By: John Burgeson
BRIDGEPORT — The 100th anniversary edition of Jane’s All the World Aircraft, long considered the bible of just about every human-made object that got off the ground, will credit Bridgeport’s Gustave Whitehead as the first man to build an operational heavier-than-air aircraft.
In his forward to the book, already online, editor Paul Jackson states that Whitehead’s flight took place “… more than two years before the Wrights manhandled their Flyer from its shed and flew a couple of hundred feet in a straight line after lifting off from an adjacent wooden rail hammered into the ground.”
The piece on Whitehead carries the sub-headline: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
According to a 1901 article in the Bridgeport Herald, on Aug. 14, 1901, Whitehead piloted his No. 21 flyer in a flight that kept him airborne over a distance of about a half-mile and up to an altitude of about 40 feet.
The more well-documented flight of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s Wright Flyer I took place on Dec. 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, N.C. But Jackson points out that there were scores of accounts, both in the popular press and in technical journals, of repeated flights by Whitehead between 1901 and 1903, one which was successful in navigating a circular course between Milford’s Charles Island and the Bridgeport shoreline.
“Today, it seems impossible that a vast cache of documentary evidence, such as those newspaper reports, can be overlooked by the world at large,” Jackson states, noting that historians have found more than 80 articles in the press about Whitehead’s flights prior to December 1903 when the Wrights first flew..
Whitehead’s first attempt took place in Fairfield; another longer flight was to follow in Bridgeport near Wordin Avenue, not far from a fountain sculpture of Whitehead’s flyer on the corner of Fairfield Avenue and State Street that was dedicated in May.
That sculpture, removed after Hurricane Sandy, will be returned to its perch later this spring after it’s repaired, city officials say.
More flights by Whitehead followed in Stratford’s Lordship section. By all eyewitness accounts, the Whitehead flyer flew far higher and longer than the first flight made by the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk.
Jackson also points to documents obtained by Sen. Lowell Weicker from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in which the museum, in order to keep possession of the precious Flyer I, agreed with the Wright family that it would not state that any other aircraft got in the air first.
“History is normally written by researchers who have dispassionately analyzed all relevant data and not, as here, by the lawyers of interested parties,” Jackson states in his forward.
Jackson also points out that although Whitehead was an aeronautical success, he stumbled badly in both financing his creations and documenting his successes. Also, Orville Wright himself often went out of his way, even as late as 1945, to discredit Whitehead, calling the German-born inventor’s efforts a “legend.”
Orville died on January 30, 1948. His brother, Wilbur, died on May 30, 1912.
Gustave Albin Whitehead, who was born on Jan. 1, 1874, in Leutershausen, Bavaria, died in Bridgeport on Oct. 10, 1927.