the motor "said to have been used" in the Wrights' epic flight of Dec. 17, 1903.
. . . And this, reported by the Scientific American: "A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air, and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901, was the only other photograph besides that of Langley's machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight."
O'Dwyer has found a contemporary photo of that exhibit. Blowups reveal on a distant wall four photographs that seem to match known pictures of Whitehead's plane. Next to them is a fifth picture, a barely discernible landscape with trees and sky. Is there a plane flying in the sky? You can't tell.
That's nothing, says O'Dwyer.
*From the New York Herald, Aug. 19, 1901: "Mr. Whitehead last Tuesday night, with two assistants, took his machine to a long field back of Fairfield, and the inventor for the first time flew in his machine for half a mile. It worked perfectly, and the operator found no difficulty in handling it. Mr. Whitehead's machine is equipped with two engines, one to propel it on the ground, on wheels, and the other to make the wings or propellers work."
The same piece, also describing the flight technique and the fuel, appeared in the Boston Transcript of the same day. A full-page spread in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald one day earlier featured a photo of the inventor, a drawing of the flight and a minute-by-minute eyewitness account by the reporter. The ship, "about 40 feet in the air," made a turn to avoid some trees and "soared through the air for fully half a mile . . . "
*On Oct. 1, 1904, 10 months after the Wrights' first flight, the Bridgeport paper reported, "If anyone doubts that Gustave Whitehead has been able to fly a limited distance at least in his airplane, such doubts can be dispelled by viewing the photos of his flight in the window of Lyon and Drummonds hardware store. There are two pictures in the window showing Whitehead in his airplane about 20 feet from the ground and sailing along. He says he has frequently flown over half a mile."
*When Scientific American covered the second Aero Club exhibit, in December 1906, it described "Gustave Whitehead's latest batlike aeroplane" and added, "Whitehead also exhibited the 2-cylinder steam engine which revolved the road wheels of his former bat machine, with which he made a number of short flights in 1901."
*Anton Pruckner, a fellow machinist who lived on Pine Street in Bridgeport, across from Whitehead, says in a 1964 affidavit that he helped build and fly a succession of machines. "I did witness and was present at the time of the Aug. 14, 1901 flight. The flight was about one-half mile in distance overall and about 50 feet or so in the air. The plane circled a little to one side and landed easily with no damage to it or the engine or the occupant who was Gustave Whitehead."
He adds that Whitehead "was of fine moral character . . . a very truthful man." He also recalls that the Wright brothers visited Whitehead's shop before 1903. "I was present and saw them myself." They denied this.
*A 1934 affidavit by Junius W. Harworth asserts that as a boy he saw and assisted Whitehead in the Aug. 14, 1901 flight.
O'Dwyer says he has 20 such statements by witnesses of pre-Wright flights. Just in the last few years he has found a long interview in November 1901 by the Danbury, Conn., News-Times in which Whitehead talks of his successful flight, and a half-page interview in the Bridgeport Herald of Jan. 26, 1902.
Unfortunately for him, Whitehead seems to have been only vaguely conscious of the need for corroboration. He writes of snapshots that didn't come out but doesn't appear to have given them a high priority.
Born Jan. 1, 1874, in Leutershausen, Gustave Weisskopf had no formal education, worked for a bookbinder, then a machine shop in Augsburg. He went to sea -- his seaman's training is apparent in the plane's sails, the mast and bowsprit -- was shipwrecked in the Gulf of Mexico, reached America in 1894.
Surfacing in Boston in 1897, he spoke of gliders he had built during his wanderings up the Mississippi. He moved to New York; to Buffalo, where in 1897 he married Louise Tuba, a 23-year-old Hungarian immigrant (on the license he listed his occupation as "aeronaut"); to Johnstown, Pa.; to Baltimore, where he built and flew a glider biplane he named the Condor; to Pittsburgh.
He had to leave Pittsburgh, he said, after he crashed a plane into a building in 1899, injuring his passenger and himself. He arrived in Bridgeport in 1900 and never left. Somewhere along the line he Americanized his name and began referring to himself as a U.S. citizen.
Over the years he had a series of jobs as machinist, mechanic, carpenter. He built a couple of houses for his growing family. (Of the four children, only the eldest, Rose, was born before 1901, and she is dead. She appears in a photo with her father and the 1901 plane. The surviving sisters and brother have not been able to provide any new evidence.) He invented an air brake for which the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railway awarded him a prize. He invented a concrete road layer.
But whenever he had the money, he put it into new flight experiments, new engines. Ads for Whitehead motors appear in catalogues of the time. They ran on acetylene gas made from carbide, on kerosene and even gunpowder.
