History is written by the victors, they say. They also say that the saddest words of tongue or pen are “It might have been!” And so, in view of the manifest sadness of history, let us pause to pay heed to what was not, and to give some honor to the vanquished.
Our national love affair with the Wright brothers blinds us to competing claims of priority. From time to time, however, another would-be first flyer clambers into view. The most recent to do so is Gustave Whitehead, a Connecticut experimenter who is said to have made a powered, controlled flight in 1901, two years before the Wrights’ 852-foot hop at Kitty Hawk. Not that Whitehead, who died in 1927, has returned to speak for himself; instead, the editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, Paul Jackson, in the preface to the 2013 edition, awards to Whitehead the honor of having made the first powered, heavier-than-air flight. This claim has been made on Whitehead’s behalf before, and it has always been controversial; what is noteworthy about it today is that it appears in the prestigious Jane’s.
In a certain sense, who was first means little. So many claimants emerge, all around the turn of the 20th century, that it’s obvious that the airplane was an invention whose time had come. All the necessary components had been put into place by a parade of thinkers and experimenters stretching back a hundred years.
Some of these early theorists, now little known, were quite remarkable. It’s difficult for us today to empty our minds of everything we know about flight and to appreciate the perspicacity of Sir George Cayley, a British peer of extraordinary intellectual and practical abilities, who figured out, prior to 1800, most of what is taught today in ground school about stability, control and the four forces acting upon an airplane in flight. I am in awe of minds that cut through superficial appearances and received ideas to arrive at the simple essences of things. It was Cayley who realized — in a leap that escaped even the prodigious Leonardo — that a practical airplane would be something other than a mechanical bird and, in particular, that the functions of propulsion and lift should be separated. Cayley is credited with the construction, in 1854, of the first manned glider to fly. Supposedly, Cayley’s coachman, whom he dragooned into service as its pilot, was so traumatized by the experience that he gave his employer notice upon alighting.
In 1871 a French experimenter, Alphonse Pénaud, created what we know today as the rubber-band-powered model airplane. The configuration of Pénaud’s Planophore — that Gallic neologism, at least, did not find its way into English aeronautical usage — was modern in every respect, including its subtle but important use of what was once called “longitudinal dihedral” and is now called decalage: the setting of the horizontal stabilizer at an angle of incidence slightly smaller than that of the wing.
By the end of the 19th century, Otto Lilienthal was routinely making flights on a hill outside Berlin in what we would now call weight-shift hang gliders. Lilienthal was a scientific thinker whose classic book, Bird Flight as the Basis of Aeronautics, displays a methodical, analytical intelligence similar to that of the Wrights. Unlike his predecessors, Lilienthal became world famous; no one interested in the problem of flight at the time was ignorant of his achievements.
At the turn of the 20th century, controlled, heavier-than-air flight was manifestly possible. The missing element had been a sufficiently light and powerful engine; but now that too was available, and the technology was sufficiently familiar for various aeronautical experimenters, including the Wrights and Gustave Whitehead, to build their own.
According to a 1901 report in a local newspaper, Whitehead, a Bavarian immigrant born Weisskopf, had built an airplane with two engines, one driving the wheels on the ground and the other driving two propellers in flight. In this machine, whose wings could be folded, he one day drove through the predawn streets of Fairfield, Connecticut, to a suburban field and there flew half a mile, making some modest turns before landing gently. There are subsequent claims of even longer flights, but no photographic record survives, nor was any attempt apparently made to credibly witness and document the momentous realization of mankind’s millennia-old dream. Historians have questioned whether Whitehead’s flight really took place; some of his contemporaries later said that he did fly, others said that he didn’t. Jane’s reopened the question by voting in Whitehead’s favor. The evidence is hardly conclusive, and modern re-creations of Whitehead’s machine have not duplicated his alleged flights. If every past event reported by witnesses were real, the world would be a more magical place than it is.