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Gustave Whitehead took his place at the controls of the machine, the men gave it a preliminary push, and it trundled away on its three wheels and was off! The plane performed so admirably that its owner continued his flight for a distance of two miles over the Sound, following the shore line of the beach…The men pulled it ashore, and now Gustave Whitehead proposed to fly across the Sound…He took off again …[and] was steadily progressing out across the Sound…when it occurred to him that it might be interesting to see if he could make his machine turn…He turned the rudder slowly and drove one propeller faster than the other…Steadily and rapidly the machine came about until he was facing his starting point.
As he neared his rejoicing helpers on the shore, he slowed the speed of the plane and again dropped it gently into the water. It had traveled a distance of approximately seven miles, not across the Sound, but it had made the first turn in the air so far as has been recorded. Parts of Randolph and Phillip's tale were obvious fabrications. The account of the flight in a steam-powered airplane, with a fireman stoking the fire under the boiler, paints a wonderful picture in the best tradition of the American tall tale.
The story of the flights is just as hard to swallow when you read the American Inventor article that is its one and only source. Whitehead offers no pictures of this mostly-metal aircraft and the editor describes himself as " hardly able to credit the account If you further read the newspaper interviews with and stories about Whitehead from the same time period, it becomes clear that the No. The only remotely plausible account of a powered flight in a Whitehead airplane is the story of the No. But this too unravels when you begin to poke around.
Much of that article was inspired by a story titled "Flying" that appeared in the Bridgeport Herald on 18 August The Herald was published every Sunday and featured local Connecticut news. This particular edition reported a flight that Whitehead claimed to have made four days earlier. This story had fairly wide coverage - it went out over the wire and within a few weeks was repeated in over eighty papers, among them the Boston Transcript and the New York Herald.
However, it's telling that not one of the four daily newspapers in Bridgeport mentioned the flight. The story didn't even make the front page of the Bridgeport Herald itself — it was buried five pages back in a section where editor Richard Howell regularly published human interest stories and other "soft" news. For example, the reporter claims that before Whitehead flew, he sent the No.
The machine landed safely, the sand was unharmed, so Whitehead took the controls. Owing to fantastic details like these, the story lacked what advertisers have come to call verisimilitude — the appearance of truth. So despite wide coverage and implications that mankind had successfully flown, the public yawned. After all, this was an old game in late Victorian America. Whitehead used these newspaper stories to announce that he was taking on a partner — a mysterious Texan named W. Custead — and the two were beating the bushes for additional funding, even though Custead claimed to represent a "company of Southern gentlemen with unlimited capital.
Other sources, many of them letters and statements from Whitehead himself, contradict the Bridgeport Herald. He has an engine which pumps gas under high pressure to pistons driving the propellers, and he can vary the pressure of the gas to each prop. The 18 August edition of the Bridgeport Herald tells us a little more about this engine - it is fueled by "rapid gas explosions" from acetylene generated from calcium carbide. Yet in that same article Gustave Whitehead gives a firsthand account of a turn he made in the air to avoid a clump of trees and asserts, "I had no means of steering italics ours by using the machinery.
So he claims to shift his weight, the airplane banked into a turn and he avoided disaster. As he was cruising along, he remembered that he could vary the speed of the props to make a turn. However, according to that same letter, he was using an internal combustion kerosene engine to run them. He had apparently discarded the acetylene engine, and with it went the alleged means for varying gas pressure and prop speed. We asked Andy Kosch, who built and flew a replica of the No. Andy maintained that Whitehead had some sort of "transmission" in the No.
Andy also told us that he doubted that the quotes ascribed to Whitehead in the Bridgeport Herald article were really his own words. Other details in these sources run the gamut from puzzling to incredulous. In November, the Bridgeport Herald and the New York World reported the incredulous: Whitehead was within spitting distance from having an aircraft factory up and running. According to his own telling, the efficiency of the acetylene engine driving the propellers in the No.
Four months later in the No. In all fairness, there is some evidence that Whitehead had some skill as an engine maker in later years. Charles Whittaman, an airplane builder on Long Island, bought two engines from him in and and was well-satisfied — enough to call him a "very able designer.
He tells us he is getting wonderful results from each new airplane and engine; then he discards them, never flying them again. Aeronautical engineering, like all scientific disciplines, depends on reproducible results for true advancement. One of the most incredulous parts of the Whitehead legend is that he never seems to have any. In her article, Stella Randolf reports that Whitehead made 56 airplanes in a career that spanned a dozen years — 4.
It was actually his forty-something aircraft; he hadn't bothered to number the early ones. Yet rather than make test flights and investigate the envelope of what he claims is a capable flying machine, his No. He claims to fly No. In and , we have documented failures of two powered airplanes, the last of which he built for Stanley Beach, son of the editor of Scientific American.
The Legend Reborn Despite its implausible claims, discrepancies and contradictory sources, the Popular Aviation magazine article lit a fire under a few interested scholars. At the time, Crane was working on a book on the history of aviation. He began to interview the residents of Bridgeport to find out more details about Whitehead's and flights. To his surprise, he found only one person who could remember Whitehead's flights, despite the mention of "affidavits" in Randolph and Phillips' article. He interviewed several people who had business dealings with Whitehead, among them John J.
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Dvorak, a businessman who spent time in Bridgeport waiting for Whitehead to produce an engine. Crane published the results of his investigation in an objective and dispassionate article in the National Aeronautical Association Magazine in December It was called "Did Whitehead Actually Fly? This state of amnesia didn't last very long, however. In , Charles Whitehead was introduced on the radio show Famous Firsts as "the son of Gustave Whitehead, the first man to fly in a heavier-than-air machine. It ran under the heading of "First" by Mort Weisenger. At his own expense he mailed out thousands of photostatted newspaper clippings describing in detail a half-mile motor-controlled flight made by Gustave Whitehead, a Bavarian, on August 14, These were supplemented with copies of 11 affidavits signed by eyewitnesses…".
Orville Wright was still living at this time. He was aware of the Whitehead story, but did not think anyone took it seriously until it made its way into Reader's Digest.