BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Historians say it took Gustave Whitehead about five years of work and experimentation to build and fly his Number 21 aircraft on Aug. 14, 1901.
But the effort to get the Bridgeport aviator recognized took more than 70 years.
The bible of flying machines, "Jane's All the World's Aircraft," officially backed Whitehead recently as the first man to build and fly a powered heavier-than-air aircraft, beating the Wright Brothers into the sky by more than two years.
The position taken by Jane's was hailed by followers of Whitehead and those of other early aviators, hoping that it may eventually lead to a re-examination by the Smithsonian Institution on its position that Wilbur and Orville Wright were the first to fly on Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Whitehead's accomplishments went nearly unknown until 1937, when Stella Randolph published her book, "The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead," in which she interviewed 14 eyewitnesses to his early flights which took place in Fairfield, Bridgeport and elsewhere.
In 1949, Harvard professor John B. Crane published a defense of the Whitehead flights in an article published in the magazine Air Affairs titled "Early Airplane Flights Before the Wrights."
The effort to credit Whitehead picked up steam in 1966 when the late historian and Air Force squadron leader William J. O'Dwyer wrote his book "History by Contract," which revealed the existence of an agreement between the Wright family and the Smithsonian Institution in which it was agreed that the Wright Flyer on display in the Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., would only remain there as long as the Smithsonian agrees to take the position that the Wrights were the first to fly.
O'Dwyer also helped found the Aviation Pioneer Gustave Weisskopf Museum in Leutershausen, Germany, Whitehead's birthplace. (Weisskopf was Whitehead's name before he emigrated to the U.S. in 1893.)
Twenty years after O'Dwyer's book was published, a group that included Captain's Cove founder Kaye Williams, high school science teacher Andy Kosch and high school industrial arts instructor Bill Wargo built what is believed to be a near-perfect replica of Whitehead's No. 21.
"I got into this after hearing a talk that was given by O'Dwyer in the '70s," Kosch said.
"Wargo was the right-hand man, an expert model airplane builder and a carpenter," Kosch said. "He just wandered into the hangar one day. I was trying to build the thing, and he walks in here, and before long, it looks perfect."
Helping out were Wargo's brothers, Ernie and Jim, and Wargo's son, Jeffrey, Kosch said.
Also involved in the effort were former Sikorsky Memorial Airport manager and local pilot Morgan Kaolian and the late Academy-winning actor Cliff Robertson.
Construction began in a hangar at Sikorsky Memorial in 1985 and flight testing began in late 1986.
"It was Kaye who put up the money for the project," Kosch said. "Without him, we would have never gotten off the ground. He gave us about $10,000 to build the thing."
Williams credits O'Dwyer for being the true impetus for building the new No. 21.
"He was so nice and so easy to talk to," Williams said, who added that they had wide-ranging discussions over the years about the inaccuracies of aviation history — not just the Wrights, but also Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd's flight to the North Pole in 1926, now regarded as little more than fiction.
Williams pointed out that when Whitehead got to Bridgeport, he had all the raw materials he needed to construct a flying machine or just about any other contraption he could think up.
"Don't forget, when Whitehead got here, he realized that he could walk down one street to get a part casted and down another street to have it machined," Williams said. "At the time, just about every manufactured product was either made here or had a part that was made here."
Also involved in the No. 21 project was Sikorsky Aircraft engineer Michael Cartabiano, who, on July 11, 1986, towed the unpowered craft aloft behind his Fiat with Cliff Robertson in the cockpit. Robertson, an avid vintage airplane collector, got to know Williams because both were involved with LISA, or Long Island Sound America, which "promoted the many attributes of the Sound," according to Kaolian, its founder.
It was a cockpit, Williams said, "that was unlike any other known airplane." Several successful tethered flights were made that day.
The bird-like craft was then fitted with an ultralight aircraft engine by Kosch, and on Dec. 7, 1986, the powered flight experiments began, More flights followed on Dec. 27, the last of which collided with Bridgeport Post photographer Wayne Ratzenberger, breaking his elbow.
That replica now sits in the Connecticut Air & Space Museum, located in one of the buildings that was part of the Chance-Vought Aircraft plant in Stratford that produced the vaunted F4U Corsair fighter-bomber during and after World War II.
"You can't forget Doc Gunther," Kaolian said of the General Assembly representative from Stratford who died in August and sponsored a bill to name Whitehead as the first to fly a plane. "He would have loved to see the recognition in Jane's."
One thing that has not changed is the Smithsonian's display of the Wright Flyer, still labeled as the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft, and Whitehead's supporters all say that there still remains a tall mountain to climb.
Susan Brinchman, O'Dwyer's daughter, said in a telephone interview that her father suffered mightily for his efforts to get Whitehead noticed.
"He researched Whitehead for 50 years, and he was harassed during all that time," she said from her home in La Mesa, Calif. "He was even threatened with time in a military prison so he couldn't talk to reporters. The military and the Smithsonian was doing everything they could to shut him up."
Brinchman said that the "found photo" by aviation historian John Brown which eventually led to the Jane's assertion, was actually found by her dad. Brown uncovered it in the attic of the Leutershausen museum.
"That photo was in my father's hands in the 1990s," she said. "The Smithsonian even published that photo in one of their books."
Still, Brinchman said that she's happy that Brown's work, which can be seen on the site www.gustave-whitehead.com, resulted in the Jane's recognition.
"The old guard is dying off, and the new generation is willing to look at the evidence — they're not personally involved with the Wright people," she said.
And there are those, besides the Whitehead supporters, who also would like to see the Smithsonian give other early aviators their due. Among those are the advocates of Glenn Hammond Curtiss, "a great aviator who was also smeared by Orville Wright," according to Marcia Cummings of Oxnard, Calif., a second cousin to Curtiss.
"The Smithsonian will never back down until all the truth comes out, and after that, they are forced to by outside sources," she said in a telephone interview. "Orville was able to take down all the early aviation pioneers and place himself at the top."
It was Curtiss who attempted to prove in 1914 that another early aviator, Samuel Langley, might have been the first to break the bonds of gravity with his ungainly Aerodrome.
"Curtiss made Orville Wright extremely mad," said Trafford Doherty, executive director of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y.
Curtiss was also involved in a heated patent dispute with the Wrights, one that was not resolved until World War I broke out, and the Army and Navy were desperate for aircraft.
"There's no question that Whitehead's designs were aerodynamically viable," Doherty said.
Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com