December 17th, 1903, is widely accepted as the birth of powered heavier-than-air flight, with the Wright Brothers entering the history books with their Wright Flyer aircraft on that date. However, more than two years beforehand, in August 1901, Gustave Whitehead claimed to have taken to the air in his ‘Whitehead No. 21.’

Who was Gustave Whitehead?

Whitehead was born as Gustave Albin Weisskopf in the German municipality of Leutershausen, Bavaria, on January 1st, 1874. He showed an interest in flight from a young age, and was a keen user of kites. It is even said that he got into trouble with the police after trapping birds in order to investigate how they fly.

Weisskopf was thrust into adult life unexpectedly quickly, having lost both parents by the time he was 13. After a year spent living with his grandparents in Ansbach, where he helped sew together wings for an admittedly unsuccessful glider, Weisskopf then took to the seas. His travels as part of a ship’s crew saw him travel to Australia and Brazil, during which time he studied birds more closely.

According to Gustave Whitehead’s Flying Machines, Weisskopf emigrated to the US in the mid-1890s, arriving in Boston in 1895. It was at this point that his surname took on the anglicized form of Whitehead. He quickly got to work designing gliders for the Boston Aeronautical Society, and, by the time he married Louisa Tuba in 1897, he was already officially describing his profession as being an aeronaut.

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The first flight that might not have been

Whitehead and his family, which now included a child, moved to Pittsburgh in 1898 before settling in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1900. It was here that, a year later, claims of Whitehead having made the first powered heavier-than-air flight emerged. The aircraft involved was a monoplane known as the Whitehead No. 21.

Images of this aircraft, which had one engine to power its wheels on the ground and another to power its propellers in the air, were published in Scientific American in June 1901. Two months later, on August 14th that year, Whitehead allegedly flew his motorized glider for a distance of 2.5 km, some 10-15 meters in the air.

The flight received attention four days later in the Bridgeport Morning Herald, and other publications picked the story up in the following days. However, with no photographic evidence of the Whitehead No. 21 in the air, most commentators have rejected the flight. Furthermore, later analyses of the plane’s design found it to be flimsy, although modern replicas have flown with some modifications.

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Gustave Whitehead Memorial

Later life

While no photographs were taken of the Whitehead No.21 in flight, Gustave Whitehead’s glider flights were better documented. He is said to have been involved in the construction of such aircraft until 1906. His aviation career came to an end in 1911 after losing a lawsuit with a customer over an unfinished helicopter motor.

Away from aviation, Whitehead continued to work as an inventor, despite having lost an eye in a factory accident. His exploits in this field included designing concrete-laying machines and railway braking safety devices. However, his life was sadly cut short in October 1927 when he died of a heart attack aged 53.

Source: Gustave Whitehead’s Flying Machines


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