An airtight case for Whitehead?

Historian lays out evidence, seeks more, of first flight in Connecticut

Fairfield-whiteheadbrown

Historian John Brown, who convinced “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft” to recognize that Gustave Whitehead made the first powered flight in the Bridgeport area, presents more evidence at the Discovery Museum presentation on Aug. 17. (John Kovach photo)

Evidence that some say could finally give proper credit for the first powered flight in human history to Gustave Whitehead may be among old family papers in an attic or basement in the Bridgeport area.

Historian John Brown — who earlier this year was instrumental in Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft recognizing Whitehead for being the first to fly and apologized for a century-long delay in doing so — asked a crowd of more than 100 packed into a small auditorium at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport Saturday, Aug. 17, to join in the hunt for more eyewitness accounts of Whitehead’s flight.

Brown also asked residents of Connecticut to put pressure on the Smithsonian through the federal government to investigate, if not recognize, Whitehead’s accomplishments.

Evidence found subsequent to the historic shift by Jane’s was announced Saturday by Brown. While the Wrights had been credited with developing “wing warping,” a means of tugging on wings to control the flight of an aircraft, Brown found a magazine article from Dec. 1. 1902. The Wrights applied for their patent for the process March 23, 1903.

“You can’t change this,” Brown said Saturday. “There it is, indelible. Mr. Whitehead developed wing-warping first.”

In detailed graphics, Brown highlighted lines and wires on Whitehead’s craft and showed connections to controllers. One strongly resembles the joystick familiar to video game players. Another is similar to the windlass found on a boat; Whitehead
was a sailor.

Brown also shared details of a letter in which Wilbur Wright talks about how impressive a lightweight engine developed by Whitehead is, and how it would be good for powered flight.

The Smithsonian steadfastly clings to the Wrights’ claims of being first in flight in the shadow of a contract that stipulates that the national museum cannot ever recognize a flight before the Wright Brothers in 1903.

Brown cites as evidence of Whitehead taking off Aug. 14, 1901, an article in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, plus more than 130 other newspaper articles; 18 eyewitness accounts, including three by justices of the peace and 14 of which were sworn under penalty of law; and a comparison of both aircraft. He presents more evidence at gustave-whitehead.com.

In a side-by-side chart, Brown said Whitehead’s No. 21 contained key design and operation elements found in the modern Boeing 737. The Wrights’ 1903 craft had none.

The 1903 Wright Flyer has been deemed not air worthy by mathematical, scientific, structure and wind tunnel analysis, Brown said. In the 110 years since, no one has flown a replica of the 1903 Wright aircraft.

Brown showed two instances, one at Sikorsky Memorial Airport, in which life-sized replicas of Whitehead’s No. 21 took off and remained airborne in a sustained flight.

Lack of photographic evidence of Whitehead’s flight is consistently cited by Tom Crouch, of the National Air & Space Museum at the Smithsonian, as a reason to not recognize the event. Using that standard, Brown contends, Columbus never discovered America and Washington never crossed the Delaware: There are no photos of either.

Now, a copy of a letter sent to Brown calls Crouch’s reliance on the “iconic” photo showing the Wright Flyer several feet off the ground in December, 1903, into question. In correspondence to a New York historian, Crouch answered his own rhetorical query as to whether the photo actually showed sustained flight with, “probably not.”

“I call for the resignation of Tom Crouch,” Brown told the crowd at one of three presentations he gave at the Discovery Museum at its First in Flight event, part of an exhibit at the Park Avenue science center.

Among those in attendance were Andy Kosch, who built and flew a replica of Whitehead’s No. 21 that was displayed in front of the museum; Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch; Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau; state Rep. Tony Hwang; actor John Ratzenberger, a descendent of a Bridgeport police chief who was among the 18 eyewitnesses who saw Whitehead aloft; and members of Whitehead’s family.

“I’m proud. I’m happy, but at the same time it’s hard to believe,” said Ron Kusterer of Ansonia, Whitehead’s great-great-grandson. His grandmother was Whitehead’s daughter.

He looked at photos and newspaper clippings from Margaret Lampart of Trumbull, another member of the Whitehead family.

Kusterer credited Kosch, Brown and other local aviation historians for pushing the issue, and making sure the world learns what he has known his entire life.

“The truth will get out,” Kusterer said.

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