Oct. 10, 1927, he suffered a fatal heart attack while lifting a Model T motor out of a car. He was buried without a headstone, and only in 1964 did the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association put up a granite marker to the "father of Connecticut aviation."
While Wilbur and Orville Wright left behind records of every move they made, marked down every measurement, carefully took photos and movies of their flights, almost nothing survives of Whitehead's records. O'Dwyer has sent some wood patterns for propellers and other memorabilia to the Whitehead museum he helped establish in Leutershausen. There is talk of a Whitehead scrapbook, long since lost.
In 1964 Rose Whitehead Rennison gave O'Dwyer five of her father's reference books, including Octave Chanute's works also used by the Wrights. There are a few penciled notes and additions to the printed outlines of wing shapes, but that's all.
O'Dwyer and Stella Randolph, a Washington researcher who published the first book on Whitehead in 1937, have written two more books on the subject, most recently "History by Contract," 1978, published in Germany.
So far, the Germans are more interested in their native son than the Americans. Amerika Dienst, a USIA magazine published in Germany, calls him in a 1983 article "the 'rightful' father of modern aviation" for the first motorized flight.
The German edition of "History of Aviation," edited by John W. R. Taylor, who also edited Jane's "All the World's Aircraft," says Whitehead "was, without a doubt . . . established to be the first to fly a motorized aeroplane. Being evidenced by more than 20 eyewitnesses, his first takeoff took place on the 14th of August, 1901 . . . "
There is no mention of Whitehead's name in the American edition of this book. Taylor, in London, was unavailable for comment.
But then, inventions have always stirred acrimony. When an idea is ripe it seems to strike many minds simultaneously. Inventors tend to be secretive and rivalrous.
Orville Wright in 1937: "In the case of Whitehead, the design of the machine is in itself enough to refute the statements that the machine flew."
bat10 In 1966 O'Dwyer did persuade Paul E. Garber, a Smithsonian authority on early flight, to meet Anton Pruckner, the Bridgeport neighbor, in Connecticut. Afterward, Garber wrote back asking for more details on Pruckner's report of a movable vertical rudder under the tail. He was too late. Pruckner had died 10 days after the interview.
Historian Peter Jakab, curator of early aviation at the Air and Space Museum, says the Smithsonian has given study to the Whitehead case.
"Whitehead certainly was experimenting with aviation," he said, "and deserves his place in history for his experiments. But we don't know if he actually flew. On the other hand, we know the Wright brothers managed to control pitch, yaw and roll, the three axes of motion in flight. They were methodical, their notes show the evolution of their technology, they have continuity. They analyzed wings in wind tunnels. It's all recorded."
The Whitehead evidence, on the other hand, rests on affidavits taken years after the event, he said. There is no picture of a flight. And even if the replica plane works, "it won't prove anything" because the unknown details of the original construction will be filled in by people with modern knowledge of flight principles.
There is a picture of Whitehead and his plane, by the way, in the Air and Space Museum's Early Aviation Hall. The caption says, "Although none of his powered aircraft actually flew, Gustave Whitehead made impressive engineering innovations toward this goal."
"The Smithsonian has addressed this issue for a long time," Jakab said, noting that Tom Crouch, his predecessor, talked with O'Dwyer. "They think we haven't paid enough attention to their evidence, but that's not the case.
"You have to understand, there were hundreds of experimenters at the time. Most of them concentrated on getting into the air and planned to work on controls later. Lilienthal would shift his body in his glider for control, like birds, but it wasn't adequate. The Wrights worked on control from the beginning. Their control of the three axes is the heart of modern aircraft. They cracked the secret of flight."
As for the contract with Orville Wright's estate, that emerged from a 20-year struggle over Samuel Langley's claims, which the Wrights feared would obscure their own.
"Langley flew the first successful powered machine, a model, but he failed with his full-size version just nine days before the Wrights' flight. The machine was rebuilt in 1914 and worked. So Langley made the first machine capable of flight."
Jakab said the contract was part of the agreement by which the Smithsonian finally got possession of the Wright flyer. It had been in London from 1928 to 1948. The contract, he added, would certainly not prevent historians from doing their work. But:
"There is not enough evidence to support the Whitehead claim," he said. "There is no evidence to demonstrate powered, sustained, controlled flights."
Apparently no one here is disputing that it was the Wrights who developed the aerodynamic concepts on which modern aviation is based. The issue for the Whitehead supporters is simply whether their man actually flew his machine, and controlled it, on that August morning in the old circus lot between Orland and Ellsworth streets.
"All we want is our day in court," says Bill O'Dwyer.