The newspaper accounts of Whitehead’s pre-Wright flight were full of wonder and praise, but they are also puzzling. For decades, Whitehead proponents have pointed to the news account and to later stories in Scientific American, as proof of their claims. But the fact that the news stories weren’t written until five days after the reputed flight casts the whole matter in a less certain light After all, manned heavier-than-air flight was at the time the most debated and controversial topic of discussion among scientists and engineers. What reporter, who had witnessed the flight could have resisted writing the story immediately and beaming the news via telegraph to every newspaper in the country? Why wait five days?
Whitehead’s first flight, he claimed, had taken place two years earlier, in 1899. If the claim is true, the flight must have been spectacular, not only for the wild crash that brought it to an end but also because it was so far ahead of its time.
The best testimony we have about the flight comes from Louis Darvaritch, who said he was the lone passenger on that flight in his role as stoker for the steam engine that powered the craft. Darvaritch recounted the details of the 1899 flight in an affidavit he gave in 1934. But he was also a friend of Whitehead’s, a fact that pro – Wright forces marshal in refuting the claim.
According to his sworn account, Darvaritch went along on the half – mile flight, which at times reached altitudes of 20 to 25 feet. But a mansion loomed and Whitehead wasn’t able to maneuver around it. The plane struck the building three stories above the ground. Whitehead wasn’t hurt in the crackup, but Darvaritch was badly scalded by the hot water in the steam engine and was taken to a hospital for a few weeks. (The hospital records have since been lost.)
The arguments against this account are legion. For starters, it’s hard to imagine an accident as spectacular as this one, complete with a burst boiler, horrific burn injuries, and a smashed-up flying machine on the ground beneath a plainly visible impact mark on a mansion wall. Can you imagine anything that would attract more attention, not only from local civic officials but also by sensation-hungry reporters? And it is a rare homeowner who would not go to court to make an example out of a local eccentric who had smashed into his wall, presumably costing a good deal more to repair than the itinerant mechanic laborer could afford to pay. Documents should show records of a hefty lawsuit, but none has been discovered. A complaint describing the damage to a wall 25 feet off the ground by a flying contraption would all but seal the first-flyer debate in Whitehead’s favor.
Do you think Whitehead’s claims deserve more investigation? Call the National Air and Space Museum at 202-357-2700 to press your case. So far, museum administrators have refused to consider the case, and consider the Wright brothers the world’s tint flyers.
Finally, there are few engines that need more pounds of machine for each horsepower than a steam engine. Perhaps a mule driving a mill wheel is slightly less efficient, but not by much. The weight of an engine powerful enough to carry the plane, two passengers, a stash of fUel for stoking, not to mention the engine’s own weight, would be far too heavy to have succeeded. In 1986, when Whitehead backers successfully flew a rough approximation of one of his later models, they did nothing to prove the feasibility of Whitehead’s motors. They only set out to test the design, which they learned was just barely up to the task.
Whitehead may or may not have been first in the air, but he certainly deserves credit for his creativity. It’s been said that to a man with a hammer,
every problem looks like a nail. Well, for Whitehead, a gifted mechanic and engine designer, the problem of flying could be solved by throwing in as many engines as possible. To him, that meant using one engine to accelerate his bat-winged craft on the ground, then two more to keep it aloft. The wing-mounted engines each turned their own propeller, and Whitehead planned to use a difference in the power of each engine as his rudder: A faster-racing engine on the left wing, say, would propel its side faster than its counterpart on the right wing, turning the plane to the right.