It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Whitehead’s flying machine

In the predawn hours of Aug. 14, 1901, in the presence of a reporter from the Bridgeport Herald,  German immigrant, night watchman and aviator Gustave Whitehead drove the motorized airship he had built in his Bridgeport garage westward down a mostly dirt-paved Fairfield Avenue.

Passing the “orphan asylum” at Ellsworth Street, Whitehead and his companions crossed the bridge spanning Ash Creek into Fairfield and continued until they reached an area the reporter later cryptically referred to in his Aug. 18, 1901 story as “back of Fairfield along the highway, where there is a large field and few trees to avoid in flying the air ship.”

Researchers believe the spot described was part of Turney’s farm, an elevated parcel near the present-day marina and Turney Road.

As dawn approached, the Herald reporter wrote, Whitehead and the two friends who accompanied him sent the plane, looking like a “giant white bat,” on an unmanned test flight before Whitehead climbed aboard, startling a passing milkman and his horse as “the big white wings flaped.”

Inside the airship, Whitehead rose to a height of about 50 feet and flew for approximately half a mile down the field before descending quickly and landing lightly on the grass, according to the Herald report.

First in flight

Fast forward exactly 113 years to Thursday, Aug. 14, when local Whitehead enthusiast Andy Kosch brought his full-sized replica of Whitehead’s plane to Sherman Green as part of Fairfield’s “Gustave Whitehead Day,” a commemoration to recognize what many Whitehead researchers say was the first instance of “manned, sustained, powered flight.”

Wider recognition of Whitehead’s feat has not come easy. His treetop trip over the Turney farm field took place more than two years before the Wright brothers’ more famous lift-off in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, but the Smithsonian has yet to acknowledge Whitehead as first in flight.

Whitehead advocates consider it a major victory that a different aviation eminence, “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft,” last year granted Whitehead his due, citing recent research proving that Whitehead’s flight took place before the Wrights’.

The quest for official acknowledgment of Whitehead’s achievement began in the 1960s, with Fairfield contractor William O’Dwyer. A former World War II flight instructor, O’Dwyer came across a photo of Whitehead’s plane parked on the grounds of Brooklawn Country Club while researching a client’s property.

“He went into it thinking Gustave Whitehead couldn’t possibly have flown before the Wrights,” said  O’Dwyer’s daughter, Susan O’Dwyer Brinchman. O’Dwyer investigated Whitehead’s overlooked aviation efforts extensively from 1963 until his death in 2008, according to Brinchman, teaming up with earlier Whitehead researcher Susan Randolph to write a book on the subject, History by Contract, in 1978.

Brinchman, who assisted her father in his research “on and off for 30 years,” beginning when she was 12, continued the work after his death and hopes to complete another book on the subject.

A boat with wings

Kosch said he first heard about Whitehead while he was teaching hang gliding on the hill near Ludlowe High School in the 1980s. When he saw pictures of the Whitehead’s plane, Kosch said, he thought, “that’s just a boat with wings,” and decided he could build a replica. Kosch and others worked to complete the plane in 1985, and Kosch took it for a spin — if not around the clouds, at least off the ground — at Stratford’s Sikorsky Memorial Airport in December 1986.

Kosch said he has since flown the plane over 20 times, with 330 feet being his longest journey, at a height of six feet.

“I just wanted to go farther than the Wright Brothers,” he said.

Fairfield pays tribute

Among the people gathered around the plane on Sherman Green Aug. 14 was Ed Collins, whose wife’s grandmother, Mary Savage, lived across the street from Whitehead’s Bridgeport garage at the turn of the century. Collins belongs to a group called the Gustave Whitehead Advocacy Committee, formed to expand recognition of Whitehead’s work, and said he got involved when he heard his wife’s girlhood stories of what her grandmother reported seeing.

According to one of Savage’s stories, one night she heard Whitehead start the engines of his flying machine and went with her husband to the window of their Pine Street house to see what was going on. As the sun rose, Savage said, the wind picked up and lifted the plane, with Whitehead at the helm, over the neighborhood and toward Long Island Sound. The plane went into the water at Seaside Park, where men pulled it and Whitehead out, unharmed.

Another man admiring the plane on the Green recalled attending McKinley School in the 1930s with Whitehead’s granddaughter, Vivian Whitehead. “It was common knowledge that her grandfather flew,” said the man, who did not want to give his name, but said he had driven from his home in Woodbury to see the replica.

“It’s too bad they had to go through so much to prove he flew,” he  said, but added, “I’m happy something is coming out of it.”

Pauper’s grave

Whitehead’s most prolific flying years were 1901 and 1902, according to Brinchman. “After that, he got discouraged, and lost sponsors,” she said, pointing out, however, that “his method for takeoff is still used today — going faster and faster until [the plane] launches into the air.”

At age 53, with only eight dollars to his name, Whitehead suffered a heart attack and died in the driveway of the house he had built for his family on Alvin Street in Fairfield. Whitehead was buried in a pauper’s grave in Bridgeport, Brinchman said, and didn’t receive a headstone until her father’s retired Air Force squadron in 1964 donated one, bearing the inscription, “Father of Connecticut Aviation.”

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