Aviation Archive

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Did Gustave Whitehead Beat the Wright Brothers as the First To Fly

Woodcut of Whitehead's Flying MachineIn honor of Wright Brothers' Day, I figured I'd address a topic concerning their reputation as the first people to fly. There's a bit of a movement to try to bestow that honor on a different man - Gustave Whitehead.

Whitehead (born Wei├čkopf, but he changed his name when he moved to America) was an early aviation pioneer who built several unsuccessful flying machines. However, there are claims that he was successful on a few occasions prior to the Wright Brothers. These claims mostly come from a handful of sources - Whitehead's own claims, eye-witness accounts, and a report from the newspaper, the Bridgeport Herald. There's also a newly discovered photo supposedly showing Whitehead in the air. This photo was enough to convince Jane's All the World's Aircraft to officially recognize Whitehead as the first to fly, and for Connecticut to pass a bill proclaiming Whitehead as the first.

The problem is that none of these sources of evidence are particularly reliable. Whitehead himself could hardly be considered an unbiased party, so his claims can only be taken with a grain of salt without independent evidence to back it up.

There are numerous eyewitness accounts of Whitehead making flights. These do help the case, but they're still not ironclad proof. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Just this morning I received my weekly eSkeptic newsletter, with the subject this time being about just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be (in this case, prompted by the Michael Brown affair in Ferguson). That article has many good examples, but one of my favorites that it didn't include was the Challenger Study (or a similar 911 study). When people were interviewed the day after the Challenger tragedy, they gave an account of where they were and what they were doing when they learned about the explosion. But in a follow-up interview a year later, even though the memories still seemed vivid and real, they had changed, sometimes in very big ways (e.g. hearing about it from classmates vs. watching it live). In the case of Whitehead, most of the affidavits from eyewitnesses are from decades later - more than enough time for memories to become warped.

The local newspaper in Bridgeport published an article about Whitehead and one of his supposed flights. There's some conjecture over how serious the article might have been, but the most damning aspect of it is Whitehead's account of the flight. Speaking as a private pilot and an aerospace engineer, this is not the type of description you'd expect for somebody's first time flying any aircraft, let alone a primitive airplane designed when there was less understanding of controls and stability. Read this passage about his climbout, and how Whitehead did nothing to level his climb, but just rode it out with the machine taking care of it.

When the ship had reached a height of about forty or fifty feet I began to wonder how much higher it would go. But just about that time I observed that she was sailing along easily and not raising any higher.

But this paragraph is the one that really struck me.

And while my brain was whirling with these new sensations of delight I saw ahead a clump of trees that the machine was pointed straight for. I knew that I must in some way steer around those trees or raise above them. I was a hundred yards distant from them and I knew that I could not clear them by raising higher, and also that I had no means of steering around them by using the machinery. Then like a flash a plan to escape the trees came to mind. I had watched the birds when turned out of a straight course to avoid something ahead. They changed their bodies from a horizontal plane to one slightly diagonal to the horizontal. To turn to the left the bird would lower its left wing or side of its body. The machine ought to obey the same principle and when within about fifty yards of the clump of trees I shifted my weight to the left side of the machine. It swung over a little and began to turn from the straight course. And we sailed around the trees as easy as it was to sail straight ahead.

Are we really to believe that Whitehead took off in an airplane without having given any thought beforehand to how he was to control it? It's absurd to imagine that such a flight would be successful, or would have been the leisurely affair that Whitehead described. And as the commentary in the article I linked to describes, the inferred speeds from this flight are impossibly slow. It's just not a plausible scenario.

Now it's time to examine what's actually my favorite part of this 'controversy' - the photographic evidence. There were some press reports that a photo of Whitehead in flight had been on display at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America in 1906. Noone has been able to find this photo, but a Whitehead advocate, John Brown, thinks he's found evidence of it. The evidence comes from this photo of the exibition:

First exhibition of the Aero Club of America, January, 1906

The box and arrow were added by someone else to show the area of interest to Whitehead supporters. Brown took that region and enlarged it by several thousand percent to get this supposed image of Whitehead in flight:

Alleged photo of Gustave Whitehead in Flight

Brown has a lengthy article describing his analysis of the photo. He also has a description of it on the homepage of Gustave-Whitehead.com, that includes this side by side comparison of the photo to what he thinks it represents.

John Brown's Interpretation of Alleged Whitehead Flight Photo

Now, that's a pretty fanciful interpretation. And Brown appears to be very confident in his analysis despite the obvious lack of detail. But thankfully, we don't have to just wave this off as too vague to be meaningful. Carroll F. Gray has dug into this claim (and many others). Gray has pretty conclusively demonstrated that this photo is not of one of Whitehead's machines, but is rather a glider built by a John J. Montgomery. As much as I would like to steal some of Gray's photos to show in this post, he's put in so much effort that he deserves the visitors at his site. So, in case you missed the link before, here it is again, Update # 5: The Photographs - Whitehead Aloft They Are Not. I highly recommend visiting that page. Even if it's not Whitehead in the air, it's very interesting how Gray was able to track down this scene from such a blurry image and definitively identify the actual scene it's depicting.

Aside from all these poor lines of evidence put forward by the Whitehead advocates, it also helps to take a step back and look at the big picture. The Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903. They learned their lessons from that flight, went through a few more iterations of flying machines, and by 1908 were giving public demonstations that amazed audiences (though it should be noted that by 1908, there were others flying - just not nearly as well as the Wrights). Whitehead supposedly made his first flight a year or two before the Wright brothers, and then... what? Other than that one questionable article (and many papers that picked up that single story), Whitehead never made headlines with any public flights. He never even built an airplane that could fly after that. How does someone go from being the first in flight to not being able to make another working airplane, despite several attempts?

