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|Full name||Gustave Albin Whitehead|
|Born||[Note 1]January 1, 1874|
|Died||October 10, 1927 (aged 53)|
|Cause of death||Heart attack|
|Spouse||Louise Tuba Whitehead|
|Known for||Reported flights 1901-1902|
|First flight||8/14/1901 (disputed)|
|Full name||Gustave Albin Whitehead|
|Born||[Note 1]January 1, 1874|
|Died||October 10, 1927 (aged 53)|
|Cause of death||Heart attack|
|Spouse||Louise Tuba Whitehead|
|Known for||Reported flights 1901-1902|
|First flight||8/14/1901 (disputed)|
Gustave Albin Whitehead, born Gustav Albin Weisskopf, (1 January 1874 – 10 October 1927) was an aviation pioneer who emigrated from Germany to the United States where he designed and built gliders, flying machines and engines between 1897 and 1915. Controversy surrounds published accounts and Whitehead's own claims that he flew a powered machine successfully several times in 1901 and 1902, predating the first flights by the Wright Brothers in 1903.
Much of Whitehead's reputation rests on a newspaper article written as an eyewitness account which stated that Whitehead made a powered flight in Connecticut on August 14, 1901. In the months that followed, details from this article were widely reprinted in newspapers across the U.S. and Europe. Whitehead's aircraft designs and experiments also attracted notice in Scientific American magazine and a 1904 book about industrial progress. Whitehead later worked for sponsors who hired him to build aircraft of their own design, although none flew, and he became a known designer and builder of lightweight engines. He fell out of public notice around 1915 and died in relative obscurity in 1927.
In 1937, a magazine article and book asserted that Whitehead had made powered flights in 1901-1902. The book included statements from people who said they had seen various Whitehead flights decades earlier. The book and article triggered debate in the 1930s and '40s among scholars, researchers, aviation enthusiasts and Orville Wright over the question of whether Whitehead was first in powered flight. Mainstream historians dismissed the flight claims. Further independent research in the 1960s and 70s, including books in 1966 and 1978, supported the Whitehead claims.
No photograph conclusively showing Whitehead making a powered controlled flight is known to exist. However, a modern researcher claims to have identified one, which is seen as an image within a much larger vintage photograph of an aviation exhibit hall. Previous research reported that in-flight photographs were displayed in a store window in 1904, but none have ever been relocated. Researchers have studied Whitehead's aircraft designs to see if they could have flown. Since the 1980s, enthusiasts in the U.S. and Germany have built and flown versions of Whitehead's "Number 21" flying machine using modern engines and propellers.
The Smithsonian Institution has repeatedly examined and dismissed claims that Whitehead made powered flights before the Wrights. Whitehead supporters assert that the Smithsonian lost its credibility on the issue when it signed a 1948 agreement with the estate of Orville Wright requiring the Institution to recognize the 1903 Wright Flyer as the first aircraft to make a manned, powered, controlled flight.
A sharp difference of opinion continues among aviation historians as to what exactly Whitehead accomplished during his aviation career. Some historians believe that he was the first human to fly in a powered flying machine, while others believe none of his machines ever flew and he contributed nothing to aviation.
In 2013 Jane's All The World's Aircraft recognized Whitehead as making the first manned, powered, controlled flight in its 100th anniversary edition. This reignited the debate over who flew first. On June 26, 2013 Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a measure which specifies that Powered Flight Day is in honor of the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead, rather than the Wright Brothers.
Whitehead was born in Leutershausen, Bavaria, the second child of Karl Weisskopf and his wife Babetta. As a boy, he showed an interest in flight, experimenting with kites and earning the nickname "the flyer". He and a friend caught and tethered birds in an attempt to learn how they flew, an activity which police soon stopped. His parents died in 1886 and 1887, when he was a boy. He then trained as a mechanic and traveled to Hamburg, where in 1888 he was forced to join the crew of a sailing ship. A year later, he returned to Germany, then journeyed with a family to Brazil. He went to sea again for several years, learning more about wind, weather and bird flight.
Weisskopf arrived in the U.S. in 1893. He soon anglicized his name to Gustave Whitehead. In 1897, the Aeronautical Club of Boston hired Whitehead to build two gliders. One of these (patterned after a Lilienthal glider) was partially successful and in which Whitehead flew short distances, and toy manufacturer E. J. Horsman in New York hired Whitehead to build and operate advertising kites and model gliders. Whitehead occupied himself with plans to provide a motor to drive one of his gliders.
According to an affidavit given in 1934 by Louis Darvarich, a friend of Whitehead, the two men made a motorized flight together of about half a mile in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park in April or May 1899. Darvarich said they flew at a height of 20 to 25 ft (6.1 to 7.6 m) in a steam-powered monoplane aircraft and crashed into a brick building. Darvarich said he was stoking the boiler aboard the craft and was badly scalded in the accident, requiring several weeks in a hospital. Reportedly because of this incident, Whitehead was forbidden by the police to perform any more experiments in Pittsburgh. Aviation historian William F. Trimble, pointing to a lack of contemporary proof, dismissed this story in 1982 as a case of "overactive imaginations." Whitehead's stated control method – a shifting of body weight – was said by Trimble to be insufficient to control a powered aircraft, and the supposed charcoal-fired steam powerplant could not have been strong enough to lift itself off the ground.
Whitehead was quoted in a 26 July 1901 article in the Minneapolis Journal, credited to the New York Sun, in which he described the first two unmanned trial flights of his machine on 3 May. Andrew Cellie and Daniel Varovi were mentioned as his financial backers and assisted with the flights. The machine carried 220 pounds of sand as ballast and flew to an altitude of 40 to 50 feet for an 1/8 of a mile (201 metres (659 ft)). According to Whitehead, the machine flew a distance of 1/2 mile (805 metres (2,641 ft)) for one and one-half minutes during its second test flight before crashing into a tree. He also explained his desire to keep the location of any future experiments hidden to avoid drawing a crowd who might make a "snap-shot verdict of failure". 
