The Whitehead Enigma By Sergei Sikorsky
The “eyewi Tness” accoun T of The augus T 14, 1901 fligh Ts of
the Whitehead aircraft #21 near Bridgeport, Connecticut, was published
in the Bridgeport Herald newspaper on August 18, 1901. The author was
Richard Howell, the sports editor of the newspaper, which at the time,
was not a highly regarded source of news. The story was picked up and
reprinted by a number of newspapers around the country, and eventually
became a source document for Whitehead advocates in decades to
come. Interestingly, neither the Herald nor any other of the respected
newspapers in the area followed up on what would seem to be a major
story. It appears that the source of the Howell fantasy can be found in
details of the flights of the dapper, charismatic Alberto Santos-Dumont
over Paris in a series of one-man dirigibles.
On 12 July, 1901, Santos-Dumont made headlines around the world
when he piloted his Airship #5 from his hangar in the Paris suburb of
Saint Cloud, flew over the center of Paris, circled the Eiffel Tower to the
cheers of press and public alike, and returned to his base after a brief
stop at the Longchamps track and country club. Total flying time: one
hour, six minutes; air speed ranged from 6 to 12mph while altitude varied
from 200 feet to about 500 feet. Photographs and detailed descriptions
of Santos-Dumont’s flight were worldwide front-page material.
When evaluating the Whitehead “flights” as documented by Howell, it
is important to note that Howell did not have the information available to
create an airplane in flight since airplanes did not yet fly. But he could, and
it appears that he did, rewrite wire service reports of Santos-Dumont’s
flights, add some local color for realism, and suddenly, Whitehead was
flying! The minor problem was that many phrases in Howell’s story
makes it appear that Whitehead was flying a Santos-Dumont airship,
not a heavier-than-air airplane. Consider the following quotes by Howell:
• The Whitehead aircraft, with wings folded, was driven at night from
Bridgeport to an outlying open field in the country. The wings were
unfolded. “Ropes were attached to the ship so she would not get
away from her handlers.” Ropes are used when launching balloons
and airships like those flown by Santos-Dumont. Ropes are not used
for takeoffs or landings of most aircraft.
Howell then wrote that Whitehead was so pleased with the
unmanned test flight that he decided to test-fly the machine
himself. While two assistants ran across the field, holding on to the
ropes to control the aircraft, the aircraft accelerated and lifted into the
air. Howell described how the machine climbed to about fifty feet of
altitude and flew down the field in the pre-dawn light. Whitehead had
no control surfaces, and steered his aircraft by shifting his weight. At
the end of his half-mile flight, Whitehead shut off his power “ … and
she settled down from a height of about fifty feet in two minutes
after the two propellers stopped.” That is a Santos-Dumont airship
landing, not the Whitehead #21 landing.
The distance covered in this first flight was reported several times as
being about half a mile, while the duration of the manned flight was
10 minutes. This equates to an air speed of about three miles an hour,
which further discredits the story.
Equally fictional are two flights over Long Island Sound that
Whitehead claimed to have made on January 21, 1902. The first flight
was some two miles, ending in a landing on the water. After being
towed ashore, a second flight was made that covered some seven
miles, again landing on the water, and being towed ashore. A brief
look at the Whitehead aircraft shows that the propellers’ tip track is
almost even with the bottom of the hull. During a water landing, both
props would be instantly destroyed. Yet, Whitehead claims two water
landings on that day in 1902.
We have good photographic documentation of flights by Lillienthal,
Langley, the Wrights, Santos-Dumont and so on, but not one reliable
photo of Whitehead in flight before the Wright brothers.
It is difficult to look at history from this end of the telescope because
it is so far away and the details tend to fade away. So we rely on
photographs and the written word of competent witnesses. In my
personal opinion, the claim that Whitehead flew before the Wright
brothers cannot be taken seriously. The simple fact that he did not
rebuild ship #21 or #22 and prove his claim, speaks for itself. The
Whitehead legend has spawned much speculation and hearsay.
Sadly, hearsay seldom proves anything, other than the gullibility of
those repeating it.