There's really no good, strong evidence to back up the claim that Gustave Whitehead was the first person to successfully fly an airplane, and there are actually a few indicators that it never happened (like his account of the flight). I think it's possible (though still not backed up with evidece) that he did have some success, maybe even making a vehicle capable of hopping into the air and staying aloft for a few seconds. But the honor of the first in flight still belongs to the Wright Brothers.


I came across several interesting articles on these issues (some of which I might have already linked to above).

More Info:

Image Source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Happy Wright Brothers' Day, 2014

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

On December 17th, 1903, the Wright Brothers became the first to achieve something people had dreamt about for centuries - flying. Granted, the Wrights weren't lone geniuses working in a vaccuum. There were many pioneers before them whose work they built upon, and many contemporaries working on the problem who would have figured it out eventually. But the Wright Brothers were the first, and their systematic approach and especially their focus on controllability put them years ahead of anyone else, and fulling deserving of that honor (even if their later patent wars might have hurt the fledgling industry).

So when you're out and about today, glance up at the skies, and if you spot an airplane, marvel a little bit at what an accomplishment it is.

Related Entries:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Happy Wright Brothers Day, 2013

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

110 years ago today, the Wright brothers became the first humans to fulfill the dream of flight. I've written about this before, and rather than repeat myself, I'll just link to those previous entries.

So happy Wright Brothers Day. And find a little wonder in the fact that you can go out and do something that our ancestors could only dream about for thousands and thousands of years.

Yes, this is copied nearly verbatim from my most recent Wright Brothers Day entry. For a short summary linking to other articles, I didn't see the need to rewrite it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Red Bull Air Race Practice in Olney, Texas

Red Bull Air Race LogoIf you follow this type of thing, you may have heard that the Red Bull Air Races are back (Wired - Crazy Red Bull Air Races Returning to the Skies in 2014). If you don't follow this type of thing, then here's a very brief background - the Red Bull Air Races consist of pilots flying light aerobatic planes through a series of pylons, at altitudes of less than 100 feet, doing some pretty amazing maneuvers to keep on course.

In preparation for their upcoming season, they decided to set up a mini training camp in Olney, Texas (Olney Enterprise - Pilots train for Red Bull Air Race). I guess they chose Olney because it's a nice big airport out in the middle of nowhere - perfect for the type of practice they're doing. And they kept the whole thing pretty hush hush. That Olney Enterprise article is the only online mention I've been able to find on them being in Olney, and it seems like the only reason they published that was so that the residents of Olney wouldn't question the giant inflatable cones popping up west of town.

But luckily for me, the company I work for does some flying down at the Olney airport, so some of our guys watched the entire Red Bull entourage come in and set up camp. So, I knew they were there, and knew they'd be flying. So, this past weekend, I went with a few of my friends to go watch the practice (and we were just about the perfect group to watch something like that - one aerospace engineer and three fighter pilots). It was great. Because of how quiet Red Bull had been about the whole thing, we were some of the only spectators there. So, not only did we get to watch some amazing flying, but we had an up-close and personal experience with the entire operation.

I managed to remember to take a few photos while I was there, but for the most part, I was just enjoying myself watching the flying. So, below are a few of the better pictures I managed to snap. Had I been more interested in taking pictures than just watching, I might have been able to get some better shots. (Click on any of the photos for a higher-res version.)

The Red Bull Air Races Come to Olney, TX

The Red Bull Air Races Come to Olney, TX

The Red Bull Air Races Come to Olney, TX

The Red Bull Air Races Come to Olney, TX

The Red Bull Air Races Come to Olney, TX

I also managed to capture a few videos. Just like with the photos, these aren't the greatest, since I was more interested in watching the goings on with my own eyes (not to mention the fact that I didn't have as good of a zoom lens for the video). And keep in mind that this was a practice, not a competition, so the pilots weren't flying the entire course every run, nor pushing it to the edge every time, especially in the earlier runs as they were getting used to the course.

All in all, it was a fun way to spend a Saturday morning, and a fine exhibition of some incredible piloting skills. I think I might just try to get tickets when they're actually racing at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Logo Source: Wikipedia

Friday, June 7, 2013

Own a Piece of History - DDWFTTW Car for Sale

Blackbird DDWFTTW DemonstratorAbout two years ago, I wrote about a very counterintuitive concept in the entry, Directly Downwind Faster Than the Wind (DDWFTTW). Also known by the slightly shorter acronym DWFTTW (for simply Downwind Faster Than the Wind), it's a vehicle that utilizes wind power to travel downwind faster than the wind is blowing. If that sounds impossible to you, go read my previous entry for an explanation of why it is, in fact, possible.

After arguing about it theoretically, and then building a small treadmill powered model, a team headed by Rick Cavallaro built a full scale manned vehicle to demonstrate the feasibility of the concept. This vehicle, named the Blackbird, set an official DDWFTTW record on July 2, 2010, certified by the North American Land Sailing Association (NALSA). Their top speed was 38.5 mph in a 13.5 mph wind - 2.85 times the wind speed.

Now, this vehicle is up for sale, and as of right now, it's not too terribly expensive. With just under 23 hours of bidding left, the current bid on e-bay is $5,120. If you're looking for an interesting, unique vehicle to own with a small place in aviation history, this is your chance. But don't wait. Bidding is over at 1:00 pm PDT on Saturday (tomorrow).

Here's the e-bay link:
Blackbird - Faster-Than-The-Wind vehicle


Selling Out