The aviation event for which Whitehead is now best-known reportedly took place in Fairfield, Connecticut on 14 August 1901. An unsigned article written as an eyewitness report in a weekly Sunday Bridgeport newspaper said Whitehead piloted his Number 21 aircraft in a controlled powered flight for about half a mile up to 50 feet (15 m) high and landed safely.[Note 2] The feat, if true, preceded the Wright brothers by more than two years and exceeded their best 1903 Kitty Hawk flight, which covered 852 feet (260 m) at a height of about 10 feet (3.0 m).
The newspaper article was published in the 18 August 1901 edition of the weekly Bridgeport Herald  The article about Whitehead is widely attributed to journalist Richard Howell, the editor.
The article was accompanied by a drawing, also credited by some Whitehead researchers to Howell, which depicted the aircraft in flight. The drawing was purportedly based on a photograph, which has not been proven to ever have existed. Information from the article was also reprinted in the New York Herald, Boston Transcript and The Washington Times, which ran it on 23 August 1901. In the following months, dozens of other U.S. newspapers around the nation published articles mentioning the reported flight or other aviation activity by Whitehead.
The Bridgeport Herald reported that Whitehead and another man drove to the testing area in the machine, which worked like a car when the wings were folded along its sides. Two other people, including the newspaper reporter, followed on bicycles. For short distances the Number 21's speed was close to thirty miles an hour on the uneven road, and the article said, "there seems no doubt that the machine can reel off forty miles an hour and not exert the engine to its fullest capacity.".
The newspaper reported that before attempting to pilot the aircraft, Whitehead successfully test flew it unmanned in the pre-dawn hours, using tether ropes and sandbag ballast. When Whitehead was ready to make a manned flight, the article said: "By this time the light was good. Faint traces of the rising sun began to suggest themselves in the east."
According to the newspaper article, trees blocked the way after the flight was in progress. Whitehead was quoted as saying, "I knew that I could not clear them by rising higher, and also that I had no means of steering around them by using the machinery." The article said Whitehead quickly thought of a solution to steer around the trees:
"He simply shifted his weight more to one side than the other. This careened the ship to one side. She turned her nose away from the clump of sprouts when within fifty yards of them and took her course around them as prettily as a yacht on the sea avoids a bar. The ability to control the air ship in this manner appeared to give Whitehead confidence, for he was seen to take time to look at the landscape about him. He looked back and waved his hand exclaiming, 'I've got it at last.'"
When Whitehead neared the end of a field, the article said he turned off the motor and the aircraft landed "so lightly that Whitehead was not jarred in the least."
Junius Harworth, who was a boy when he was one of Whitehead's helpers, said Whitehead flew the airplane at another time in the summer of 1901 from Howard Avenue East to Wordin Avenue, along the edge of property belonging to the local gas company. Upon landing, Harworth said, the machine was turned around and another hop was made back to the starting point.
On 21 September 1901, Collier's Weekly ran a picture of Whitehead's "latest flying machine" and said that he "recently made a successful flight of half a mile". On 19 November 1901, The Evening World (New York), ran a story about Whitehead's achievements and included a photograph of him sitting on his new flying machine. In it, he is quoted; "within a year people will be buying airships as freely as they are buying automobiles today and the sky will be dotted with figures skimming the air". On 7 December 1901, the Coconino Sun ran a story that stated Gustave Whitehead was the "inventor of the flying machine" and was planning a flight to New York.
During this period of activity, Whitehead also reportedly tested an unmanned and unpowered flying machine, towed by men pulling ropes. A witness said the craft rose above telephone lines, flew across a road and landed undamaged. The distance covered was later measured at approximately 1,000 ft (305 m).
Whitehead claimed two spectacular flights on 17 January 1902 in his improved Number 22, with a 40 hp (30 kW) motor instead of the 20 hp (15 kW) used in the Number 21, and aluminum instead of bamboo for structural components. In two published letters he wrote to American Inventor magazine, Whitehead said the flights took place over Long Island Sound. He said the distance of the first flight was about two miles (3 kilometers) and the second was seven miles (11 km) in a circle at heights up to 200 ft (61 m). He said the airplane, which had a boat-like fuselage, landed safely in the water near the shore.
For steering, Whitehead said he varied the speed of the two propellers and also used the aircraft rudder. He said the techniques worked well on his second flight and enabled him to fly a big circle back to the shore where his helpers waited. He expressed pride in the accomplishment: "...as I successfully returned to my starting place with a machine hitherto untried and heavier than air, I consider the trip quite a success. To my knowledge it is the first of its kind. This matter has so far never been published."
In his first letter to American Inventor, Whitehead said, "This coming Spring I will have photographs made of Machine No. 22 in the air." He said snapshots, apparently taken during his claimed flights of 17 January 1902 "did not come out right" because of cloudy and rainy weather. The magazine editor replied that he and readers would "await with interest the promised photographs of the machine in the air," but there were no further letters nor any photographs from Whitehead.
Anton Pruckner, a mechanic and assistant to Whitehead, signed an affidavit concerning the claimed January 17, 1902 flight: "...I knew that the flight took place because of talk by those who had seen it and because Whitehead himself had told me he made it...I believe Whitehead made that flight, as his aircraft did fly well and with the bigger engine we had built, the plane was capable of such a flight. Whitehead was of fine moral character and never in all the long time I was associated with him or knew him did he ever appear to exaggerate. I never knew him to lie; he was a very truthful man...I saw his aircraft fly on many occasions."
A description of a Whitehead aircraft as remembered 33 years later by his brother John Whitehead gave information related to steering:
"Rudder was a combination of horizontal and vertical fin-like affair, the principle the same as in the up-to-date airplanes. For steering there was a rope from one of the foremost wing tip ribs to the opposite, running over a pulley. In front of the operator was a lever connected to a pulley: the same pulley also controlled the tail rudder at the same time." 
John Whitehead arrived in Connecticut from California in April 1902, intending to help his brother. He did not see any of his brother's aircraft in powered flight.
