Who flew first? Order the new book “Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight” to find out!
Response by S. Brinchman to the CT Post’s Guest Editorial of July 5, 2013:
The editorial, “Wronging the Wrights”, is a gross misrepresentation of the evidence concerning Gustave Whitehead and an insult to the state of CT, its governor and legislature.
I have been involved with Whitehead research since 1963, when my father, William J. O’Dwyer, found photos of some of his early planes, and began a research project that is still ongoing.
The mistaken facts in the editorial, below quoted in italics, need to be corrected and an apology issued. These are as follows:
“Acting upon the sketchiest of evidence, the state of Connecticut has inexplicably chosen to strip Wilbur and Orville Wright of their rightful title as the fathers of heavier-than-air flight.
By accepting as fact the highly dubious 1901 “flights” of Bridgeport’s Gustave Whitehead, the Nutmeg State has debased history, diminished one of the great achievements of the 20th century and muddied the waters historians work so diligently to clear.”
Which historians worked to clear the waters? Certainly not Smithsonian’s, under contract to the Wright heirs not to acknowledge that anyone else flew first. Certainly not their head curator Tom Crouch, from Dayton, Ohio, personal friend of the Wright family. Certainly not any historians making money off books about the Wrights.
The waters were muddied, for profit and fame, starting in 1911, when the Wrights’ paid subrosa employee, William Hammer, first caused them to be recognized as “first in flight”, by having this published in the World Almanac 1911. Before that, under Hammer’s guidance, they were recognized for contributions to flight, by the Aero Club of America. Whitehead’s achievements, published before that time in over a hundred newspapers and journals, were ignored. There are witnesses who also place the Wrights in Whitehead’s shop on several occasions before the Wrights flew and after Whitehead did. The Wrights’ photo evidence shows 18 inches off the ground for a failed flight, which didn’t surface for nearly five years and Wrights’ witnesses who never filed affidavits, are in conflict with the later Wright claims.
The waters were muddied further when the Smithsonian signed a contractual agreement in 1948, giving up the right to recognize anyone else flying before the Wrights, in order to obtain and keep the Wright Flyer as an exhibit. Highly placed friends of the Wrights helped see to it that history gave them the “first in flight” credit, over the years. Whitehead had no such friends in high places.
“As Orville Wright said during a previous effort to rob the brothers of their just due, “The truth cannot withstand a lie aided by continual propaganda.””
Indeed, I would agree that the truth will be outed. In this case, unfortunately for the Wrights, the truth is that a legend has been built up which has been difficult to remove. For instance, following Wilbur’s death in 1912, Orville began claiming the title of being “first in flight” on Dec. 17, 1903, whereas before Wilbur died, Wilbur was the one credited for this, with Orville’s flights of the day deemed failures. The Smithsonian contract credits Orville today. The truth cannot be held down, people want truth in history, not contrived legends, such as we have been spoonfed concerning the Wrights and first flight.
“By signing HB 6671 into law, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has added legitimacy to a lie.”
That is your opinion and it is demonstrably, incorrect and a direct insult to the governor. You have played fast and loose with the “facts” in order to substantiate it.
“The specious claims made by Australian aviation “historian” John Brown somehow buffaloed the editors of “Jane’s: All the World’s Aircraft,” and that blunder is the foundation of falsehood upon which Connecticut legislators have built this monument to misinformation. Brown’s so-called evidence wouldn’t pass the smell test for a high school history term paper.”
Once again, incorrect, it was the preponderance of all the evidence that caused Jane’s All the World Aircraft’s editors to be convinced. They also looked at witness statements, nearly a score of these, concerning Whitehead flights before 1903.
“Citing three “eye-witness” accounts published at the time of the alleged Whitehead flights, Brown neglected to mention the story originated with Stanley Yale Beach, the son of the publisher of “Scientific American” and a financial backer of Whitehead. He also failed to note when researchers tried to confirm the Whitehead story in the 1930s, of the three witnesses, one had died, a second could not be located and the third, James Dickie, emphatically denied seeing Whitehead fly and said the story was a hoax.”
The account of Whitehead’s flight in 1901 did not originate with Beach, who did not back Whitehead at the time of his flights in 1901 or 1902. It was later that Beach’s father began to partially back Whitehead, likely as a result of the earlier successful flights, but it appears only to build Beach’s designs, which failed. Of the five (not three) eye-witnesses to one of the four flights of August 14, 1901, only one denial occurred. Dickie, who had a grudge against Whitehead over money issues, is on record refusing to credit him. There were two others for the flight described in the full page article in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald of August 18, 1901 – and they had died by the time journalist and educator Stella Randolph (not Zahm) investigated and took formal affidavits from more than a dozen witnesses to Whitehead’s flights.
“Gustave Whitehead deserves to be honored as a serious aviation pioneer who invested his time and talents to try and tackle the great dream of mankind, human flight. But to believe Whitehead actually flew 1.5 miles at an altitude of 50 feet on Aug. 14, 1901, 28 months before the Wright’s four epochal flights of Dec. 17, 1903, is to explain away why he never flew publicly again.”
