By Robert Davey
3:15 PM EDT, April 2, 2013
There are probably people at the Smithsonian Institution who wish they hadn't bothered to hire John Brown to help them research a television documentary.
Brown is a U.S.-educated Australian living in Germany, a project manager for an aircraft construction company and an FAA-qualified flight instructor who, his website (gustave-whitehead.com/whitehead-researchers) relates, was doing some research in Washington for a Smithsonian Channel documentary when he came across the name Gustave Whitehead and decided to learn more about the pioneer aviator who lived in Bridgeport during the early years of the 20th century.
Brown became convinced that, as many in Bridgeport and Fairfield have believed for years, Whitehead, a German-born immigrant named Weisskopf who Americanized his name, flew a powered aircraft of his own design and construction early one morning in August 1901, more than two years before the Wright brothers flew their powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Brown's work so impressed Paul Jackson, editor of Jane's All the World's Aircraft, a widely respected publication, that in his March 8 introduction to Jane's 100th anniversary edition, Jackson wrote that Whitehead deserves the accolade, not the Wrights. Jackson concludes his introduction with the words "The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead."
Which has set the cat among the pigeons. The story made NPR last week, CBS This Morning this week. It has made the London Times. The Connecticut Post ran a front-page story Saturday about this new challenge to the Wrights' place in aviation history, a story that was picked up by the Associated Press and made available to all of its members. The Fairfield Sun, a weekly, ran a photo of Whitehead crouching beside one of his planes in Bridgeport, holding his young daughter, under the headline "First in Flight." The absence of a question mark is notable.
But does it all mean anything? Will Brown and Jane's together succeed where other researchers and authors, beginning with Stella Randolph, author of The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead in 1937, and continuing with William O'Dwyer, author with Randolph of History by Contract, 1978, have failed, and establish Whitehead as first to fly? The contract referred to here, as Whitehead advocates well know, is a notorious agreement the Smithsonian made with the Wright estate back in 1948, under which the National Air and Space Museum was permitted to display the Wrights' famous Flyer airplane only as long as it did not suggest another, earlier, aircraft was capable of carrying a man in powered, controlled flight.
The Smithsonian has been fending off accusations that the contract requires it to ignore the evidence in favor of Whitehead's flight, and thus that it has forfeited the respect of scholars and the public, ever since it was forced to reveal the contract's existence by then-Sen. Lowell Weicker back in the 1970s.
In an interview with the Weekly last week, Brown called the Smithsonian's contract with the Wright estate "an abomination," and discussed how history is distilled and assembled into a narrative taught by schools, colleges — and museums. "Partly it's the way it's presented, because history is the result of consensus and not just the facts," he said.
And the facts are still in question in the dispute over Whitehead.
One initial newspaper report of his flight on Aug. 14, 1901, an eyewitness account by Richard Howell of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald who later became, according to the 1928 obituary of his wife preserved by Bridgeport Public Library, the editor and business manager of the paper, was picked up by many other papers that are cited on Brown's website with links to the articles. In the 1930s, Randolph collected affidavits from people who had worked with Whitehead or who were boys back in 1901 and '02, and said they had seen him fly in his powered airplane. Some of these accounts did not agree in all the details; for example, one witness remembered the Aug. 14, 1901 flight as having happened at Lordship Manor, Stratford, but according to the Sunday Herald it had taken place in Fairfield.
Randolph also seemed confused about this. O'Dwyer interviewed more, by now aged, witnesses and tried to get Smithsonian officials to attend; they declined.
Although Brown questions whether a photograph is necessary to prove an event actually happened, undoubtedly, since a photo of the Wrights' Kitty Hawk flight exists, one of Whitehead in flight would help.
"In essence, Whitehead had a hang-glider with 30 hp of installed power and one person aboard. If he didn't get off the ground, then the Almighty must have turned up the power of gravity in Connecticut that day," Jackson, of Jane's, told the Weekly this week.
The Sunday Herald article was illustrated, not by a photograph but by a lithograph of Whitehead's plane in flight; Brown points out that it was common for newspapers to base a lithograph on an actual photograph, and he states that was the case with the lithograph in the Sunday Herald. Nonetheless, no photograph of Whitehead in one of his powered aircraft in flight has ever emerged, although there are several of his aircraft on the ground. He was an obsessed builder not only of aircraft intended to fly under their own power, and gliders with one, two or three wings, but of lightweight engines suitable for aircraft; that much is known. A November 1901 report in the Herald speaks of a Bridgeport factory where men worked around the clock, building "a flying machine modelled after the one in which Mr. Whitehead made two successful flights recently as described in the Herald at the time. It was with this machine that Mr. Whitehead demonstrated the practicability of his invention during the season in Fairfield."
In a newspaper ad of the time, a Staten Island company offers aero engines for sale, made by Whitehead, at $1400.
Brown said he is hoping that close examination of a photograph taken at a 1906 New York exhibition will help persuade Whitehead doubters.
The Smithsonian has agreed to let Brown examine the photo, which has been apparently withheld from researchers and the public until now.
But Brown acknowledges that he is interested in a photo that was displayed on the wall in that 1906 photo, which he believes shows Whitehead in flight. "Several journalists were at the exhibit — they saw it up close," and wrote about the photo afterward, Brown says. He admits though that in published copies of the 1906 photo, "The image is too blurred to see it properly."
On CBS on Monday morning, Smithsonian curator Tom Crouch poured cold water on the latest Whitehead intifada. In a comment that patronized Whitehead and his supporters, he said "You can see the intellectual process [with the Wrights]; you can trace it." Crouch is an old hand at dissing Whitehead; in his 1981 book A Dream of Wings, Crouch sums up Whitehead, at his death in 1927, as "a lonely religious fanatic." (Whitehead belonged to a group that later became the Jehovah's Witnesses.)
At Bridgeport's Discovery Museum, Executive Director Jeff Bishop, who curated a show on Whitehead just two years ago, was delighted at the news that Jane's has endorsed Whitehead. "I think it's fabulous," he said. He cautioned though, that resistance will be fierce, especially because of the money that's at stake. "This is a billion dollar industry down there," he said of North Carolina.
Bishop is right: "Second in Flight" just doesn't have the same cachet.