A 1935 article in Popular Aviation magazine, which renewed interest in Whitehead, said winter weather ruined the Number 22 airplane after Whitehead placed it unprotected in his yard following his claimed flights of January 1902. The article said Whitehead did not have money to build a shelter for the aircraft because of a quarrel with his financial backer. The article also reported that in early 1903 Whitehead built a 200-horsepower eight-cylinder engine, intended to power a new aircraft. Another financial backer insisted on testing the engine in a boat on Long Island Sound, but lost control and capsized, sending the engine to the bottom.
An article in the 19 September 1903 Scientific American told of Whitehead making powered glider flights, but did not mention control surfaces. He first made a series of cautious experiments in a triplane glider towed against the wind by an assistant pulling a rope. He then replaced the assistant with a 54-pound (24 kg) two-cycle motor powering a two-blade propeller that was 4.5 ft (1.4 m) in diameter. The propeller was mounted on the motor's crankshaft in a tractor configuration to pull the aircraft forward rather than push it from behind. The motor was described as capable of generating 12 horsepower (8.9 kW) when operated at 2,500 rpm, but Whitehead throttled it back to 1,000 rpm in his flight experiments. "By running with the machine against the wind after the motor had been started, the aeroplane was made to skim along above the ground at heights of from 3 to 16 feet for a distance, without the operator touching, of about 350 yards. It was possible to have traveled a much longer distance, without the operator touching terra firma, but for the operator's desire not to get too far above it. Although the motor was not developing its full power, owing to the speed not exceeding 1,000 R.P.M., it developed sufficient to move the machine against the wind." The engine shown in the September 1903 article was the engine exhibited by Whitehead at the Second Annual Exhibit of the Aero Club of America in December 1906 that was shown in the photo between the Curtiss and Wright engines.
Whitehead attended the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 and displayed an aeronautical motor. His work with the "aeroplane" was described in a chapter titled "The Conquest of the Air" in a 1904 book, "Modern Industrial Progress," by Charles Henry Cochrane. The book said Whitehead was one of the "latest of the enthusiasts in the soaring field" who had devised several "soaring apparatuses". The book described a manned gliding experiment in which a Whitehead machine was towed by an assistant pulling a rope: "When sufficient speed was attained, the aviator could tilt the planes slightly upward, rising from the ground, and skimming along slightly above the surface". The book said another Whitehead craft, "a three-deck machine," had a "four-sided rudder" that "assists the steering". After tests showed the machine could carry more than his weight, Whitehead attached a 12 hp motor driving a tractor propeller. The book said experiments with the machine were "sufficiently satisfactory that another is being built," but did not state that it made a powered flight.
Whitehead did not give identifiers to his first aircraft, but according to Randolf and Harvey to the end of 1901 he had built "fifty-six airplanes". Whitehead's Number 21 monoplane had a wingspan of 36 ft (11 m). The fabric-covered wings were ribbed with bamboo, supported by steel wires and were very similar to the shape of the Lilienthal glider's wings. The arrangement for folding the wings also closely followed the Lilienthal design. The craft was powered by two engines: a ground engine of 10 hp (7.5 kW), intended to propel the front wheels to reach takeoff speed, and a 20 hp (15 kW) acetylene engine powering two propellers, which were designed to counter-rotate for stability.
Whitehead described his No. 22 aircraft and compared some of its features to the No. 21 in a letter he wrote to the editor of American Inventor magazine, published 1 April 1902. He said the No. 22 had a five-cylinder 40 hp kerosene motor of his own design, weighing 120 lbs. He said ignition was "accomplished by its own heat and compression." He described the aircraft as 16 feet (4.9 m) long, made mostly of steel and aluminum with wing ribs made of steel tubing, rather than bamboo, which was used in the Number 21 aircraft. He explained that the two front wheels were connected to the kerosene motor, and the rear wheels were used for steering while on the ground. He said the wing area was 450 square feet (42 m2), and the covering was "the best silk obtainable." The propellers were "6 feet in diameter...made of wood...covered with very thin aluminum sheeting." He said the tail and wings could all be "folded up...and laid against the sides of the body."
In 1905, he and Stanley Beach jointly filed for a patent – issued 1908 – for an "improved aeroplane" with a V-shaped trough body and fixed bird-like wings, the pilot hanging below supported by a swing seat. This unpowered design was a hang glider not too different from the ones flown by Otto Lilienthal a decade before. Whitehead also built gliders until about 1906 and was photographed flying them.
In addition to his work on flying machines, Whitehead built engines. Air Enthusiast wrote: "In fact, Weisskopf's ability and mechanical skill could have made him a wealthy man at a time when there was an ever-increasing demand for lightweight engines, but he was far more interested in flying." Instead, Whitehead only accepted enough engine orders to sustain aviation experiments.
In 1908 Whitehead designed and built a 75 hp lightweight two-cycle motor at the suggestion of aviation pioneer George A. Lawrence, who was having difficulty obtaining an aeronautic engine. The water-cooled machine was designed so that functional cylinders continued to work if others failed, a safety factor to help avoid accidents due to engine failure. The men formed Whitehead Motor Works with an office in New York City and a factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that built motors in three sizes: 25, 40 and 75 hp, weighing 95, 145 and 200 pounds respectively.
Whitehead's business practices were unsophisticated and he was sued by a customer, resulting in a threat that his tools and equipment would be seized. He hid his engines and most of his tools in a neighbor's cellar and continued his aviation work. One of his engines was installed by aviation pioneer Charles Wittemann in a helicopter built by Lee Burridge of the Aero Club of America, but the craft failed to fly.
Whitehead's own 1911 studies of the vertical flight problem resulted in a 60-bladed helicopter, which, unmanned, lifted itself off the ground.
He lost an eye in a factory accident and also suffered a severe blow to the chest from a piece of factory equipment, an injury that may have led to increasing attacks of angina. Despite these setbacks he exhibited an aircraft at Hempstead, New York, as late as 1915. He continued to work and invent. He designed a braking safety device, hoping to win a prize offered by a railroad. He demonstrated it as a scale model but won nothing. He constructed an "automatic" concrete-laying machine, which he used to help build a road north of Bridgeport. These inventions, however, brought him no more profit than did his airplanes and engines. Around 1915 Whitehead worked in a factory as a laborer and repaired motors to support his family.
