Gustave Whitehead first to fly – what is Gustave Whitehead’s legacy?

gustave whitehead first to fly

Gustave Whitehead First to FlyGustave Whitehead First to Fly

Gustave Whitehead First to Fly

Gustave Whitehead’s legacy stems from being the first to invent and fly a powered airplane. In addition to being first in flight, Whitehead established and shared vital elements of flight still in use today.

Critics keep concocting more barriers to Whitehead’s recognition. For example, the Smithsonian and Wrightists point out that the Wright brothers had an exhibition flying school, and so, left a mark on flight that Whitehead did not. Yes, they did, after being ultra-secretive for five years – and most of their pilots died in their dangerous planes, so with only a few left alive, they shut it down! They even killed some of their passengers. Gustave Whitehead never killed anyone – not himself or any other pilots who flew his planes (Pruckner and Howarth lived to old age).

We recognize Gustave Whitehead’s legacy as being first to fly,  and for the following accomplishments and firsts, many of which were incorporated into today’s airplanes and jets.

The following can be said of Whitehead’s contribution to the development of flight, as we enjoy it today:

  • Gustave Whitehead gave numerous interviews to the media (newspapers and Scientific American, Aeronautic World) from 1897 through 1915, unlike the Wrights, to show and explain his airplanes in detail, with photos. These were disseminated worldwide, well over 150 articles.
  • He wrote letters to the editor in trade journals such as American Inventor, complete with details about his plane, the engines, and the flights he’d made.
  • This means his “school of flight” was the world, those working on airplanes learned from his step-by-step, detailed descriptions.
  • Whitehead was “first in flight” and shared this, via an exclusive interview and local reporters interviewing him from as far away as New York City, and via the Associated Press, with at least 73 newspapers.
  • Considering Whitehead was said by three witnesses and by his own account, to have been visited by the Wright brothers before they flew at Kitty Hawk, and that he explained his secrets of flight to them, this would be another instance of leaving a legacy, one that did Whitehead no earthly good, but it did the rest of us a whole lot of good!
  • Gustave Whitehead was first to use, demonstrate, and share, worldwide, the following in successful powered flight: takeoff with use of wheels and ground engine for acceleration, autoplane / amphibian plane, folding wings, wing-warping, hand-controls to operate rudder, tractor (“puller”) style propellers, as well as the following…

Alfred Zahm[i], (Guggenheim Chair of Aeronautics at the Library of Congress, 1929-1946 [ii]) commented in 1945 on Whitehead’s legacy, in his book, “Early Powerplane Fathers”:

“From the accredited reports it appears that Mr. Whitehead accomplished

  1. The first high flight
  2. The first long flight
  3. First closed-circuit flight
  4. First flight over and landing on water
  5. First with passenger
  6. First with internal-combustion engine.
  7. The first power flight worldwide

Zahm said that Whitehead’s No. 22’s flight in Jan. 1902, if Whitehead accomplished this, according to his own report and that of his helpers, would also give him the following firsts:

  1. The first circular flight in the world,
  2. The first fast, high, or long flight
  3. The first flight with an internal-combustion engine,
  4. The first amphibian flight
  5. The first practically controlled flight

All at a time when no other plane on earth was making any sustained hops at all. This seems a glorious record which, if officially accepted, should receive distinguished recognition from city, state, and nation. Further inquiry, especially by an unbiased professional committee, would seem warrantable.” [iii]


  • “First-in-Flight”: first manned, powered and controlled flight in a “heavier-than-air craft” in the world, with his August 14, 1901 No. 21 “Condor” aeroplane [iv]
  • Developed first successful flying boat, the precursor to hydroaeroplane and hydroplane
  • World record for speed, duration, and altitude (1901-1902)
  • Development of forms of wing warping, use of a rudder, and three-axis control before the Wright patent was taken out
  • Developed and flew first successful aerocar
  • Developed and flew first successful aeroplane that used wheels
  • Developed and flew first successful aeroplane that used opposing propellers in front (later referred to as tractors)
  • Developed gyroscope to stabilize precursor to autopilot mechanism
  • Developed one of the earliest helicopters
  • Provided a vision and example to others that flight was possible
  • Developed multiple aircraft, with early successful design that demonstrated flight possible
  • Designed and built at least 200 lightweight engines, some of which powered aircraft that flew successfully
  • Sharing his findings with contemporary inventors in person, during press conferences, in trade journals through letters, and in press interviews


Whitehead accomplishments that may be considered ” firsts*”:

  • First known manned, powered and controlled flight in a “heavier-than-air craft”, worldwide in an aircraft he designed and built
  • First to fly in a complete circle
  • First successful “aeronaut”
  • First to fly at night with powered aircraft
  • First use of wing-warping in successfully flown aircraft
  • First to design and fly a roadable “aero-car-boat” aircraft
  • First powered successful seaplane
  • First rubber-tired wheels used on successful airplane
  • First to design and build first lightweight engine for successful powered flight
  • First to master launching plane using speed of wheels and lift of propellers
  • First to design and build first powerful, lightweight gasoline engines for powered flight (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, & 8 cylinder engines)
  • First to sell powerful, lightweight gasoline engines for powered flight to others
  • First air-cooled engine in powered flight
  • First airplane propelled on ground by engine
  • First airplane with folding wings
  • First use of aluminum propellers
  • First to design individually controllable propellers
  • First to design two-place aircraft
  • First to experiment with aircraft in Pennsylvania and Connecticut
  • First to publicly advertise multiple passenger aircraft
  • First to build a concrete runway for aircraft in USA
  • First to design and use a concrete-laying machine in Connecticut

*Biographer and researcher Stella Randolph notes that most of these firsts were accomplished prior to December 17, 1903, in her book “Before the Wrights Flew”.

Gustave Whitehead first to fly, inventor of the powered airplane, shared his discoveries immediately with the world, paving the way for all others working on the development of a practical airplane.

[i] “Zahm received undergraduate and master’s degrees from Notre Dame University and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. He taught mathematics and mechanics at Notre Dame University (1885-92) and at The Catholic University of America (1895-1908). A principal organizer of the 1894 international conference on aeronautics, he was also an early and persistent champion of the creation of a national aeronautical laboratory. From 1916 to 1929 he was the director of the Aerodynamical Laboratory of the U.S. Navy. He was named Guggenheim Chair of Aeronautics at the Library of Congress, a position that was created for him (1929-1946). He designed and built the first significant wind tunnel in the United States (1901) and was awarded the Laetare and Mendel medals for his significant achievements in the field of aeronautics. An inventor of precise measuring instruments, he was also known for designing the “Zahm shape,” making breakthrough discoveries on skin friction and aerodynamic drag, and inventing the airplane control stick.”


[iii] Early Powerplane Fathers. Zahm, Alfred. Notre Dame University Press. 1945, p. 32