Gustav Whitehead

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Gustav Whitehead

Gustav Albin Weißkopf (born January 1, 1874 in Leutershausen , Bavaria , † October 10, 1927 in Bridgeport (Connecticut) , USA ) was a German - American pioneer of powered flight . In the US he called himself Gustave Whitehead . Its performance of the first powered flight in history is uncertainly passed down .

Origin and education

Gustav Weißkopf was born in 1874 as the second child of the married couple Karl Ernst Weißkopf (1848–1887) and Babette nee. Wittmann (1849–1886) born in Leutershausen. His parents had married six months before he was born, and the couple's first child was sister Eva Babetta, born in 1871. His father came from Ansbach , his mother from Colmberg . In 1875 and 1876 two more sons were born (Karl and Nikolaus). On April 4, 1878, the couple's fifth child, Johann Weißkopf, called Hans , was born in Neckarelz . The sixth child, daughter Maria († April 25, 1880) followed on December 2, 1879. On May 28, 1884, their seventh child, Marie Katharine, was born in Höchst am Main . The mother Babette Weißkopf died on October 12, 1886 at the age of only 37 in Höchst am Main. The father Karl Ernst Weißkopf died four and a half months later on February 26, 1887 in Fürth . The six siblings were separated, Gustav and his brother Karl came to live with their grandparents in Ansbach.

Gustav Weißkopf began an apprenticeship as a bookbinder in 1887 , but broke it off and was instead sent to a locksmith's apprenticeship. He also broke off this apprenticeship in the first year of his apprenticeship, this time because he left Ansbach without permission in 1889. From June to August 1889 he worked as a day laborer in Höchst am Main .


Little is known about his further résumé until he was found again eight years later in the USA. Presumably he emigrated to Porto Alegre in Brazil . After trying his hand at the then completely undeveloped inland for a short time, he came to Rio de Janeiro . Presumably around 1895 he immigrated to the USA in an unknown way. Gustav Weißkopf never gave up his German citizenship or applied for or accepted another citizenship. In the USA he wrote his name adapted to the English language "Gustave Whitehead". According to his information, he worked temporarily as a crew member on sailing ships before his immigration to the USA. According to his statements, he built and flew gliders in Brazil. He said he watched the condors fly in Chile and the albatrosses on Cape Horn. He had caught one of these birds in order to examine their wingspan and their relationship to weight. According to his information, he returned to Germany once more to meet Otto Lilienthal and to become his colleague and student.

Development and construction of flying machines

Weisskopf's life can be documented for the first time again in 1897. The Boston Aeronautical Society had tried in the two previous years to bring the then world-famous Lilienthal to Boston, where he was to give lectures and practical flight lessons.

Employed by the Boston Aeronautical Society

After Lilienthal's death in August 1896, the Boston Aeronautical Society decided to have a Lilienthal glider built instead. Gustav Weißkopf was hired for this task because of his alleged experience in building and flying glider planes in Brazil and his alleged collaboration with Otto Lilienthal. Gustav Weißkopf built two aircraft for the Aeronautical Society , both of which were unfit to fly. He was then released from the Aeronautical Society and left Boston. He went to New York , where he found work in a factory for sports and toys. On November 24, 1897 he married in Buffalo in New York state , the same age Louise (Lujca) Tuba, an immigrant from Hungary. On the marriage certificate, he states that his profession is aeronaut . Louise spoke German. Via Baltimore and Johnstown in the US state of Pennsylvania , Weißkopf moved with his family to Pittsburgh in 1899 , where he found work in a coal mine .

Here he made friends with his colleague Louis Darvarich, who helped him with aircraft construction. Darvarich stated in an affidavit dated July 19, 1934 that he had flown with Whitehead: “It was either April or May 1899 when I was present and flew with Mr. Whitehead (Whitehead), who managed to get his machine powered by a steam engine lift off the ground. The flight, about eight meters high, was about a mile. It took place in Pittsburgh with Mr. Whitehead's monoplane. We did not succeed in avoiding a three-story building, and when the machine crashed, the steam burned me seriously because I had heated the boiler. So I had to spend a few weeks in the hospital. I clearly remember the flight. Mr. Whitehead was unharmed because he had been sitting in the front of the plane and piloting it from there. ”A New York newspaper carried an interview with Weißkopf in 1901 in which he mentioned this flight.

Development and construction of No. 21

Gustav Weißkopf (right) with daughter Rose in 1901 next to his aircraft No. 21

In 1900 Gustav Weißkopf settled in Bridgeport , Connecticut and worked as a night watchman at Willmot & Hobbs, which gave him enough time to pursue his interest in the development and construction of flying machines with self-designed engines during the day. He was able to convince the aviation enthusiast Stanley Y. Beach and his father, the editor of Scientific American , Frederick C. Beach, to support his commitment financially. He recruited helpers from the neighborhood.

