For more than a quarter-century, Andrew Kosch and others immersed in southwestern Connecticut’s storied aviation history insisted that the most important step skyward that happened in this area was never acknowledged.
That changed March 8, when Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, the published authority in aviation, rewrote history and credited Gustave Whitehead with the first manned flight of a powered, fixed-wing aircraft.
“That’s the bible of aviation,” said Andrew King, executive director of the Connecticut Air and Space Center in Stratford, home to a life-size replica of No. 21, which Kosch, a teacher at Platt Tech High School in Milford, flew in 1986, as well as a smaller model that King said immediately took to the skies when a gust of wind struck it at an air show.
As a side note, King noted that the first air show was held in the greater Bridgeport area, and the legacy of Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the helicopter, is visible daily.
Little recognition of local inventor
Much of the reason Whitehead has not been recognized until now, supporters and Jane’s insist, is because of an agreement between the Wright family and the Smithsonian that stipulated that any flight prior to Kitty Hawk could never be acknowledged, or the museum would lose the Wright Flyer.
National historic sites devoted to the Wright brothers stand in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
Not so with Whitehead, save for a fountain installed in 2012 at the intersection of Fairfield Avenue and State Street Extension in Bridgeport. The places in Fairfield and Bridgeport where Whitehead flew his aircraft remain nondescript, devoid of markers that memorialize the historic event that occurred there.
Born in Germany with the surname Weisskopf, Whitehead move to the United States but was never naturalized. He lived in Bridgeport and Fairfield until his death in Fairfield in 1927.
The Aug. 18, 1901, Bridgeport Sunday Herald account details Whitehead driving No. 21, also called the Condor, four days earlier “along the darkened streets of Bridgeport,” wrote Paul Jackson, editor of Jane’s, in the aviation publication.
“In the still air of dawn, the Condor’s wings were unfolded and it took off from open land at Fairfield … performed two demonstration sorties. The second was estimated as having covered 1-1/2 miles at a height of 50 feet, during which slight turns in both directions were demonstrated,” Jackson wrote. “This, it must be stressed, was more than two years before the Wrights manhandled their Flyer from its shed and flew a couple of hundred feet in a straight line after lifting off from an adjacent wooden rail hammered into the ground.”
First flight was at Fairfield farm
Kosch said analysis of the sharpened photo and the description in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald led him and others to pinpoint the site of the Aug. 14 flight as what was Tierney’s Farm in Fairfield, adjacent to Jennings Beach, across Ash Creek from St. Mary’s by the Sea in Bridgeport’s Black Rock section.
The account that appeared in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald on Aug. 18, 1901, was subsequently reported in more than 300 newspapers around the world, all of them listed by John Brown in his research. The newspaper report was illustrated by a wood-carving print of the flight.
John Brown is an Australian researcher who works in the aviation industry in Germany.
‘Whitehead Flew First’ T-shirts
King said that in the days since Jane’s acknowledgment, representatives of the Connecticut Air and Space Center had visited the Smithsonian wearing their “Whitehead Flew First” T-shirts. He said some were threatened with ejection, as was King when he visited the Smithsonian and the museum in Dayton, Ohio, dedicated to the Wright brothers.
The curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on March 15 issued a rebuttal of the recognition of Whitehead.
Draws attention to local facility
The recognition by Jane’s could have an impact on the visibility of the Connecticut Air and Space Center, currently occupying one building in what was the Stratford Army Engine Plant, which before that was the Chance Vought facility that built the Corsair that won the air over the Pacific during World War II.
The museum occupies space there as the U.S. government continues to attempt to sell the site, unused for decades and in need of industrial cleanup.
“It gives us more validation,” said King, standing near the replica of Whitehead’s workshop.
Across the street stands the Curtiss Hangar that King and others from the Connecticut Air and Space Center are working to restore as a future home, all of the action taking place where Igor Sikorsky made aviation history with the helicopter.
Workshop exhibit has been added
A new addition to the exhibits is a mockup of Whitehead’s workshop, which served as a set when the Travel Channel took up the question of who flew first for its “Mysteries at the Museum” show.
However, until this month, regardless of how much evidence pointed to Whitehead having taken to the skies first, he would never have that recognition.
“Stratford has been and continues to be a leader in aviation, whether it’s airplanes or helicopters,” Stratford Mayor John A. Harkins said in a statement.
“We have always heard that Whitehead was flying in the area before the Wright brothers had their recorded flight,” Harkins said. “Nothing new is happening now, other than more folks are recognizing that the Wright brothers were not actually first in flight.”
According to Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, “Jane’s has solidified what we’ve known all along — Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly a powered, manned aircraft before the Wright brothers, and he did it right here in Bridgeport. Perhaps now Whitehead will receive the recognition from this country that he so richly deserves.”
Could it leave the ground?
In King’s mind, one question remains: Could the engine Whitehead used on No. 21 generate enough revolutions per minute to leave the ground?
When Kosch flew his replica of No. 21, in 1986, he used engines from one of the ultralight craft he pilots.
It might soon be answered. Students in David Tuttle’s manufacturing class at Platt Tech in Milford are again working to replicate Whitehead’s engines. The engines were started several years ago, and are now in Tuttle’s basement in Seymour.
Many of the parts were already fabricated at the Milford school, Tuttle said, but some were moved to the Connecticut Air and Space Center for the “Mysteries at the Museum” set when the Travel Channel took a look at the question of first flight.
There remain mysteries. Despite the Smithsonian’s denial, there are records of other flights, at Tunxis Hill in Fairfield and at “Orr’s Castle.”
“There are so many naysayers out there that say this doesn’t change anything,” King said. But for those like the volunteers working to nurture the Connecticut Air and Space Center, devoted to Connecticut’s aviation history, “it’s nice to see [Whitehead] acknowledged for what he did,” King said.
Kosch credits pilot Morgan Kaolian of Stratford and Kaye Williams of Captain’s Cove Seaport in Bridgeport with getting his project off the ground after he heard a talk in Fairfield by Maj. William O’Dwyer at the Fairfield Historical Society.
John Kovach is an editorial director at Hersam Acorn Newspapers, publisher of the Shelton Herald. This is part of a three-part series.