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Dethroning the Wright brothers?

March 15, 2013 - Harry Eagar
From Flying magazine, a very surprising claim that someone named Gustav Whitehead flew an aircraft two years before the Wright brothers, succeeded in tri-axis flight control one year before and designed an engine that was capable of powering flight that was adapted and adopted by other manufacturers.

Not much detail and no explanation about why Whitehead was not heard of at the time. So I am skeptical. I have read extensively about the Wrights, what they did that worked and why, and what other flight experimenters did that did not work, and I have never even heard of Whitehead. My bad, perhaps, but I am curious to hear more.

Goyer, the editor of Flying, is usually a pretty level-headed guy, or I wouldn't have burned bytes relating this.

"Jane's Editor Paul Jackson describes what happened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 14, 1901.

" 'It was in the summer of 1901 that Whitehead flew his airplane, which he called the Condor. In the early hours of 14 August 1901, the Condor propelled itself along the darkened streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with Whitehead, his staff and an invited guest in attendance. In the still air of dawn, the Condor's wings were unfolded and it took off from open land at Fairfield, 15 miles from the city, and performed two demonstration sorties. The second was estimated as having covered 1½ miles at a height of 50 feet, during which slight turns in both directions were demonstrated.' The length of flight and altitude reached make the Wright's first powered foray pale in comparison." UPDATE

OK. I have now visited the site which purports to provide the evidence, and it has a picture of the supposed first working airplane. I do not believe that machine could fly.


Over at Slashdot, a commenter named samkass has this to say:

That is rowboat with some kind of wings attached. Not flying wings but insect wings. Is this some kind of joke? [This is a quotation from the previouse comment.]

No, it's conspiracy theorists at its best. Here's the actual analysis that went into the re-creation of the photo linked above: []

As you can see, it's pretty much the "computer... magnify, rotate, enhance" sort of photo manipulation that "proves" flight. Whitehead was definitely a pioneer in aviation. But there is absolutely no evidence he created a steerable machine or even understood differential lift to cause banking in a plane to accomplish a curved, controlled, coordinated turn in flight like the Wright machine was able to accomplish.

Other people had been in the air before flight in gliders and on ground effect. A Frenchman named Ader lifted off the ground (barely) first, to disastrous consequences earlier (he, too, based his plane on a bird/bat design instead of scientific analysis and was unable to control it in flight). It was actually the earlier failures of Ader, Langley, and others that caused so many problems when the Wrights tried to sell their planes to the US and French military, who had seen the earlier failures and couldn't believe a couple of bicycle mechanics had cracked the problems of efficient propellers, steering, proper wing camber, and usable controls.

It was only after there was competition from aircraft manufacturers trying to invalidate the Wright patent that all this prior art suddenly magically materialized. The Wrights never lost a case.


That is a good summary of how I understood things. Jane's is looking gullible. Interesting, too, that major newspapers are ignoring this story.


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