Dan Rattiner's Stories

Before Wright Brothers, CT Man Flew Closer to East End

The State of Connecticut has become convinced by a recent article in an aviation magazine that the first person to fly an airplane was not Wilbur Wright assisted by Orville Wright in North Carolina in 1903, but one built and flown two years earlier by Gustave Whitehead, a German-born American immigrant living in Bridgeport, Connecticut. They say that his aircraft, “plane 21,” with him in it, rose up to 50 feet and flew more than a mile over Bridgeport and nearby Fairfield just before dawn on August 14, 1901.

Unlike at Kitty Hawk, no clear photographs were made of Whitehead’s famous flight. And it is true that the propellers Whitehead used were more primitive than the ones used by the Wright brothers two years later. Also, the engines were not as powerful.

The State’s claims rest on the article titled “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied,” written by Paul Jackson in the highly respected Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft magazine in 2013 making the case for the claim. Paul Jackson is the editor of that magazine.

Editor Jackson says the government effort at digitalizing many old community newspapers back in the 1990s has uncovered many accounts never found before of Whitehead’s flight on that day, much of it as front-page news in small newspapers around the country. Whitehead’s plane 21 had curved bat wings that unfurled from the fuselage before each flight, had a fuselage in the shape of a rowboat and had three engines. One powered the front wheels to accelerate the plane along the ground, the other two powered each of the two propellers attached to the wings. With the pulling of a lever on board, Whitehead could transfer the power from the wheels to the propellers.

The earliest of these accounts was written by the editor of the Bridgeport Sunday Tribune newspaper for the edition that came out four days after the event. The editor was an invited guest at that flight, as were several other people.

Other newspaper reports have Whitehead flying a circular course over Long Island Sound between Bridgeport and Charles Island in January 1902, in full view of witnesses, even maneuvering into turns, something the Wrights did not do over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. There were later numerous accounts by these witnesses, recorded on tape, film or video.

As a result of these findings in 2013, Governor Dannel Malloy signed a measure that changes the state holiday “Powered Flight Day” so it honors Whitehead rather than the Wright Brothers. And this spring, the legislature is now discussing a bill to change “Powered Flight Day” to August 14 and to name Gustave Whitehead’s aircraft “America’s First Aircraft.”

There continue to be claims that the Wright Brothers, not Whitehead were the first to fly an aircraft. But in Ohio, the home of the Wright Brothers, it turns out that the surviving Wright brother donated the precious aircraft that supposedly made that “first” flight to the Smithsonian Museum for a dollar in 1948 on the condition that the Smithsonian never attribute the first flight to any fliers whose efforts came before theirs.

There are also others, including experts, who dispute the Whitehead claim. It’s often pointed out that the only known photo of the August 14 plane in flight is, because of the hour it took place, very fuzzy and the only other photographs of Whitehead’s aircraft flying with him in it 50 feet in the air is one where the aircraft is being towed into the wind by someone on the ground, so that doesn’t count. There is also a famous picture with Whitehead sitting on the ground with his daughter on his lap next to Plane 22, but that is not plane 21. It is also true, however, that several years ago, a Connecticut high school teacher had a group build a replica of the plane, which they successfully flew.

The coastline of Connecticut is quite visible from eastern Long Island. Whitehead’s aircraft could have been seen flying from here, if it did. Is there anyone who has been told by grandparents or great grandparents looking out at the Connecticut coastline in 1901 and seeing that first airplane in flight? Perhaps an old photograph is in someone’s attic? If so, it would be very helpful to Connecticut’s claim.

If you have such an account or photograph, please send it to me at dan@danspapers.com. You can also share photos in our Dan’s Pics section here. Thanks.­­­

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