He died of a heart attack, on 10 October 1927, after attempting to lift an engine out of an automobile he was repairing. He stumbled onto his front porch and into his home, then collapsed dead in the house.
Whitehead's work remained mostly unknown to the public and aeronautical community after 1911 until a 1935 article in Popular Aviation magazine co-authored by educator and journalist Stella Randolph and aviation history buff Harvey Phillips. Randolph expanded the article into a book, "Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead," published in 1937. Randolph sought out people who had known Whitehead and had seen his flying machines and engines. She obtained 16 affidavits from 14 people and included the text of their statements in the book. Four people said they did not see flights, while the others said they saw flights of various types, ranging from a few dozen to hundreds of feet, to more than a mile.
Harvard University economics professor John B. Crane wrote an article published in National Aeronautic Magazine in December 1936, disputing claims and reports that Whitehead flew. The following year, after further research, Crane adopted a different tone. He told reporters, "There are several people still living in Bridgeport who testified to me under oath, they had seen Whitehead make flights along the streets of Bridgeport in the early 1900s." Crane repeated Harworth's claim of having witnessed a one-and-a-half mile airplane flight made by Whitehead on 14 August 1901. He suggested a Congressional investigation to consider the claims.
In 1949 Crane published a new article in Air Affairs magazine that supported claims that Whitehead flew. Crane in his second article made no reference to his first one, nor did he refute his previous evidence.
In 1963, William O'Dwyer, a reserve U.S. Air Force major, accidentally discovered photographs of a 1910 Whitehead "Large Albatross"-type biplane aircraft shown at rest on the ground. He found the photo collection in the attic of a Connecticut house. He and members of his 9315th U.S. Air Force Reserve Squadron were requested by the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (CAHA) to conduct research to try to learn if Whitehead had made powered flights. O'Dwyer continued his research for years and became convinced that Whitehead did fly before the Wright brothers. O'Dwyer later contributed interviews of reputed flight witnesses to a second book by Stella Randolph, "The Story of Gustave Whitehead, Before the Wrights Flew", published in 1966. O'Dwyer and Randolph co-authored another book, "History by Contract", published in 1978. The book criticized the Smithsonian Institution for signing an agreement with the estate of Orville Wright, requiring the Smithsonian to credit only the 1903 Wright Flyer for the first powered controlled flight.
In 1968, Connecticut officially recognized Whitehead as "Father of Connecticut Aviation". Seventeen years later, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution which repudiated the Connecticut statement and gave "no credence" to the assertion that Whitehead was first to fly, citing "leading aviation historians and the world's largest aviation museum" who determined there was "no historic fact, documentation, record or research to support the claim".
In 1981, Connecticut Public Television broadcast "Windcrossing," a dramatic retelling of the Gustave Whitehead story based on an earlier 1977 multimedia stage presentation. It was nominated for two regional New England Emmy Awards.
The most prominent witness statement came from the journalist from the Bridgeport Herald, a weekly newspaper. He described flight preparations during the night and the first flight early in the morning of 14 August 1901. The article was published on 18 August 1901, in the Sports section, and named two witnesses to Whitehead's reported early morning flight, Andrew Cellie and James Dickie. The article was published without a byline, but it is commonly attributed to Richard "Dick" Howell who was the sports editor.
Decades later, Dickie denied seeing a flight. He said in a 1937 affidavit, taken during Stella Randolph's research, that he was not present at the reported flight on 14 August 1901, and that he thought the newspaper story was "imaginary". He said he did not know Andrew Cellie, the other associate of Whitehead who was supposed to be there, and that - to the best of his knowledge - none of Whitehead's aircraft ever flew. An article in Air Enthusiast countered by saying that the description Dickie gave of the airplane did not match Whitehead's Number 21.
O'Dwyer had known the older Dickie since childhood. O'Dwyer wrote that early in his research he spoke by telephone to Dickie. O'Dwyer wrote that Dickie had a grudge against Whitehead. O'Dwyer described the alleged conversation:
"...his mood changed to anger when I asked him about Gustave Whitehead. He flatly refused to talk about Whitehead, and when I asked him why, he said: 'That SOB never paid me what he owed me. My father had a hauling business and I often hitched up the horses and helped Whitehead take his airplane to where he wanted to go. I will never give Whitehead credit for anything. I did a lot of work for him and he never paid me a dime.'"
O'Dwyer said he thought Dickie's 1937 affidavit had "little value." He said there were inconsistencies between the affidavit and his interview with Dickie. O'Dwyer's claim of an interview with Dickie is not supported by a transcipt or recording.
The other man who the Bridgeport Herald named as an eyewitness to the reported flight on 14 August 1901 was Andrew Cellie, but he could not be found in the 1930s when Randolph investigated. O'Dwyer said that in the 1970s he searched through old Bridgeport city directories and concluded that the newspaper likely misspelled the man's name, which he said was Andrew Suelli, who was a Swiss or German immigrant also known as Zulli, and was Whitehead's next door neighbor before moving to the Pittsburgh area in 1902. Suelli's former neighbors in Fairfield told O'Dwyer that Suelli, who died before O'Dwyer investigated, had "always claimed he was present when Whitehead flew in 1901."
Junius Harworth and Anton Pruckner, who sometimes helped or worked for Whitehead, gave statements decades later as part of Stella Randolph's research, claiming they saw Whitehead fly on 14 August 1901.
Anton Pruckner, a tool maker who worked a few years with Whitehead, attested in 1934 to the flight. He also attested to a January 1902 flight by Whitehead over Long Island Sound, but the 1988 Air Enthusiast article said "Pruckner was not present on the occasion, though he was told of the events by Weisskopf himself."
In his first letter to American Inventor, Whitehead claimed he made four "trips" in the airplane on 14 August 1901; and that the longest was one and a half miles.