In the Minneapolis Journal of July 26, 1901, Weißkopf reported on a first ride in an unmanned machine he had built on May 3, 1901, the unfolding of its wings made of bamboo cane and cotton , the starting of its second motor, which drives two propellers , and two subsequent flights with 220  pounds of ballast instead of a crew, ultimately over 12 feet high and half a mile wide.

The shape of the wing and tailplane of construction No. 21 corresponded to those used by Lilienthal. In addition, No. 21 had a kind of boat hull, equipped with a self-made 10 HP motor for the landing gear and a 20 HP motor for the two propellers. The tail fin could be swiveled up and down as an elevator . The aircraft had no rudder or ailerons . For rotation around the yaw axis, it was possible that the two propellers were operated at different speeds.

Manned powered flight

On August 18, 1901, the Bridgeport Herald, published on Sunday, reported on an unmanned flight with 220 pounds of ballast and a subsequent first manned powered flight by Whitehead with a soft landing after half a mile on the previous Wednesday, August 14, 1901. With folded wings at 30 cm Driving high wooden disc wheels on the road, the machine is certified to have a speed of approx. 45 km / h. As eyewitnesses present at Fairfield , the unnamed author names himself and the pilot Weißkopf, his two assistants James Dickie and Andrew Celli. In, however, the author is named as Richard Howell. The article has been illustrated with a drawing of the flying plane and a photo showing only Whitehead. In addition to the Bridgeport Herald , the Bridgeport Evening Post reported on August 26, 1901 and numerous other newspapers took over the report.

The Cook County Herald of October 26, 1901 quoted Weisskopf as saying that he flew for the first time last Tuesday and that he wanted to build his next airplane with wings made of tubular steel and silk instead of bamboo and cotton.

Foundation of an aircraft factory

In the fall of 1901, Weißkopf received capital of $ 10,000 from the New York entrepreneur Herman Linde and founded an aircraft factory in which he wanted to manufacture light and powerful aircraft engines in particular. The St. Louis Republic quoted Weisskopf on November 18, 1901 as saying that he and his financier could bring an airplane to market in a few months. In November 1901, 15 mechanics and two engineers were already employed in the aircraft factory. In January 1902 the partnership broke up. Linde took over the aircraft factory and announced in 1904 that he would build a self-starting aircraft. He was later temporarily admitted to closed psychiatry because of a "trivial incident".

In the spring of 1902, Gustav Weißkopf announced that on January 26 he had made two successful flights of almost two miles and over seven miles in a new aircraft that he had named No. 22 . In two letters to the Washington magazine The American Inventor , Weisskopf described two test flights over the water surface of the Long Island Sound, both of which would have been satisfactory and each ended with a gentle splash. The second, longer flight is said to have been a circular flight with a splash near the launch site. Weißkopf claimed that his men had helped him transport and tow the aircraft that had been launched. He stated that he could steer a curve by using different speeds of the two propellers, as with airplane No. 21 . In contrast to the previous model, the aircraft No. 22 was equipped with a 40-hp engine, with which it could reach at least 110 km / h in flight. Whitehead claimed in his letters to The American Inventor that he was unable to take photos of # 22 due to bad weather and instead sent photos of # 21 as the two planes were very similar.

No photo of No. 22 is known. Nothing is known about the whereabouts of the aircraft. In the ten years after these alleged flights over two or over seven miles, Gustav Weißkopf never succeeded in reproducing this supposed performance, although he still built numerous aircraft and made many unsuccessful take-off attempts.

Light aircraft engines

Gustav Weißkopf with one of his engines

At the suggestion and support of George R. Lawrence , Weißkopf built a reliable, lightweight 75 hp two-stroke engine in 1908, based on the "Whitehead Motor Works" in Bridgeport with an office in New York City. Engines with 25, 40 and 75 hp and weights of 48, 72 and 100 kg were offered.

End of attempts

In 1910 Stanley Beach ended Whitehead's longstanding financial support. Looking back, he later stated that the reason for this was that Weisskopf had never succeeded in building a self-starting aircraft until 1910 ( “after so many failures and when he had failed to make his airplane take off and fly under its own power” ).

In 1911, Weißkopf received $ 5,000 from a client to design and build an engine for experiments with an early version of a helicopter. After the engine failed to perform as promised, his customer sued Weisskopf for repayment. Since Weißkopf was insolvent, he was seized in 1912, which meant the end of his independence.

