Gustav Whitehead and the First Airplane

In March 2013, Paul Jackson, the editor of the widely-respected aviation journal Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, published an article in which he reignited a long-running historical dispute by asserting that the first airplane flight had not been made by the Wright Brothers in December 1903, but by a German immigrant named Gustav Whitehead in the summer of 1901.

Gustav Whitehead’s “Aeroplane Number 21”

In the 100-plus years since the age of aviation began at Kitty Hawk, there have been a number of different claims of “somebody else flew first”. Nearly all of them have been dismissed by historians as frauds, exaggerations or mistakes. But one claim, made for Gustav Whitehead (also sometimes known by the German version of his name, Weisskopf) was the subject of a long debate that involved patent disputes, court cases, and the Smithsonian Museum—and Whitehead still finds a sizable number of supporters today.

Most of this dispute around “the first airplane flight” is based on definitions—what constitutes a “flight”, and when is a flight “sustained” and “controlled”? So it is helpful to be specific about such matters.

Some things are indisputably clear. We are not referring to flights made in balloons, kites, or gliders: after all, humans had been flying in hot-air balloons since at least 1783, the Chinese had man-carrying kites long before that, and Lilienthal, Herring, Chanute and others had been experimenting with short unpowered glider flights, launched from hilltops, for many years. What we are interested in are powered, sustained, and controlled heavier-than-air airplane flights.

That requires several important accomplishments. First, a “powered” flight requires an engine which provides the energy for producing lift and thrust. There were several attempts to place an engine on a glider and take off downhill into a powered glide to the ground, but these were not “powered flights”—their energy came from gravity, not from the engine itself. To qualify as “powered”, an aircraft must be capable of taking off at ground level, reaching altitude, then landing at a point either equal to or higher in altitude than its takeoff point. I.e., it must be able to overcome gravity under its own power.

In this area, which centered around the aeronautical concept of “lift”, the Wright Brothers were far ahead of everyone else. Every other wanna-be flier, including Whitehead, was simply trying out various wing shapes as a matter of trial and error. Most of them were using a simple flat wing. Lilienthal was one of the few who tried a number of wing shapes with varying degrees of curve and noticed that different curves produced differing amounts of lift. The Wrights, by building various-sized gliders and flying them as a kite, discovered that Lilienthal’s published data was simply wrong and, to calculate it correctly, they designed and built their own wind tunnel, testing various wing shapes and measuring their lift and drag. After determining the best wing shape, they built a new glider in 1902 and took it to Kitty Hawk for testing. In September and October 1902, the brothers made almost 1,000 flights from the top of Kill-Devil Hill, some of them lasting over 25 seconds and covering over 600 feet. No one else had yet come anywhere close to that, because no one else had such an efficient wing design.

Another characteristic of successful flight was that it had to be “sustained”. It is not enough for an airplane to make an occasional short “hop” into the air for a couple seconds before gravity pulled it back to the ground—it had to be capable of reaching some altitude off the ground and then sustaining that altitude for an extended period of time under its own power. This depended on the aeronautical concept of “thrust”, and here the Wright Brothers once again demonstrated that they were the only ones in the world who knew what they were doing. Looking at the data which they had gathered from their wind tunnel experiments, they realized that everyone else had been approaching the problem in a way that was completely wrong: every other aircraft designer was using propellers consisting of either flat paddles made from solid wood or cloth-covered frame, or some type of screw based on a ship’s propeller.

Only the Wrights had grasped the key concept that a propeller was actually an aerodynamic wing that sat on its side and turned in the air to produce “lift” at its front surface—thrust—which pulled the aircraft forward in the same manner that the lift on a wing pulled it upward. Further, they realized that a propeller, unlike a fixed wing, turned through the air in a constant spiral, and that some modifications needed to be made in its shape to account for that. Using some complicated math, they figured out what the best theoretical curved and slightly twisted shape would be, then hand-carved a series of wooden models to those measurements and tested them using a gasoline engine in the shop. The final propeller shape they settled on, carved from several layers of spruce glued together, had a measured efficiency of at least 75%—that is, it converted about three-fourths of all the energy from the engine into thrust. Once again, this was a landmark that no one else anywhere had come close to achieving.