Witnesses reported several different flights they said they saw on 14 August 1901. The Bridgeport Herald reported a half mile flight occurred early in the morning on 14 August. Whitehead and Harworth said that a flight one and a half miles long was made later that day. In all, four flights were reported to have taken place on August 14, 1901 by witnesses.
Among the affidavits collected by Stella Randolph are these, quoted in part:
Other witnesses who signed affidavits reporting additional powered flights later in 1902 include Elizabeth Koteles (Gypsy Spring, 5 feet off ground, 150–250 feet) and John Lesko (flight in street and Gypsy Spring). Other people signed affidavits saying they saw short flights of varying altitude and distance in the 1901-1902 time period.
O'Dwyer organized a survey of surviving witnesses to the reported Whitehead flights. Members of the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (CAHA) and the 9315th Squadron (O'Dwyer's U.S. Air Force Reserve unit) went door-to-door in Bridgeport, Fairfield, Stratford, and Milford, Connecticut to track down Whitehead's long-ago neighbors and helpers. They also traced some who had moved to other parts of the state and the U.S. Of an estimated 30 persons interviewed for affidavits or on tape, 20 said they had seen flights, eight indicated they had heard of the flights, and two said that Whitehead did not fly.
Photographs have not been found showing any of Whitehead's airplanes in flight. However, the 1 October 1904 edition of the Bridgeport Daily Standard newspaper reported that "pictures showing Whitehead in his aeroplane about 20 feet [6.1m] from the ground and sailing along" were exhibited in the window of Lyon and Grumman's hardware store on Main Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The article said: "of course he has not perfected his invention but says that he has frequently flown over half a mile [805 metres (2,641 ft)]. There are people who believe Whitehead is all that the newspapers have represented him to be. The photographs show that he has the ability to make short flights".
Another missing photo, which purportedly showed a Whitehead aircraft in flight, was displayed in the 1906 First Annual Exhibit of the Aero Club of America at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. The photo was mentioned in a 27 January 1906 Scientific American magazine article. The article said the walls of the exhibit room were covered with a large collection of photographs showing the machines of inventors such as Whitehead, Henry Berliner and Alberto Santos-Dumont. Other photographs showed airships and balloons in flight. The report said "No photographs of this [a powered Augustus M. Herring machine] or of larger man-carrying machines in flight were shown, nor has any trustworthy account of their reported achievements ever been published. A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air constructed by Whitehead in 1901 was the only other photograph besides that of Samuel Pierpont Langley's scale model machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight." In 1986, Peter L. Jakab, National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Associate Director and Curator of Early Flight, theorized that the image "may very well have been an in-flight photograph" of one of Whitehead's gliders.
In 2013 researcher John Brown of Australia announced his forensic analysis  of a previously-known 1906 photograph of the Aero Club Exhibit room. This photo showed individual images on the walls of the room. Brown concluded that one of the images visible on a wall is "the long lost photo of Whitehead’s No. 21 in powered flight". He said the image also correlated with the pen and ink drawing of the craft in flight published with the 1901 Bridgeport Herald article describing the events. Scientific American commented on Brown's photo analysis: "The photo in question is too fuzzy to show pilot or motor or a towline or Whitehead, and could easily be a glider....Or it could be a frog making a hop."
A prominent Connecticut official, State Senator George Gunther, and high school science teacher, pilot, and Whitehead researcher Andy Kosch reported they'd heard about yet another photograph: They were told that a sea captain named Brown made a logbook entry about Whitehead flying over Long Island Sound and even photographed the airplane in flight. A friend told Kosch he found the captain's leather-bound journal containing a photo of Whitehead in flight and a description of the event. After some difficulty, Kosch made contact with the owners of the journal, but they told him it was lost.
To show that the No. 21 aircraft might have flown, Andy Kosch formed the group "Hangar 21" and led construction of a reproduction of the craft. On 29 December 1986 Kosch made 20 flights and reached a maximum distance of 100 m (330 ft). The reproduction, dubbed "21B," was also shown at the 1986 Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In.
In 1986, American actor and accomplished aviator Cliff Robertson was contacted by the Hangar 21 group in Bridgeport and was asked to attempt to fly their reproduction No.21 while under tow behind a sports car, for the benefit of the press. Robertson said "We did a run and nothing happened. And we did a second run and nothing happened. Then the wind came up a little and we did another run and, sure enough, I got her up and flying. Then we went back and did a second one." Robertson commented, "We will never take away the rightful role of the Wright brothers, but if this poor little German immigrant did indeed get an airplane to go up and fly one day, then let's give him the recognition he deserves."
On 18 February 1998, another reproduction of No. 21 was flown 500 m (1,600 ft) in Germany. The director of the aerospace department at Deutsches Museum criticised however that such a replica was not proof that the original did actually fly. The 1998 reproduction included modern research and materials such as fibre glass, and had a modern engine, too.
In 1937 Stella Randolph stated in her first book, "Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead", that the late Richard Howell was the editor who wrote the article about a Whitehead flight in the 18 August 1901 Bridgeport Herald weekly newspaper. The article carried no byline.
O'Dwyer wrote that Howell made the drawing of the No. 21 in flight, saying that Howell was "an artist before he became a reporter."  O'Dwyer spent hours in the Bridgeport Library studying virtually everything Howell wrote. O'Dwyer said: "Howell was always a very serious writer. He always used sketches rather than photographs with his features on inventions. He was highly regarded by his peers on other local newspapers. He used the florid style of the day, but was not one to exaggerate. Howell later became the Herald's editor."
Kosch said, "If you look at the reputation of the editor of the Bridgeport Herald in those days, you find that he was a reputable man. He wouldn't make this stuff up." Howell died before the controversy about Whitehead began.