End of life

After losing his company, Weißkopf worked as a factory worker in Bridgeport until his death. Around 1914, the couple and their four children joined the Jehovah's Witnesses . Weisskopf died of a heart attack in his home on October 10, 1927, and was buried in a pauper's grave in Bridgeport's Lakeview Cemetery on October 12 . Since the family had no money for it, the grave remained without a tombstone until 1964.


The fact that Weisskopf's powered flight has remained controversial from 1901 to the present day is due to the few sources, the lack of a photo of the flying machine and numerous inconsistencies in existing sources. Weißkopf's long-term occupation with flying machines and the construction of functional aircraft engines are evident. Even intensive research since 1937 has not yet been able to finally determine the boundary between truth and fiction.

To check the plausibility of the described flight from August 1901, flight attempts were made with several replicas:

  • In 1985, a replica was started in the USA, which covered a distance of up to 100 m in several flights on December 29, 1986, and
  • On February 18, 1998, another replica in Germany covered distances of up to 428 m.

However, unlike the original aircraft, the replicas had separate engines for each of the two propellers. The German replica was also equipped with devices for wing twisting in order to give it at least a certain degree of steering ability.

The Australian flight historian and pilot John Brown ensured a renaissance of the dispute over the world's first powered flight through his publications on the Internet and in book form. Brown has compiled many newspaper reports over several years of research which, in his opinion, show that Gustav Weißkopf flew in a motor-powered aircraft two and a half years before the Wright brothers . In the leading article of the oldest, annual specialist magazine Jane's All the Worlds Aircraft , its editor-in-chief Paul Jackson represented Gustav Weißkopf's claim to the first powered flight in 2013. The magazine itself later described this point of view as a personal contribution to the discussion by Paul Jackson. Nevertheless, the one-sided claim of the Wright brothers on the first flight is no longer officially recognized. Rather, the official position of IHS Janes is that there are different conclusions from historical research. Tom Crouch, historian and senior aeronautical curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum , continues to believe that there is no convincing evidence of Whitehead's maiden flight. However, this also corresponds to a secret contract that the Smithsonian signed with the Orville Wright family in 1948 . In this, in return for taking over the model aircraft of the Wright brothers, the museum undertook to always represent the first flight of the Wright brothers.

Experts from the Deutsches Museum in Munich gave a lecture at the symposium on the early history of aviation: Gustav Weißkopf as the first powered aircraft? the opinion that the traditional technical details of the flying machine no. 21 do not indicate flight capability.


Monument in Leutershausen

The German Aviation Pioneer Museum has existed in Leutershausen since 1974 .

The Discovery Museum & Planetarium in Bridgeport showed a large model of Weißkopf's airplane No. 21 in the permanent exhibition First in Flight from 1986 to 2015 .

The life of Gustav Weißkopf is illuminated in the musical Aeronauticus . The piece was performed in Cadolzburg , the premiere was on June 20, 2013.

The US state of Connecticut introduced a Whitehead Memorial Day in June 2013. The state in the northeast of the USA has been in a clinch with North Carolina for the title of "First Flight State" for years . The phrase “First in Flight” is one of North Carolina's mottos, and the Wright flying machine is printed as a distinguishing mark on the state's license plates.

On January 1, 2014, the Flight History Research Association Gustav Weißkopf honored the aviation pioneer with a special postage stamp.

At Erfurt-Weimar Airport a street was named after bald.


  • Stella Randolph: Lost Fights of Gustave Whitehead. Places Publishing, Washington 1937.
  • Stella Randolph: Before the Wrights Flew. Putnam's Sons, New York 1966.
  • William J. O'Dwyer, Stella Randolph: History by Contract. Fritz Majer & Sohn, Leutershausen 1978, ISBN 3-922175-00-7 .
  • Albert Wüst: Gustav Weißkopf: "I flew in front of the Wrights". First powered flight August 14, 1901. A summary of the results of the Weißkopf research. Fritz Majer & Sohn, Leutershausen 2000, ISBN 3-922175-39-2 .
  • Werner Schwipps, Hans Holzer: Aviation pioneer Gustav Weißkopf, legend and reality. Aviatic Verlag, Oberhaching 2001, ISBN 3-925505-65-2 .
  • John Brown: Gustav Weißkopf and the Wright Brothers: Who Flew First? CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 2016, ISBN 978-1-5336-0568-9 .