The final requirement for a successful aircraft is that it be “controlled”. An unsteerable airplane that can’t fly without an uncontrolled crash landing is not an airplane at all—it is a projectile. And once again, this is an area in which the Wrights proved their genius. Nearly all of the other people working on the matter, including Whitehead, were trying to produce a design that was inherently stable and would automatically fly itself in a straight line. The Wrights, however, influenced by their work in designing bicycles, realized that a flying machine had to be inherently un-stable: rather than being something in which the occupant passively rode, it would have to be actively controlled by its operator, like a bicycle.

The answer came one day as Wilbur was absent-mindedly twisting an empty cardboard box. As he did so, the shape remained rigid, but one corner rose higher than the other—which in the air would, he realized, produce more lift on one side and turn the aeroplane. The concept became known as “wing-warping”. In July 1899, the Wrights built a working model, five feet wide, from balsa and cloth, which they flew as a kite. Four cables were attached to the wing edges and ran down to control levers held by the operator. And it worked. As the kite rode on the wind, the brothers found that they were able to turn and bank it at will using the control levers. It was a revolutionary breakthrough, and it put the Wrights years ahead of everyone else.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer combined all of these crucial concepts, and made four flights—the longest covering 852 feet in 59 seconds. It was powered, sustained, and controlled. It was the first airplane flight.

So, what is the basis for the “Whitehead was first” claim?

Gustav Whitehead was a German immigrant with an interest in aviation. Between 1897 and 1908 he built (or at least claimed to have built) around 40 different gliders and engined-airplanes. Like many other aviation amateurs of the time, he wrote a series of letters to various newspaper claiming to have flown, but none of these presumed “flights” were witnessed by anyone or photographed (and at least some of them may have been completely made up by newspaper editors eager to attract readers with fabricated tall tales, which was pretty common among journalists at the time).

Whitehead would be, at best, a minor footnote in aviation history were it not for Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss had gotten his start in aviation in the “Aerial Experiment Association” formed by inventor Alexander Graham Bell. By 1909, he was building and flying his own airplane designs. One important innovation pioneered by Curtiss was the “aileron”, a flight-control mechanism that changed the airplane’s flight path by manipulating a small flap at the trailing edge of the wing instead of the whole wing itself. This was quickly integrated into a French system in which a single control stick operated the ailerons and the elevators, while a foot bar operated the rudder. When Louis Blériot crossed the English Channel in his homebuilt monoplane in July 1909, he was using the aileron-based single-stick system, and it was quickly adopted by virtually every other aircraft builder.

Except for the Wrights. Wilbur and Orville had patented the flight-control system for their Flyers, and they considered that all of the aileron systems were simple variations of their own patented “wing-warping” mechanism. So in a series of court filings that became known as “The Patent Wars”, the brothers filed a series of infringement lawsuits against virtually every other airplane manufacturer in the world, seeking 20% of all their revenues. Some airplane companies paid up. Others decided to fight—and the most prominent of these was Glenn Curtiss.

In a series of court filings, Curtiss argued that the Wrights hadn’t produced the first workable airplane after all, and therefore their patent was invalid. He pointed to two previous aeronauts—Samuel Langley and Gustav Whitehead.

Samuel Pierpont Langley was the head of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. In 1903, just weeks before the Wright Brothers, he made two attempts to launch his aeroplane, called the “Great Aerodrome”, from a catapult atop a houseboat anchored in the Potomac River. The first attempt fell straight into the water, and on the second try the Aerodrome broke apart during launch. But now, during the Patent Wars with the Wrights, Curtiss claimed that Langley’s pre-Kitty Hawk design was capable of flying even though it had crashed during its tests. Curtiss even went so far as to borrow Langley’s Aerodrome, modify it a bit, and “fly” it for short five-second hops. But it was clear that Langley’s contraption, in addition to simply being too flimsy, also lacked the aeronautical ability for sustained controlled flight—it had no flight-control capability, and it lacked aerodynamic propellers.

Curtiss then cited Whitehead’s reported flights. Three purported “pre-Kitty Hawk flights” by the German were examined in some detail in court, based on newspaper reports from the time. The first of these was supposed to have happened in 1899 in Pittsburgh PA. According to the newspaper account, this was supposed to have been powered by a steam engine that was fired by a boiler into which a second crew member would shovel coal during the flight. Since no engine of this period was even remotely capable of producing enough power to carry two people plus a heavy steam engine, this account is fanciful and is virtually certain to be a made-up tall tale by either Whitehead himself or the reporter who wrote it.