I don’t know where this incorrect information is coming from, but the Wrights’ so-called flights of Dec. 17, 1903 are based on their say-so, with information that changed over time. For instance, all four flights had control problems, the first three were considered failures (both of Orville’s and the first of Wilbur’s) and the last flight of the day was the only one considered to be a possible success, but it landed with damage, and was for only 500 feet, taking off from a rail that began on a higher point, a sand dune, and required wind to fly. Witnesses under oath testified to Whitehead’s flights on Aug. 14, 1903, which numbered four on that day and more later in the fall and on January, 1902.
“He never told anyone he flew before the Wrights. In fact, he abandoned his own 1901 designs and turned his attention to gliders and helicopters.”
That is a false statement, read the witnesses testimonies, under oath, concerning the flights and public statements Whitehead made in the newspapers and journals of the era. After 1903, he was unable to sustain the expense of fully developing his own designs which he considered not to be in final form, turned to designing engines and planes for others, while continuing to work toward a practical plane, which he wanted to be able to rise vertically from the ground, like a helicopter or Harrier. Whitehead never found a funder to allow him to develop his own designs fully again, but he did contribute his early success, knowledge and engines to others of his era.
“Whitehead made a game try of it, but he is no more the father of flight than other early experimenters, such as Percy Pilcher, Otto Lilienthal, Augustus Herring, Ocatve Chanute, John Montgomery, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Samuel Langely or Alexander Graham Bell.”
This is incorrect as these others did not make successful, controlled, sustained powered flights and Whitehead did, predating the Wrights by two years.
“The tortured tale of Gustave Whitehead comes from another aviation pioneer’s attempt to invalidate the Wright Brothers‘ patents.”
The above sentence is an attempt to circumvent the witnesses and all the evidence for Whitehead’s successes. It is a myth constructed by those who began to defend the Wrights’ “title” against the revelations concerning the early flights of Whitehead by Stella Randolph in the 1930’s. Zahm had nothing to do with her research. The Zahm-Whitehead connection is part of the defensive tactics of those who would keep the Wright legend in place.
“Glenn Curtis was a rival aircraft manufacturer and aggressively searched for pre-Wright aircraft he could use to convince aviation-ignorant courts they were capable of flight prior to Kitty Hawk. Eventually he settled on Langley’s failed “aerodrome,” but Whitehead’s story was kept alive by a dedicated Wright-hater, Albert Zahm, part of the Curtis team.
Eventually his story appeared in two books, “The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead” (1937) and “Before the Wright Brothers Flew” (1966). Both books were written by Stella Randolph based on material collected by Zahm.”
This is another falsehood in the article. Stella Randolph conducted her own original research and would not release it to Dr. Alfred Zahm, who was interested. Dr. Zahm, far from a crank, from 1916 to 1929 was the Director of the Aerodynamical Laboratory of the U.S. Navy, and Guggenheim Chair of Aeronautics at the Library of Congress (1929-1946). Zahm, a highly respected man of his era, designed and built the first significant wind tunnel in the United States (1901) and was awarded the Laetare and Mendel medals for his significant achievements in the field of aeronautics. The Library of Congress became a limited repository for information about Whitehead, following Randolph’s investigations. In 1945, Dr. Zahm called for more research to be done and found it possible that Whitehead had flown in 1901, in his Early Powerplane Fathers publication.
“Wilbur and Orville Wright were life-long diarists, prolific letter writers and talented amateur photographers. They left a voluminous paper trail documenting each step they took on the path to unlocking the secrets of flight. In 1953, the Library of Congress published the “Papers of Wilbur & Orville Wright” in two volumes. Anyone who has examined the record has no doubt the Wrights deserve the title as fathers of powered flight.”
But what you are saying is that we should trust the Wrights’ “say-so”, that the proof is in what they wrote. This is unacceptable. Also, what Orville claimed and is now credited with – that he was first in successful flight – is in conflict with what the Wright brothers originally wrote, concerning the four flights, as well. You don’t seem to know that they hired William Hammer to get them credit for first flight in 1911, to help them in their lawsuits.
“The state of Connecticut has thrown in with cranks and frauds and contributed to the debasing of actual knowledge in a cheap attempt to secure local bragging rights over Ohio and North Carolina. In doing so, Gov. Malloy and the Legislature have diminished two great American heroes, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and embarrassed the state in the eyes of anyone who has bothered to examine the evidence.”
This is an uninformed insult to the state of CT, its governor and legislature that requires an immediate apology. They are correctly recognizing an authentic aviation pioneer with a mountain of evidence that says he flew several years before the Wrights, multiple times.
“Doug McIntyre is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, television & Film writer/producer, and host of “McIntyre in the Morning” on KABC radio in Los Angeles. He has written about the Wrights for “American History Illustrated.””
That says it all. A columnist from Los Angeles, with no access to original research, making money off the Wright legend, upset at the Wrights’ claim being challenged. Last but not least, WRONG on his facts, which he should have checked.
Susan O’Dwyer Brinchman
La Mesa, CA, formerly of Fairfield, CT
- Co-researcher on Gustave Whitehead with William J. O’Dwyer for 30 years
- for 15 more years, often present and involved, during research and interviews with witnesses
- Knew Stella Randolph, Whitehead researcher; Tony Pruckner, witness to the 1901 flights; and Charles Witteman, early aviation pioneer who considered Whitehead a genius.
Contact at info (at) historybycontract.org