First in Flight Wright, Right? Wrong.

by Larry Sunderland

It was not at Kitty Hawk, but rather at Fairfield Connecticut. It was not December 17,1903, but rather August 14, 1901. It was not the Wright brothers, but rather Gustave Whitehead. How can this be?

Was it a shy inventor vs. a couple of publicity hounds? Was it anti-German prejudice? Was it money? Yep. All three.

Gustave Whitehead was born Gustave Weiskoph (Whitehead in German) in Leutershausen, Germany in 1874. He immigrated to New York City in his twenties and was able to muster at least some publicity in an article in the New Your Tribune which reported that a gasoline powered airplane had been constructed by one Gus Whitehead, noting that he was making plans to test his aircraft. Gus married Louise Tuba on November 24, 1897 listing his occupation on the marriage certificate as "aeronaut."

The Whiteheads moved on several occasions before settling in Fairfield, Connecticut. During this time he made several witnessed "short hops" in his airplane but he did not consider these to be flights. It was two years and four months before the Wright brothers well publicized flight that Whitehead first flew in view of numerous witnesses but, alas, no camera and no newspaper reporters.

Whitehead made a remarkable flight January 17, 1902 over Long Island Sound. He had constructed an amphibious aircraft. He had intended to fly but a short distance but wound up flying seven miles including making circles before landing in the water. Once again witnesses, no camera, no reporters.

It would be two years later that the Wright brothers would manage a flight of 852 feet ... with camera. Oroville Wright and the Smithsonian published articles dismissing Whitehead’s flights as a hoax. Financial rewards and fame came with first flight honors, and despite numerous witnesses to Whitehead’s feat, the honors would go to the Wright brothers. Prejudice against early 20th century Germans was harnessed by those promoting the feat of the Wright brothers.

Historical evidence indicates that the Wright Brothers weren’t even second to fly. The first glider flights were made by engineers Octave Chanute and A. M. Herring along the shores of Lake Michigan well before the Wright brothers. Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, constructed an unmanned fixed wing aircraft powered by a steam engine which flew three quarters of a mile in 1896. Englishman Hiram Maxim had already flown a manned aircraft in 1894 for a short hop.

It was in 1902 that preacher Burrell Cannon of Pittsburg, Texas built an airship based on the description of Biblical flying machine in the Book of Ezekiel. Once in the air, the aircraft began to vibrate so the pilot shut of the engine and landed the craft. The Ezekiel Airship was being transported to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

Whitehead was a good inventor, a poor promoter, a poorer businessman, and far too nice. He openly shared his inventions with other inventors reaping no patent revenue. His sixty propeller helicopter invention was a bust in 1910. He was a bust soon thereafter. He was broke at age forty when he took a job as a machinist. He died at age 53. He finally receive a proper head stone to his grave in 1964 due to efforts of the local Air Force Reserve Squadron.