  • Pioneers in the sky. The riddle of the first flight. (Alternative title: La conquête du ciel. L'énigme du premier vol motorisé. ) Documentary film with documentary scenes, Germany, 2016, 52:30 min., Written and directed: Tilman Remme, production: Artemis International, arte , ZDF , first broadcast: July 23, 2016 at arte ( pioneers in the sky )

See also

Other flight pioneers with controversial first motorized flights:

Web links

Commons : Gustav Weißkopf  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files


Newspaper articles

Individual evidence

  2. a b Aviation pioneer Gustav Weißkopf. ( Memento of March 29, 2016 in the Internet Archive ). In: City of Leutershausen .
  3. ^ A b New Airship Ready for Flight . In: New York Press . October 5, 1897 ( online [accessed November 8, 2015] on Gustave Whitehead's web site - Pioneer Aviator).
  4. Ship that will fly like a bird may soon be placed on the market. In: New York Telegram , November 19, 1901, p. 10; Scan in: .
  5. ^ A b Library of Congress : A Flying Machine that flies a little . In: The Minneapolis Journal . July 26, 1901 ( online [accessed November 3, 2014]).
  6. ^ Archive of the Otto Lilienthal Museum : Otto Lilienthal: Maihöhe / Rhinow-Apparat. Retrieved November 8, 2015 .
  7. Flying . In: Bridgeport Herald . Volume 9, No. 567 , August 18, 1901, p. 5 ( online , Google News [accessed October 31, 2016]).
  8. [1] Mystery of the first powered flight. ZDF Mediathek. Retrieved January 27, 2019
  9. ^ List of newspaper reports on manned powered flight in 1901. In:
  10. ^ A winged airship . In: The Cook County Herald . October 26, 1901 ( Online , Library of Congress [accessed October 31, 2016]).
  11. ^ American will put flying machines on the market . In: The St. Louis Republic . November 18, 1901 ( Online , Library of Congress [accessed October 31, 2016]).
  12. ^ Bridgeport Herald, Nov. 17, 1901, p. 1
  13. ^ New York Herald, March 22, 1904, p. 9 [2]
  14. Herman Linde. In: New York Dramatic Mirror , May 29, 1909; Scan in: .
  15. Affidavit from Anton Pruckner. In:
  16. ^ Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal , Vol. 14, p. 203, Clinton Co., 1910.
  17. Photo: Gravestone of Gustave Albin Whitehead. In: Find a Grave .
  18. Werner Schwipps, Hans Holzer: Aviation pioneer Gustav Weißkopf, legend and reality. Aviatic Verlag, Oberhaching 2001.
  19. John B. Crane: Did Whitehead Actually Fly? In: The National Aeronautic Association Magazine, December 1936, accessed November 8, 2015 .
  20. ^ Replica 1985 with pictures. March 23, 2013, accessed October 31, 2016 .
  21. ^ Video of the replica from 1998. Accessed November 10, 2015 .
  22. ^ John Brown: Portal to Gustave Whitehead - (German, English)
  23. ^ John Burgeson: Aviation bible: Whitehead first to fly. In: Connecticut Post , March 13, 2013.
  24. Jane's backs off Gustave Whitehead claim. April 17, 2015, accessed October 31, 2016 .
  25. Jane's Recognition of Gustave Whitehead (Gustav Weißkopf): Update., accessed March 25, 2020
  26. Tom Crouch: Air and Space Curator: The Wright Brothers Were Most Definitely the First in Flight. In: Smithsonian , March 18, 2013, accessed October 31, 2016.
  27. Tilman Remme: Pioneers in the Sky. The riddle of the first flight. In: arte , July 23, 2016.
  28. ^ Smithsonian Secret Treaty : Conspiracy Theories and Secret Treaties. In: Bayerischer Rundfunk , March 8, 2013, accessed on October 31, 2016.
  29. ^ Deutsches Museum: Deutsches Museum: Aviation Symposium. Retrieved March 29, 2017 .
  30. ^ Deutsches Museum: Video of the lecture: Gustav Weißkopfs Flugapparat No. 21. Questions about technology. Retrieved March 29, 2017 .
  31. ^ German Aviation Pioneer Museum
  32. ^ Gustave Whitehead: First In Flight Exhibit. ( Memento of December 29, 2015 in the Internet Archive ). In: Discovery Museum & Planetarium (English)
  33. ^ "Aeronauticus". Musical about Weißkopf's dream of flying. ( Memento from August 28, 2013 in the Internet Archive ). In: Bayerischer Rundfunk , June 13, 2013.
  34. ^ Aeronauticus. The dream of flying . In: Retrieved October 31, 2016 .
  35. US governor honors aviation pioneer Weißkopf. In: Bayerischer Rundfunk , June 27, 2013, accessed on October 31, 2016.
  36. ^ Bayerischer Rundfunk: Dispute over the first powered flight: US governor honors aviation pioneer Weißkopf | . June 27, 2013 ( [accessed October 14, 2017]).
  37. ^ Special stamp for Gustav Weißkopf. In: Bayerischer Rundfunk , January 1, 2014.
    dpa : Special stamps commemorate the aviation pioneer Weißkopf. In: Focus Online , January 2, 2014.