The Bridgeport Herald article was published 18 August 1901, four days after the event it described. According to Aviation History, Whitehead detractors, including Orville Wright, used the delay in publication to cast doubt on the story, questioning why the newspaper would wait four days before reporting such important news. Orville Wright's critical comments were later quoted by the both the Smithsonian Institution and by British aviation historian Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith. Aviation History explained that the Bridgeport Herald was a weekly newspaper published only on Sundays. Writing in 1970, Gibbs-Smith doubted the veracity of the account, he said that the newspaper article "reads like a work of juvenile fiction..."
An early source of ammunition for both sides of the debate was a 1940 interview of Whitehead's wife Louise. The Bridgeport Sunday Post reported that Mrs. Whitehead said her husband's first words upon returning home from Fairfield on 14 August 1901, were an excited, "Mama, we went up!" Mrs. Whitehead said her husband was always busy with motors and flying machines when he was not working in coal yards or factories. The interview quoted her as saying, "I hated to see him put so much time and money into that work." Mrs. Whitehead said her husband's aviation efforts took their toll on the family budget and she had to work to help meet expenses. She said she never saw any of her husband's reported flights.
Stella Randolph wrote "Mrs. Whitehead talked very freely and frankly with the writer, who made several visits to her home, in the 1930s, and there was never any intimation that she harbored any resentment about the past."
Smithsonian Institution Curator of Aeronautics Peter L. Jakab said that Whitehead's wife and family did not know about his August 1901 flights. Mrs. Whitehead, in talking to Randolph, said that she sewed the material for the wings on the plane and took care of the household, and did not watch any experiments. Whitehead's daughter Rose was three years old when the alleged 1901 powered flight took place, and the other children had not yet been born.
Stanley Beach was the son of the editor of Scientific American magazine and later became editor himself. He had a long personal association with Whitehead. His father, Frederick Converse Beach, contributed thousands of dollars to support Whitehead's work with Stanley Beach's airplane design, from 1903-1910. Beach also claimed to have taken most of the photos that appeared in Stella Randolph's book, "Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead", published in 1937. In 1905, Beach and Whitehead submitted, as equal partners, a patent application to the US Patent Office for a monoplane glider, which was granted in March, 1908. Whitehead built an under-powered over-weight Bleriot-style biplane that Stanley Beach designed, which never flew. When Whitehead told Stanley Beach that his design was faulty and could not work Stanley Beach got angry and sent some men who took the unfinished airplane away from Whitehead's workshop.
Beach, as Aviation Editor for the Scientific American for more than a decade, would have to approve all aviation articles or write them, later confirmed authorship of at least one Scientific American article about Whitehead, that of 8 June 1901, a few months before the report of his powered flight in the Bridgeport Bridgeport Herald. The Scientific American article by Beach described Whitehead's machine as a "novel flying machine" that was being prepared for test flights, with an extensive description. Two photographs were included of a "batlike" craft." The article did not state that Whitehead had flown, as it was published prior to Whitehead's reported flight of 14 August 1901. Multiple articles in Scientific American published under Beach's editorship in 1903, 1906, and 1908 stated that Whitehead had conducted successful powered flights and several noted he'd flown in 1901.
O'Dwyer asserted that all the articles in Scientific American which mentioned Whitehead had been written by Beach, but did not offer proof. O'Dwyer thus believed that, because of a statement Beach made many years later, Beach had "recanted" his earlier view that Whitehead had flown. O’Dwyer supported his opinion by asserting that Beach became a "politician" who was "rarely missing an opportunity to mingle with the Wright tide that had turned against Whitehead, notably after Whitehead's death in 1927." Beach's letters, many written on Scientific American letterhead, chronicle his prolific correspondence with the Wrights starting in 1906 and extending (with some long gaps) to 1945, are archived in the Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright Collection at the Library of Congress. He was a friend of the Wrights who asked them frequently for information he could use as Scientific American Aviation Editor in his aviation articles and to author their own articles for the Scientific American's aviation section. Beach met with the Wrights at times, often inviting them to meet with him at his Scientific American New York City office. Beach solicited the Wrights regarding various business ventures, including offers to purchase part of the Wright Co in 1915-16.
In 1939, Beach, with the help of numerous editors including Major Lester D. Gardner, Secretary of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, Inc., which was located in New York City and whose first honorary member was Orville Wright, wrote about Whitehead, "I do not believe that any of his machines ever left the ground under their own power in spite of the assertions of many persons who think they saw him fly." This unsigned statement has been used by a number of Whitehead critics, including Orville Wright, ever since.
Beach further declared that Whitehead "deserves a place in early aviation, due to his having gone ahead and built extremely light engines and aeroplanes. The five-cylinder kerosene one, with which he claims to have flown over Long Island Sound on 17 January 1902 was, I believe, the first aviation Diesel."
This article has been noted by Whitehead researchers to contradict previous ones Beach had either written or approved for the Scientific American section in 1903, 1906, and 1908. The statement also has been seen as contradictory within itself, as in one part, Beach claims Whitehead did not fly, and in another, he describes how the plane would always land safely from flight, "pancaking". O'Dwyer suggested in History by Contract that the multiple editors must have missed that incongruity. Researchers additionally point out that the Beach and Whitehead relationship was generally positive, and thus the long financing and patent sharing, until a falling-out in about 1910 over plane design and engines. Beach's contradictory statements about Whitehead have caused much controversy ever since. Beach was known also for a tumultuous family and personal life, which led to his father and family cutting off funding and thus ending his ability to finance aviation ventures. In addition, the family tried to have him committed to an insane asylum, later in life. He was deemed incompetent by a local court and had a conservator appointed in 1926, which was upheld under appeal in 1927.
Reports that Whitehead made a flight in Connecticut were noticed by the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Langley at that time was building his manned aircraft, the Large Aerodrome "A". In September 1901, Langley's chief engineer, Charles M. Manly, requested that F.W. Hodge, a staff clerk, look over Whitehead's Number 21 aircraft, then on public display in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Hodge was staying. Manly asked Hodge to estimate the dimensions of the wings, tail and propellers, the mechanism of the propeller drive and the nature of the construction, which Manly thought might be too weak. The item Manly stated he was "more interested in than anything else" was the acetylene engine. Manly stated he believed the claims made for the machine were "fraudulent." Hodge reported the machine did not appear to be airworthy.
