How long was the true first flight?

Just how long was the true first flight of mankind, made in 1901 by Gustave Whitehead (Gustav Weißkopf)? A controversial aspect of the eyewitness report for Gustave Whitehead’s successful first manned, sustained, powered flight on August 14th, 1901 is now solved. Susan Brinchman, author of the new book, “Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight“, has revealed additional information to resolve this question for researchers.

Editor Richard Howell’s eyewitness account of the first flight, published in the weekly Sunday edition of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald on August 18th, 1901, includes an interview with Gustave Whitehead, reported as if it is all in his own words. However, it has always been said by Whitehead researchers that this portion of the article does not sound, word-for-word, the way a recent German immigrant might speak, and must have been reworded by Howell for his English-speaking readers. It has also been thought, since the first Whitehead researcher Stella Randolph examined the interview in the 1930’s, that Howell interviewed Whitehead and then used journalistic techniques to improve the language and make the account more interesting. Howell had no aviation background (like most); he reported what he saw, but in the customary, flowery language of the era, employed throughout this and other articles of that period, by virtually all newspapers. As is frequently experienced even with modern journalists, errors and minor embellishments were possible, within the context of an otherwise accurate article. However, there is one part of Howell’s report that seemingly cannot be correct – the duration of Whitehead’s half mile flight.

There is no proof that time or distance was measured, precisely, during this or other Whitehead flight experiments. According to some of his contemporaries, estimation was generally used by Whitehead and his assistants. (This should not be too surprising, as the distance of the first three flights of the Wrights were also estimated on Dec. 17, 1903.)

Within Howell’s article, “Flying“, an interview with Gustave Whitehead is included, entitled, “Gustave Whitehead’s Story“. There is one line that has rattled many studying Whitehead’s early flights. This is seen on p. 45 of “Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight“, as follows:

“I never felt such a spirit of freedom as I did during the ten minutes that I was soaring above my fellow beings in a thing that my own brain had evolved.” (Bridgeport Sunday Herald, Aug. 18, 1901, p. 5)

A major criticism of the Howell article has been that a flight of ten minutes would not have been possible, for the entire distance traveled was (only) 1/2 mile, according to the article and other corroborating sources [Note: The distance is not so much in question, as a close-Whitehead reproduction has flown 1/2 mile, and multiple eyewitnesses reported flights of 1/2 mile or more for the “No. 21” in 1901]. Now, author Brinchman reveals that Gustave Whitehead actually reported the length of his flight to be 1  1/2 minutes (1.5 min.), sent in a letter to the top German aeronautical journal in August or September, 1901, as presented in her new book, “Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight“, on pages 85-87. This may indicate that Whitehead did, after all, measure the time of the flight, as the numbers fit, exactly.

After completing the first flight of August 14, 1901, Gustave Whitehead, being a German immigrant, wrote the Illustrirte Aeronautische Mitteilungen (Illustrated Aeronautical Record) in Germany, about his successful experiments. In his letter, he confirms that he made a half mile manned flight following a test flight with ballast, just as described in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald’s “Flying” article, by Dick Howell. Whitehead says, “I’ll never forget the feeling I had.” He goes on to say that his motor ran the entire day at full speed, using 10 pounds of fuel, and did not heat up nor was it very noisy. This firsthand account by Whitehead, sent to the largest aeronautical journal in Germany, agrees with the Howell account, making it another validation needed to authenticate the eyewitness Herald account of August 14, 1901- particularly that describing the flight and Whitehead’s experience.

It is probable that this description is in Whitehead’s own words, being more accurate due to being taken from a letter, rather than being interviewed and quoted (or misquoted). For instance, this description places the duration of the flight to be 1.5 minutes, vs. 10 minutes in Howell’s article.

In its October, 1901 issue, the Illustrirte Aeronautische Mitteilungen published an article concerning
Whitehead’s experiments and quoted his letter. An English translation, found in O’Dwyer’s files at the Fairfield Museum, is as follows:
(translated transcript)

The Flying Machine of Gustav Weisskopf (Whitehead)
(Der Flugapparat von Gustav Weisskopf)
“Gustav Weisskopf, a German from Ansbach, Bavaria, has sent us from Bridgeport the following
description of the flying machine he constructed there several months ago.
This machine follows in essence the outlines of a bird, has a body of 16 feet in length, 3 feet high,
and 2 1/2 feet maximum width. The body rests on 4 wheels. The diameter of these wheels is 1 meter. The front wheels are started by a 10 horsepower engine, while the rear wheels run free. On each side a lifting surface has been attached, made of stiffened [bamboo] cane covered with silk. The wing spread is 36 feet and the surface area of the lifting surface is 450 square feet.

“The lifting surfaces are strongly concave on their undersides and show absolutely no slack. Standing diagonally across the body within the height of the lifting surfaces, a double expansion engine
of 20 horsepower drives two propellers in opposite directions with 700 turns a minute. To preserve the stability of the machine in its length, an automatically functioning machine has been installed. The power fuel is calcium carbide and acetylene gas. The motor weighs 2 lbs. (1 lb. = 453 grams) per 1 horsepower and is a marvel in xxxxx construction. The 30 horsepower engine uses 60 lb. of fuel in 6 hours; that is, 2 lb. per horsepower and 6 hours (?) which must be described as a very good result. … My motor produces at the propellers a power of 350 lbs., which is 85 lbs. more than the weight of the entire machine. [emphasis added] I made the test flights with my machine. In both flights the machine landed without the slightest damage. On the first flight, 220 lbs. of ballast were carried, so that the total weight was 500 lbs. After the motor had started, the machine traveled about 30 yards, then lifted and flew about 1 1/2 minutes. On the second flight test I made an hour later, I removed the ballast and boarded the machine myself. I will never forget the feeling I had. The result was the same as with the first flight. The duration of the flight was 1  1/2 minutes and the distance covered was 2800 feet [Author’s note: ½ mile]. My motor ran the entire day at full speed and used 10 lbs of fuel. The motor did not heat up nor did it get very noisy; it shows a mechanical efficiency as good as any steam engine.” (“Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight” p. 85-87)

Andy Kosch, a longtime science teacher, most-noted as a Whitehead replica (or “close reproduction) builder, replica pilot, and ultralight pilot and instructor, reports an air speed of 25-35 mph was possible for “No. 21”. At an average of 30 mph, the distance traveled in one minute would be 1/2 mile. Add to that “the takeoff roll” of 30 seconds, according to Mr. Kosch, and you have the exact time Whitehead described to the premiere German aeronautical journal, the Illustrirte Aeronautische Mitteilungen –  one and a half minutes, the exact duration of a .5 mile manned flight. This is one more confirmation, of many, that Gustave Whitehead made the world’s first powered flights of mankind, during the summer of 1901.

By comparison, the alleged fourth flight of Wilbur Wright was said to be for 59 seconds, covering 852 feet, 2.3 years later.

(copyright 2015, by Susan Brinchman, Author, “Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight“)

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