For more than a century, historians have generally agreed that Wilbur and Orville Wright right fully laid claim to accomplishing the first successful manned powered flight on December 17, 1903. Yet a resolute group of followers has disagreed, steadfastly insisting that Gustave A. Whitehead actually flew an acetylene-powered bamboo and silk monoplane more than two years earlier in a field near Bridgeport, Connecticut. British-born aviation artist Alison Boyle’s oil painting Early Bird brings Whitehead’s claims to the forefront in a fresh new way.
Boyle’s work was inspired by a visit to a museum dedicated to Whitehead in Leutershausen, Germany, near where she lives. Her painting is based on a faithfully re constructed replica of Whitehead’s Airplane No. 21. Boyle had been searching for a subject to enter in the American Society of Aviation Artists competition celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic flight when she noticed a welcome sign for a nearby town that-depicted a flying machine, labeled “100 years of Flight, 1901-2001.” The sign intrigued her, and she began researching Whitehead’s accomplishments.
After learning of the longstanding controversy about whether Whitehead or the Wrights were first to fly, Boyle visited the Flugpionier Weisskopf Museum and met with the group’s vice chairman, Matthias Lechner. After photographing the No. 21 replica, Boyle set to work and created Early Bird. “The title has a double entendre,” she explained. “Early recalls the first recorded flight, and it also describes the dawn of testing and flying of the replica.”
The Leutershausen flying machine is actually the second Whitehead reproduction constructed. The first was built and tested by a group of supporters and enthusiasts from Bridgeport, Conn., in 1986. Strictly speaking, the GW-21A, as that version was dubbed, is not an exact copy of the Whitehead flying machine, as there are some subtle differences in the materials used.
The German replica, on the other hand, is an exact reproduction, based on Whitehead’s records, articles and archival photos. Lechner said the museum’s researchers used a computer technique known as “geometric fading of angles” to produce very precise drawings from historic images. The artist recalled, “I was truly fascinated with the dedication and precision of the workmanship, beginning in one museum member’s basement, then in the local school’s gymnasium and finally housed and tested by the Luftwaffe.”
Museum records show that the bamboo used to make the reproduction’s ribs was taken from the same area where Whitehead had his wood cut. The Japanese company that originally produced the silk donated new fabric in the exact weave and gauge that had been used to build the original flying machine. The Leutershausen craft, GW-21B, as it has been dubbed, underwent numerous ground tests until September 12, 1997, when it made its maiden flight. Christopher Hess, writing in the German magazine Flug Revue in May 1998, reported, “The plane, with test pilot Horst Philipp at the controls, covered (flew) a distance of 230 meters.” Hess explained that over a five-month test period, No. 21B made several more flights, the longest 500 meters (more than 1,640 feet), and reached an altitude of six meters (20 feet).
The aerial success of GW-21B adds more fuel to the controversy as to who really accomplished the first powered, manned flight. Unfortunately, for Whitehead’s supporters, the only known photograph of his summer 1901 flight is fuzzy, and the aircraft’s image is blurred. There are, however, newspaper accounts of Whitehead’s flight dating from that year in the Bridgeport Herald, the New York Herald and the Boston Transcript.
The Bridgeport Herald’s Richard Howell wrote in the August 18, 1901, issue that Whitehead’s flight “covered a half mile, included a direction change to avoid a stand of trees and then landed safely with no damage to the aircraft.” Howell, who was also an artist, published a drawing of the bat-like craft in the same issue.
Born in Leutershausen on January 1, 1874, Gustave Weisskopf was a contemporary of Otto Lilienthal, a German pioneer in glider development. As a youngster, Weisskopf became interested in watching birds sail on wind currents. He carried his fascination with flight into adulthood. A few years after he was orphaned at age 12, he found work as a seaman aboard sailing ships.
In 1894 Weisskopf was shipwrecked on the coast of the Florida Panhandle. Working at odd jobs while traveling north, he ended up in Boston in 1897. He eventually found employment at the Boston Aeronautical Society, where his supervisors encouraged the young man to pursue his interest in flying machines. The society provided funding for Weisskopf to build an experimental man-carrying craft—but it never flew.
Weisskopf subsequently moved to New York City and took a job with a toy company, demonstrating gliders. In New York he met his future wife, Louisa Tuba, moved to Buffalo and married. Later, while living in Baltimore, the Weisskopfs Anglicized their name to Whitehead.
The couple moved to Pittsburgh, where Gustave found work as a coal miner. With a secure income, Whitehead was finally able to begin serious work on his dream of powered flight. In the spring of 1899, Whitehead designed and built a two-man, steam-powered flying machine. The experimental craft was destroyed when it reportedly crashed into a three-story building. His passenger, Louis Darvarich, was severely burned by steam in the mishap, but Whitehead escaped without injury. There are conflicting reports as to whether that contraption ever became airborne.
With neighbors becoming increasingly angry over late-night explosions and loud noises from his engine experiments, the Whiteheads and Darvarich set out a year later for the U.S. East Coast and eventually settled in Bridgeport, Conn., where Whitehead worked as a machinist. Laboring nights and off-hours, and with a $300 donation from a local flight enthusiast, the aircraft designer came up with what he called Airplane No. 21, described as “a racy looking monoplane with a wingspan of 36 feet.” The wings resembled those of a bat. The horizontal tail provided up and down pitch control much as a bird’s tail does. The craft was powered by two “steam-type” engines that used an acetylene gas mixture as fuel. A third engine pulled the craft along the ground during trips to and from the flying fields and takeoff runs. If the vehicle became airborne, the ground engine was to be switched off.
On August 14, 1901, Whitehead reportedly made his first powered flight in a field in Fairfield, Conn. According to the official publication of the Gustave Weisskopf Historical Flight Research Committee, those witnessing the event reported that he “flew the machine from Howard Avenue East to Wordin Avenue, flying it along the border of the property belonging to the gasworks.”
More than 100 years later, that eyewitness report inspired Alison Boyle to paint her impression of Gustave Whitehead’s flight. For the artist as for many others whose imagination has been captured by flying machine No. 21,Whitehead’s feat—coming as it did two years before the Wrights’ success at Kitty Hawk—clearly deserves its fair share of fame. Early Bird is Alison Boyle’s way of fixing that.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.