The next report came in 1901, from Bridgeport CT. Here, Whitehead was supposed to have taken off in one of his airplanes and flown along Pine Street. Some little boys are reported as having witnessed the flight. Of all the purported Whitehead flights, this is the only one that is actually plausible.

Finally, there is a report from 1902, again in Bridgeport. This time, the aeroplane is said to have used a complex engine using acetylene as fuel (though some other accounts declare it was kerosene), which could be adjusted in flight to run each of two propellers at different speeds to produce a turning action. Whitehead himself described this engine in letters to various places, including Scientific American. But this was part of a fundraising effort on his part to obtain financial backers for his experiments, and it is not clear whether such an engine ever actually existed anywhere other than in Whitehead’s hopes and plans.

When the courts finally ruled on the Wright-Curtiss patent dispute, they concluded that Whitehead had never actually flown, that Langley’s plane was incapable of sustained controlled flight, and that the Wright patent was therefore valid. There the matter rested until the 1930s, after an article appeared in Popular Aviation which repeated the Whitehead claims. This time, affidavits were filed by “witnesses” who now claimed, 30 years after the fact, to have actually seen Whitehead leave the ground. The final piece of “evidence” came in the form of a grainy photograph, said to have been taken of Whitehead’s plane in flight in 1901. But there is no evidence that it is actually Whitehead’s airplane, or that it was taken pre-Kitty Hawk.

The simple reality is that there no contemporary witness accounts or photos of Whitehead ever making a flight of any sort, much less one that was sustained and controlled. Whitehead himself never made a public flight anywhere with any of the 40-odd airplanes he built, even after the Wrights had already flown. None of his designs ever got off the ground, and no accurate replicas of them have ever made a sustained controlled flight (though a few have managed unsustained “hop flights”). They simply lack the aerodynamic qualities of lift and thrust that are needed to fly.

Much of the “Whitehead was first” mythology really centers around a silly conspiracy theory involving the Smithsonian Institution. After the Wrights flew in 1903, the Smithsonian put Langley’s “Great Aerodrome” on display and billed it as “the first airplane capable of flight”. That pissed off Orville Wright, who then donated the original Wright Flyer to the Museum of Science in London. It wasn’t until the Smithsonian agreed to drop its Langley claim and display the Flyer as “the first airplane” that the machine was brought back to the US.

Today, conspiracy theorists declare that the Smithsonian is part of an anti-Whitehead plot, sparked perhaps by American nationalism and anti-German sentiment, because of a “binding contract” it signed with the Wrights to never admit that anyone flew before they did. The whole story is nonsense. The Smithsonian displays the Flyer as the first airplane because it was the first airplane. Despite all the claims, and despite the “Whitehead was first” story still appearing from time to time even today in magazines, YouTube videos, and Internet blogs, nobody has been demonstrated to have made a powered, sustained, controlled flight prior to December 17, 1903.


8 thoughts on “Gustav Whitehead and the First Airplane”

      1. When I was a kid in the ’60’s, our supplemental reading materials for school were often rather credulous about a variety of things — cryptids, UFO’s, ghosts, capitalism, Clement Ader, etc. Wondering how much credence is given these days (outside France) to the latter’s claims, I was reading just now that in 1990 a pilot was injured in the crash of a full-sized Éole replica.

  1. What I always find interesting about the Wright brothers is that, considering they were humble bicycle technicians, they presumably had little in the way of formal education. Presumably a lot of the science and math they needed came from self study?

    Between the lines one also gets the impression they were a couple of arrogant, combative, unpleasant assholes, but like it or not, that doesn’t mean they weren’t first to fly. 🙂

    1. By all accounts they were actually quite modest, shy and retiring, and didn’t like attention. But yes, they were mostly self-educated and possessed an innate mechanical aptitude.

      1. Perhaps it’s all the patent lawsuits that give the impression of Trump-like entrepreneurs. 🙂
        Whatever their personalities, of their brilliance there can be no doubt.

        1. They were brilliant engineers. They were abysmal businessmen. And one of the things that killed them was their dogged pursuit of the patent lawsuits while allowing themselves to fall behind technologically.

          1. Overzealous protection of intellectual property is the enemy of innovation – had they succeeded in all their lawsuits, the most advanced plane today might well have been, er, the Wright Flyer. 🙂

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