In 1903, two attempts to achieve manned powered flight with Langley's Aerodrome failed completely. In 1910 the Wright brothers offered their 1903 Flyer to the Smithsonian, but were declined. Instead, the Smithsonian gave aviator Glenn Curtiss (who was being sued by the Wrights for patent infringement) permission to rebuild Langley's failed aircraft, an effort which included major but unpublicized design improvements. Curtiss and his team made several brief manned flights with the rebuilt Aerodrome in 1914. The Smithsonian then restored the Aerodrome to its original condition and displayed it in its museum with a label stating it was the first heavier than air machine "capable" of manned, powered flight. Insulted by this development, Orville Wright spent years unsuccessfully trying to change the Smithsonian's position, and finally lent the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum in London in 1928, an act which eventually turned public opinion against the Smithsonian.
The Flyer was finally brought back to the U.S. in 1948 after Orville's death and installed in the Smithsonian museum. As a condition for receiving the airplane, the Smithsonian Institution Secretary, acting for the U.S. government, signed an agreement with executors of Orville Wright's estate. The agreement (popularly called a "contract") required the Smithsonian to recognize only the 1903 Wright Flyer, and no other aircraft, as first to make a manned, powered, controlled flight. A provision of the agreement allowed the Wright family to reclaim the Flyer if the Smithsonian failed to comply. The agreement was not made public.[Note 3]
In 1975, O'Dwyer learned about the agreement from Harold S. Miller, an executor of the Orville Wright estate. According to Aviation History, O'Dwyer pursued the matter and obtained release of the document, with help from Connecticut U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker and the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. O'Dwyer said that during an earlier 1969 conversation with Paul E. Garber, a Smithsonian expert on early aircraft, Garber denied that a contract existed and said he "could never agree to such a thing."
"History by Contract," the book co-authored by O'Dwyer and Randolph, argued that the agreement unfairly suppressed recognition of Whitehead's achievements. The book, which also detailed Whitehead's life and career, showed correspondence between O'Dwyer and the Smithsonian in which he asked the Institution to look at the Whitehead evidence and to attend interviews of people who said they saw flights. The book called for nullification of the agreement.
According to the Smithsonian, the agreement, which contained no mention of Whitehead, was implemented only to close the long-running feud with the Wright family over the Smithsonian's false claims for the Aerodrome. The agreement remains in effect to the present day.
In July 2005, Peter Jakab of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and said the agreement with the Wright estate would not stop the Smithsonian from recognizing anyone as the inventor of the first airplane if indisputable evidence was found:
George Gunther, who served in the Connecticut state senate, said "History by Contract" was too heavy-handed. Gunther said he had been having "cordial" conversations with the Smithsonian about giving some credit to Whitehead, "but after O'Dwyer blasted them in his book, well, that totally turned them off."
O'Dwyer learned the Smithsonian had published a Bibliography of Aeronautics in 1909 which included references to Whitehead. O'Dwyer said it was "hard to understand" why the Smithsonian never contacted Whitehead or his family to learn more about the flight claims.
An article titled "Did Whitehead Fly?" in the January 1988 edition of Air Enthusiast magazine took an accusatory tone toward the Smithsonian: "The evidence amassed in his favour strongly indicates that, beyond reasonable doubt, the first fully controlled, powered flight that was more than a test 'hop', witnessed by a member of the press, took place on 14 August 1901 near Bridgeport, Connecticut. For this assertion to be conclusively disproved, the Smithsonian must do much more than pronounce him a hoax while wilfully turning a blind eye to all the affidavits, letters, tape recorded interviews and newspaper clippings which attest to Weisskopf's genius." The writer was Georg K. Weissenborn, a professor of German language at the University of Toronto. He was in communication with O'Dwyer before and after the article's publication.
In the 1930s, Whitehead was said by three witnesses to have helped the Wright brothers by revealing his secrets perhaps two years prior to their first powered flights.
Statements obtained by Stella Randolph in the 1930s from two of Whitehead's workers, Cecil Steeves and Anton Pruckner, claimed that the Wright brothers visited Whitehead's shop a year or two before their 1903 flights. The January 1988 Air Enthusiast magazine states: "Both Cecil Steeves and Junius Harworth remember the Wrights; Steeves described them and recalled their telling Weisskopf that they had received his letter indicating an exchange of correspondence." Steeves said that the Wright brothers, "under the guise of offering to help finance his inventions, actually received inside information that aided them materially in completing their own plane." Steeves related that Whitehead said to him, "Now since I have given them the secrets of my invention they will probably never do anything in the way of financing me."
Orville Wright denied that he or his brother ever visited Whitehead at his shop and stated that the first time they were in Bridgeport was 1909 "and then only in passing through on the train." This position is supported by Library of Congress historian Fred Howard, co-editor of the Wright brothers' papers, and by aviation writers Martin Caidin and Harry B. Combs.
O'Dwyer said Octave Chanute "encouraged" the Wrights to look into engines built by Whitehead. In a letter to Wilbur Wright on 3 July 1901, Chanute made a single reference to Whitehead, saying: "I have a letter from Carl E. Myers, the balloon maker, stating that a Mr. Whitehead has invented a light weight motor, and has engaged to build for Mr. Arnot of Elmira 'a motor of 10 I.H.P....'"
Opinions about Whitehead's work and accomplishments differ sharply between independent researchers and established aviation historians. Early independent researchers included Stella Randolph, a journalist–educator inspired and informed in the 1930s by aviation buff Harvey Phillips, and Harvard economics professor John B. Crane. Researchers in the 1960s and later included: Randolph again; Major William O'Dwyer (ret.) of the U.S. Air Force Reserve; high school science teacher and pilot Andy Kosch; the Flugpioniermuseum Gustav Weißkopf museum in Whitehead's birthplace in Germany; and John Brown, an Australian aviation researcher living in Germany. O'Dwyer also consulted with the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (CAHA) and its vice president–secretary Harold Dolan, a Sikorsky Aircraft engineer, and Harvey Lippincott, founder and president of CAHA. The independent researchers spent decades studying Whitehead and seriously consider the possibility that he made powered flights before 1903.
