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British Industrial History

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Gustave Whitehead

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Gustave Albin Whitehead, born Gustav Albin Weisskopf (January 1, 1874 – October 10, 1927) was a German immigrant to the US and an aviation pioneer who designed and built engines and very early aircraft in which he reportedly made powered flights more than two years before the Wright brothers.

He did most of his aviation work from about 1895 to 1911, but gained only modest attention.

In 1901 a few newspapers reported that he made several flights in Connecticut that year, and he claimed a much longer flight in 1902. Publicity soon faded when he did not repeat the reported feats.

His name and work lapsed into obscurity until a 1935 magazine article and follow-up book spotlighted his legacy and sparked a vigorous "first flight" debate among aviation buffs—including Orville Wright—that has lasted ever since.

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 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 (1,770 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.

The airplane started driven by its ground wheels, then the power was switched over to the propellers. The motors were powered with a mixture of acetylene and oxygen/compressed air. No external starting help or special conditions, like a strong headwind or catapult, were used.

The Herald reported that before attempting to pilot the aircraft, Whitehead successfully test flew it unmanned in the pre-dawn hours, using tether ropes and sandbag ballast. The article said he made his first flight in the aircraft after daybreak.

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