August 14: Were the Wright Brothers Wrong?


One of the most controversial events in aviation history took place in Fairfield, Connecticut today in 1901, as inventor Gustave Whitehead is thought by many to have executed a half-mile-long flight in his Flying Machine No. 21 at a height of 50 feet off the ground — over two years before the Wright Brothers made their much more famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A few days later, the Bridgeport Herald published an account of the experimental machine’s August 14th flight, complete with a line drawing of Whitehead’s motorized glider sailing above the ground.

Whitehead was a German-born mechanic with a lifelong passion for studying kites, gliders, and the physics of flight. As a teenager, he worked aboard a sailing ship before immigrating to the United States in 1893, where he found work for a New York toy company designing kites and model gliders. A few years later, he was hired as a mechanic for the Boston Aeronautical Society before moving to Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1899 in search of factory work. During the 1890s, Whitehead built a number of experimental aircraft, including an ornithopter (a helicopter that achieved lift by flapping its “wings” like a bird) and full-size gliders both with and without engines.

A photograph of Gustave Whitehead’s No. 21 flying machine. Whitehead is seated at right, holding his daughter Rose in his lap.

It was Whitehead’s “Number 21” flying machine that eventually earned him a place in the history books. The Number 21 featured large, bat-like wings and two engines — one to drive the propeller, and the other to power the machine’s wheels while on the ground. Despite several contemporary newspaper accounts detailing Whitehead’s August 14 flight and eyewitnesses later signing affidavits that attested to it, a number of modern-day flight historians dispute the claim that Whitehead made the first motorized flight in history, citing minor discrepancies in eyewitness accounts and the lack of a photographs showing the Number 21 machine in flight. Whitehead advocates point out that the odds are stacked against any major institution’s acknowledging Whitehead’s milestone because of an agreement between the Smithsonian Institute and the Wright family estate, wherein the Smithsonian would obtain the original 1903 Wright Flyer in exchange for promising to exclusively credit the Wright Brothers with completing the first powered, controlled flight in history.

In 1964 and 1968, Connecticut Governor John Dempsey declared August 14th “Gustave Whitehead Day” in honor of the aviation pioneer. 45 years later, Governor Dannel Malloy added fuel to the fire by signing a bill declaring Gustave Whitehead the first person to achieve powered flight — a move that was quickly repudiated by the states of Ohio and North Carolina (both of which credit the Wright Brothers with the first powered flight). The controversy is still flying high today, over a century after Whitehead’s high-flying achievement.

Further Reading

Erik Ofgang, “Gustave Whitehead: First In Flight or Fake News? Connecticut Magazine