The General Assembly passed and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently signed a bill honoring the "first powered flight" by Gustave Whitehead, rather than Orville and Wilbur Wright. The flight is pure fiction, not fact. It was born in the imagination of Richard Howell, then sports editor of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald and published on Aug. 18, 1901.
Howell wrote the article, fascinated by the worldwide publicity earned by an aviation pioneer, dapper, charismatic Alberto Santos-Dumont. Brazilian-born, living in Paris, Santos was famous for a series of one-man dirigibles he had built and flown over Paris around 1900.
On July 12, 1901, Santos astonished the world by a spectacular flight in his brand-new dirigible. Departing from his base at St. Cloud, he flew over Paris to the Longchamps race track, then circled the Eiffel tower to the cheers of press and public alike. He then flew back to the racetrack, landed briefly at the track (some said for an espresso) restarted his motor and flew back to his base. The world press was enthusiastic:
"His recent achievements have conquered Paris, and in a few hours the whole world got to know what he had done, " said the Paris Daily Messenger July 16, 1901.
"The news describing M. Santos-Dumont's flight around the Eiffel Tower and over the suburbs of Paris demonstrate that man's triumph over the air has finally arrived … it has been the greatest success ever recorded in the history of aerial navigation," said the News of Buffalo, N.Y., also on July 16, 1901.
On Aug. 18, 1901, inspired by the Santos-Dumont flight, Howell published his "eyewitness" article. However, it describes the flight of a powered dirigible, not the flight of Whitehead's No. 21 aircraft. A brief synopsis of his article shows the flaws:
The Whitehead aircraft drove out to a field in Fairfield, the wings were unfolded and handling ropes were attached. (Ropes are used for balloons, not aircraft.) Whitehead was not too confident, so he decided to test the aircraft without a pilot on board! The aircraft then flew a circle (on auto-pilot ?), the power shut off automatically and "the ship settled down as lightly on the ground as a bird." This unmanned flight is very difficult to accept as aviation history.
Howell described the second flight, with Whitehead on board. There were no controls for the pilot; he steered by shifting his weight. The flight lasted some 10 minutes and covered a distance of half a mile. This works out to an air speed of 3 mph; impossibly slow for an airplane but realistic for a dirigible or balloon. At the end of his half-mile flight, Whitehead shut off the power "and she settled down from a height of about fifty feet in two minutes after the propellers stopped." Again, an airship landing.
There are many more mistakes in the eyewitness report, yet it serves to fuel a legend. Adding to the confusion is a Whitehead letter to a magazine in which Whitehead described two flights over Long Island Sound on Jan. 17, 1902. The flights were in No. 22, which Whitehead described as identical to his No. 21 except for a more powerful motor of 40 horsepower.
Both flights started in Lordship and ended with a landing in the water. Again, there is a credibility problem. A glance at No. 21 (and presumably No. 22) shows the propeller tip track is almost even with the bottom of the hull. During a water landing, both propellers would be destroyed or heavily damaged. However, Whitehead claimed two flights that day.
Whitehead was unwilling (or unable) to produce even one flight photo, despite an editor's request. Whitehead supporters have no firm evidence or photographs of a flight. Even Whitehead's wife doubted that he had ever flown. Affidavits gathered in 1935 and 1936 covered events of 35 years earlier, when many of the "witnesses" were children. Many affidavits are technically so implausible as to be worthless.
But the single most damaging element is Whitehead himself. Why is it that he never attempted to rebuild No. 21 or No. 22, repeat his alleged flights, and earn everlasting fame and fortune? Regrettably, he passed away in 1927 without ever answering that question.
Sergei I. Sikorsky of Arizona is an aviation consultant. He grew up in Connecticut and was involved in aviation since flying in an early helicopter with his father, Igor Sikorsky. He became a pilot in 1943. During World War II he served with a joint Coast Guard/Navy helicopter squadron and after the war joined United Aircraft (now United Technologies).