Mainstream historians and Wright brothers biographers have expressed serious doubt or flatly dismissed the Whitehead claims. Those experts include historian William F. Trimble, Wright biographer Fred Howard, aviation historian Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith, and Tom Crouch (also a Wright biographer) and Walter Boyne of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
In 1945, Whitehead's son Charles was interviewed on a national radio program as the son of the first man to fly. That claim was highlighted in a magazine article, which was then condensed in a Reader's Digest article that reached a very large audience. Orville Wright, then in his seventies, countered the magazine articles by writing "The Mythical Whitehead Flight", which appeared in the August 1945 issue of U.S. Air Services, a publication with a far smaller, but very influential, readership. Wright listed several reasons for disbelieving Whitehead, then quoted John J. Dvorak, professor of Physics at Washington University in St. Louis, who had hired Whitehead to build an engine Dvorak designed. Dvorak visited Whitehead in Bridgeport and stayed in close contact with him for six months. In October 1904, Dvorak was reported in the Bridgeport Daily Standard as saying that Whitehead was "further along in developing heavier-than-air machines" than others in the field. After a few more months, Dvorak became dissatisfied with Whitehead's progress on the engine, and severed the business relationship. In 1936 Dvorak signed an affidavit stating, "I personally do not believe that Whitehead ever succeeded in making any airplane flights. Here are my reasons: 1. Whitehead did not possess sufficient mechanical skill and equipment to build a successful motor. 2. Whitehead was given to gross exaggeration. He was eccentric – a visionary and a dreamer to such an extent that he actually believed what he merely imagined. He had delusions." Dvorak said that Whitehead may have made "short straightaway hops" but no "airplane flights." Harworth, Whitehead's assistant, later an assistant foreman at a Detroit plant, filed an affidavit in the 1930s describing the situation, said Dvorak wished to use his own plans for the engine which would not work, that Dvorak, a physics professor, lacked mechanical skill. Charles Witteman, well known aviation pioneer, designer and builder of all air mail planes for the US Postal Department and many famous flyers such as Lindbergh, was a repeat customer for Whitehead engines in 1908-1910, spent a week with Whitehead in his shop building engines with him and carried Whitehead engines in the Witteman catalog, bought two Whitehead engines. Witteman, also presidential advisor on aviation, testified to the excellent mechanical abilities of Whitehead in building engines, which he said powered airplanes that flew.
In the late 1950s Gibbs-Smith researched the field of early aviation pioneers and their various claims, and he concluded that reports of Whitehead making a successful flight in advance of the Wright brothers were fabrications, "flights of fancy". Gibbs-Smith wrote in 1960: "Unfortunately, some of those who advanced [Whitehead's] claims were more intent on discrediting the Wright brothers than on establishing facts." He wrote that no "reputable" aviation historian believes Whitehead ever flew. He described the arc of Whitehead's career as a retrogression, that it moved from supposed early successes to less ambitious experiments, and then descended further to unlikely designs and public failure. Gibbs-Smith was convinced that any true success along the way would have brought Whitehead's achievements wide recognition, but this never happened. Gibbs-Smith also wrote that "Whitehead was incapable of solving the complex problems involved, especially that of a suitable engine." Gibbs-Smith was affiliated with Smithsonian, which has a contract with the Wright heirs to only recognize them as first in flight, and with London Museum, where Orville Wright's plane had been on display for 20 years.
Skeptical opinion on Whitehead is also expressed at an educational website edited by Wright Brothers researcher Nick Engler. An article dismisses Whitehead's work and influence, stating: "While Whitehead believers insist that he was first to fly, no one claims that his work had any effect on early aviation or the development of aeronautic science. Even if someone someday produces a photo of No. 21 in flight on August 14, 1901, it will be nothing more than a footnote, a curious anomaly in the history of aviation."
Whitehead researchers and writers state that Whitehead did contribute to the development of the airplane. An online biographical article based on the O'Dwyer and Randolph books states that the engine Whitehead purportedly used in Pittsburgh attracted the attention of Australian aeronautical pioneer, Lawrence Hargrave, who in 1889 invented a rotary engine. The article said: "This steam machine was so ingenious that several years later Lawrence Hargrave told of using miniature designs of "Weisskopf-style" steam machines, as well as the "Weisskopf System" for his model trials in Australia." Interest in Whitehead's engines is indicated by the recollections of his daughter Rose, who said her father received numerous orders for them and even declined as many as 50 orders in a single day because he was too busy.
Whitehead supporters emphasize that he is now cited as the first person to make a powered, controlled airplane flight by Paul Jackson's editorial in Jane's All the World's Aircraft, the influential annual publication about the global aircraft industry. Aviation researcher Carroll Gray casts doubt on the magazine's conclusion: "If Jane's were an historical journal this might be of great importance, but it is the leading aviation industry publication, not involved with matters of history and certainly not an arbitrator of historical fact."
Whitehead supporters also point out that he shared his work with others openly, in person, and in writing and that information about him was published in trade journals, magazines such as Scientific American, and in newspaper interviews and his own letters to magazine and newspaper editors.
Governor John Dempsey, CT, USA, designated August 14 as "Gustave Whitehead Day" in 1964 and 1968.
A large headstone replaced the bronze marker of his grave with a formal dedication ceremony on August 15, 1964 attended by elected officials, members of every branch of the armed services, Clarence Chamberlain - famed aviator, CAHA, the 9315th Air Force Reserves Squadron, and surviving members of his family, his three daughters, and his assistant Anton Pruckner, commemorating Whitehead as "Father of Connecticut Aviation".
The "Aviation Pioneer Gustav Weißkopf Museum" was established in Leutershausen, Germany in 1974.
A memorial fountain and sculpture commemorating Whitehead's "aviation first" was dedicated in May 2012 and is located on a traffic island at the intersection of Fairfield Avenue and State Street in Bridgeport