Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gustave Whitehead

Who remembers pioneer aviator Gustave Whitehead today? Probably not you, and not even me; for I only now just discovered his existence while randomly surfing the web. Gustave, who made powered flights in a rather insectoidal monoplane more than two years before the Wright brothers, is just another example of an early trailbrazer whose contributions to mankind have fallen down the memory hole.

From Wikipedia:

According to a witness who gave his report in 1934, Whitehead made a very early motorized flight of about half a mile in Pittsburgh in April or May 1899. Louis Darvarich, a friend of Whitehead's, said they flew together at a height of 20 to 25 ft (6 to 8 m) in a steam-powered monoplane aircraft and crashed into a three-story building. Darvarich said he was stoking the boiler and was badly scalded in the accident, requiring several weeks in a hospital.

The fireman, Martin Devane, who was called to the scene of the accident reported: "...I believe I arrived immediately after it crashed into a brick building, a newly constructed apartment house on the O'Neal Estate. I recall that someone was hurt and taken to the hospital. I am able to identify the inventor Gustave Whitehead from a picture shown to me". Because of this incident, Whitehead was forbidden to do any more flight experiments in Pittsburgh, so he moved to Bridgeport.

The aviation event for which Whitehead is now best-known reportedly took place in Fairfield, Connecticut on August 14, 1901. According to the Bridgeport Herald newspaper and a few witnesses who gave their statements more than 30 years later, Whitehead made a powered, controlled airplane flight in his "Number 21" aircraft for a distance of 800 meters (2,625 feet) at 15 m (49 ft) height and landed safely. The feat, if true, exceeded the best of the Wright brothers first powered flights by 540 m (1770 ft) and preceded the Kitty Hawk flights by more than two years. Herald sports reporter Dick Howell wrote the eyewitness account and drew a sketch showing the airplane in flight, but to the lasting frustration of Whitehead supporters, no photographs were taken. The newspaper, a Sunday weekly, published the article a few days later in its next edition, and the report was also reprinted in the New York Herald and Boston Transcript.

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