What is the truth about the Gustave Whitehead research, books, and artifacts?

With the advent of increased recognition of Gustave Whitehead as “first in powered flight”, the status of prior Whitehead research, books, and artifacts takes center stage.

Major William J. O’Dwyer (US AF, retired) extensively researched Gustave Whitehead from 1963 – 2008, a period of 45 years, and was considered the world authority on Whitehead for most of that time period, until his death at the age of 87. Major O’Dwyer, a native of Fairfield, CT, where Whitehead often flew, was able to locate and interview numerous surviving Whitehead flight witnesses during the period 1963-1989, along with instrumental members of CAHA, the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association and his 9315th Air Force Squadron, which undertook this as a project.

Lost flightsStella Randolph, a Maryland area secretary and talented writer who wrote occasional articles to supplement her income, ran across the Whitehead story in 1934, and began to interview Whitehead’s contemporaries for an article she planned to write, which ultimately developed into a book published in 1937, called “Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead”. Ms. Randolph conducted Whitehead research for three years, from 1934-1937. Ms. Randolph formed a fiduciary relationship with the surviving members of the Whitehead family (his widow and four children) which lasted for the next four decades.  She gave a percentage of her very meager profits to the Whitehead family, and for a long time, was entrusted with the few remaining artifacts associated with the Whitehead history. All told, her costs for the research and travel involved well exceeded any true profits, over a forty year period. We are deeply indebted to Ms. Randolph for preservation of the artifacts and her dedicated, extensive research of Gustave Whitehead and his contemporaries, conducted in CT, PA, and MI, through 1937.

When, in 1963, Major O’Dwyer, CAHA, and O’Dwyer’s Air Force Squadron (WWII veterans, retired) became involved in conducting Whitehead research, Ms. Randolph was invited to present her findings and allowed to use the findings of the new researchers in her second book.

Before the Wrights Flew

Before the Wrights Flew

“Before the Wrights Flew: The Story of Gustave Whitehead” (Randolph, 1966) expanded and corrected the errors of her 1937 book that had been limited by Ms. Randolph’s own resources and communication issues. While she did not personally conduct more research, Randolph kept abreast of the new findings, working very amicably for 13 years with Major O’Dwyer, the 9315th AF Squadron, CAHA, and the city of Leutershausen, Whitehead’s native town in Bavaria, Germany, which became increasingly interested in the accomplishments of its native son. In 1968 O’Dwyer and Randolph signed an agreement to share all research findings, mutually, with permission to use these in publications. Ms. Randolph began coauthoring a book about Whitehead with Major O’Dwyer in the early 1970’s, which ultimately became published as “History by Contract” in 1978 (Fritz Majer and Sohn).

During the 1960’s CAHA had planned that their future museum (now well established, known as the New England Air Museum, or NEAM) would have an extensive Whitehead exhibit, to include a Whitehead village, with his home, workshops, and planes presented, along with a small number of artifacts released to CAHA by his family, with Ms. Randolph’s signed approval.  As time went on, O’Dwyer and CAHA interviewed a large number of witnesses who knew Whitehead, including some who saw him make powered flights before 1903. The CAHA membership largely worked for the aerospace industry, which was strongly Wright brothers-oriented. Its founder and President, Harvey Lippincott, though personally convicted of the reality of Whitehead’s early flights before the Wrights, became increasingly in an uncomfortable position, as he worked full time in an industry that did not take kindly to challenges to the Wrights’ primacy in flight, and due to his personal time constraints, the need for federal grants for CAHA, and from internal pressures within CAHA that occasionally erupted.  CAHA members worked full time and had little time to spend on Whitehead research. Lippincott attempted to keep everyone happy, including the Smithsonian, which was not to be achieved. He eventually stepped down from its presidency, becoming CAHA’s archivist, instead.

A planned five year study of Whitehead by a small CAHA core committee, begun in 1969 through a vote of its executive board, by 1974 was abandoned unfinished, as CAHA’s President Emeritus Lippincott found himself without the support of a large enough committee to spend literally, thousands of volunteer hours copying and examining the Whitehead files in O’Dwyer and Randolph’s possession. A full time job, running the organization, and traveling to Fairfield, CT (O’Dwyer’s home) and Maryland (Randolph’s home) often, from Hebron, CT, was taking its toll. The CAHA Whitehead study came to a halt, even as more witnesses were being located and interviewed who’d seen Whitehead’s powered flights, such as Mrs. Elizabeth Koteles in 1974.

The CAHA museum with a Whitehead exhibit did not occur, and has not occurred through this writing (2014), though there is now a large CAHA-run New England Air Museum (NEAM) museum in CT with other exhibits – with federal funding which would preclude credit for Whitehead’s early flights before the Wrights. Problems came up with CAHA’s handling of the Whitehead artifacts in the late 1960’s – early 1970’s, which were then legally transferred to Major O’Dwyer’s oversight, with the Whitehead family’s agreement and signatures, as well as Ms. Randolph’s full knowledge.

weisskopf museumMeanwhile, a Gustav Weisskopf Museum was being planned in Leutershausen, Germany. The Whitehead artifacts were provided to them with Major O’Dwyer and Ms. Randolph’s permission. This was considered by those in charge of the artifacts, legally, at the time, to be preferable to their storage in O’Dwyer’s home or Ms. Randolph’s moist basement, where they’d languished unseen for 30 years, causing damage to the glass negatives when wrapped with tissue paper for storage by Ms. Randolph. The photos had been further damaged when a CAHA secretary took the tissue paper off to make unauthorized copies of the glass plate negatives, even though its President Lippincott expressly instructed that this not be done, as a specialist was to have restored them.  Later, a CAHA attorney determined that the Whitehead artifacts had been gifted to CAHA by the Whitehead family, then given to Major O’Dwyer, who gave them (with Ms. Randolph’s approval) to the Gustav Weisskopf museum. Letters and permissions are available that fully document the steps listed above, through 1976.

History by Contract details Whitehead's life, his successful flights, and Smithsonian's maneuvers to avoid and deny Whitehead credit of any kind.

History by Contract details Whitehead’s life, his successful flights, and Smithsonian’s maneuvers to avoid and deny Whitehead credit of any kind.

At the time of the pre-publication of the book, “History by Contract”, starting in 1976, the publisher and two coauthors worked to settle details concerning the final title and content. What made it an extra challenge was the location of the publisher in Germany, and the German language of the publisher’s contract, which then had to be translated and agreed upon. What was very clear was that the book had been coauthored by both O’Dwyer and Randolph, the preeminent Whitehead experts, and that Ms. Randolph and Major O’Dwyer were delighted with the galleys and the quality of the early drafts of the book, as expressed in communications with the publisher and Major O’Dwyer in Sept., 1976.  At long last, and not without a rocky road, the book was finally published in 1978, composed of the long and arduous work of both of its legal coauthors, Major William J. O’Dwyer and Stella Randolph, the original Whitehead biographer. The exquisitely produced book, “History by Contract”, now out of print but available online, has since been hailed as one of the most important books in American history concerning aviation and the Smithsonian. Ms. Randolph passed away about ten years later, at the age of 94, following an extended period of ill health, hearing, and vision problems. She left behind an important legacy of early aviation history that might have gone unnoticed, had it not been for her original persistence in uncovering Whitehead’s story in the 1930’s.

Virtually each of the Gustave Whitehead aviation photos that appeared in Ms. Randolph’s first and subsequent books, including “History by Contract” were published in the news media before 1923, and therefore appear to be in the public domain, according to US copyright laws. Stanley Yale Beach, in his unpublished “Whitehead Statement” of 1939, asserted that nearly all of the photos that appeared in Ms. Randolph’s first book, “Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead” were taken by him (and implied that these were published without his expressed permission). The witness affidavits and general research on Whitehead are available to the general public in public archives, at the Fairfield Museum in Fairfield, CT, and the University of TX at Dallas’s History of Aviation Collection. Ownership of the original affidavits begs to be legally determined, as it is through the statements of those who saw Whitehead fly and knew him, that his history must necessarily be based. Any restrictions on their use would necessarily set Gustave Whitehead’s widening recognition zooming backward.

There are some peculiar restrictions concerning who may access the Whitehead files formerly belonging to Randolph and O’Dwyer, located now at the University of Texas McDermott Library in Dallas, TX, with O’Dwyer, his heirs, agents, and assigns, and CAHA members being forbidden access due to the request of the donors (not members of the Randolph family), with no known restrictions on their use by the general public. This potentially discriminatory and allegedly archaic policy of the University of TX’s McDermott Library to restrict access based on familial relationship and/or CAHA membership is under protest, using a Freedom of Information request and state open records law, Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. Secs. 552.001 to 552.353. We encourage readers, particularly those who are members of CAHA, and CT residents, to help address this issue by clicking this link and writing the University of Texas, and contacting your CT state elected officials for assistance.

In 2014, CT’s important early aeronautical history files on Whitehead should not be restricted from the view of CT’s premiere aviation history association by a public institution in Texas! Perhaps politics are, once again, at work in “burying” the Whitehead history. Ms. Randolph enjoyed extensive help from CAHA in obtaining the very contents of the files concerning witnesses interviewed up through the 1980’s, including that of Major O’Dwyer. The University of TX has claimed that the files are protected from access due to their value, supposedly not due to their own stated policy that certain people (who would number in the hundreds) and are CT natives, primarily, are forbidden from access. This situation begs for a legal remedy. Perhaps CT legal rights attorneys and the State of CT should become involved to determine the legality of such an onerous and potentially discriminatory restriction.

While not without the angst and birth pains that such a long and controversial topic and process necessarily caused, we are in great debt to Major William J. O’Dwyer and Stella Randolph for their important work in preserving the history of Gustave Whitehead, even at the expense, often, of their personal lives and reputations, both of which were under constant attack. We are indebted to the Whitehead family for its support in allowing their father’s artifacts to be shepherded by researchers, who together found a longterm, safe haven for them in Germany, when none could be found in the USA, due to the regrettable political atmosphere which exists even today, in every aviation museum in the nation.

In the future, we hope and expect that the United States government will encourage truth in history, that sharing the findings of early aviation research will be done honestly and fairly, without discrimination or favoring the Wrights as first in flight, which clearly they are no longer universally recognized as being. A Whitehead museum in the United States is needed, with federal support. However, considering the United States of America signed a Contract with the Orville Wright heirs in 1948 to prevent anyone else from getting credit for first flight, the Smithsonian-Wright Agreement of 1948, this is a logjam which must first be removed.  Collaboration with the Gustav Weisskopf museum is needed. Gustave Whitehead’s archives and history should be freely and readily available to all, without discrimination or restrictions. The families of Whitehead, the researchers, and eyewitnesses; elected officials, museum directors, and residents of the areas where Whitehead made his flights; and those who love historical truth anywhere can help by freely opening doors to the information about Gustave Whitehead. Only then may his place in history be fully evaluated and accepted. There are many blockades in place that must be removed. Help “free Whitehead“, so his history and legacy may be truly appreciated.

Susan O’Dwyer Brinchman

gwfirstinflight (at) gmail.com

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