Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight, by Susan O’Dwyer Brinchman (Apex Educational Media, La Mesa, CA, 2015, 432 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
July 23, 2015 (San Diego’s East County) - I was absolutely astounded and flabbergasted after reading Susan Brinchman’s Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight, for all my life and throughout elementary school and into college I had been taught that the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were the pioneers of modern aviation. In this fascinating and well documented and researched book, Brinchman states: “Paul Jackson, Editor-in-Chief of the century-old Jane’s All the World Aircraft (2013), often referred to as ‘the bible of aviation history’, announced in its Centennial Issue, in March, 2013, that Whitehead was ‘first to fly’, ahead of the Wrights, and was the inventor of the airplane, based on the mountainous evidence accumulated over the previous eight decades.”
This La Mesa, California resident, Brinchman, is uniquely suited to present documentation concerning Gustave Whitehead. She has been intimately involved with Whitehead research for the past five decades; interacted with many of the previous researchers, was present for some interviews with witnesses, and as a native of Fairfield, CT, where these first flights occurred, is familiar with the places Whitehead lived and flew.
The author presents stunning new discoveries, solidifying the case for recognition of Gustave Whitehead as the “True Inventor of the Airplane” and “First in Powered Flight.” Ironically, it comes at a time when a book by David McCullough, The Wright Brothers (Simon & Shuster), is #1 on the New York Times Bestseller’s list. It really makes you wonder if The Wright Brothers were #1 on the New York Times Bestseller’s List, with the revelations and documentation by Brinchman in Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight, what does it say for this book?
The author frames her very compelling book and story as the “Hidden History of Gustave Whitehead & the Wrights”, and reveals in this book little known facts about the first flights of Whitehead and the Wright brothers that will change perceptions about early aviation history, forever. She speaks of conspiracy theories. When I say initially that I was absolutely astounded and flabbergasted after reading Brinchman’s book, the details and research she provides in this book will convince others as well. She categorically states, and with conviction: “Connecticut aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead invented and flew powered aeroplanes in 1901, over two years before the Wright brothers’ flights at Kitty Hawk.
Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight, is bound to raise a lot of controversy, but Brinchman provides in this book documentation and unimpeachable evidence and eyewitness accounts to counter that. This is a stunning book, that shakes my very core. It reads like a mystery novel, or spy and espionage story by Robert Ludlum. Everything that I had been taught as a child in grammar school and throughout college about the history of aviation and the Wright brothers, has now been turned upon its head. Brinchman has convinced me! There are conspiracies and coverups that one would not expect from something as historic as the evolution of flight.
Brinchman, actually has a vested interest in this book and story, as her father, Major William J. O’Dwyer discovered in 1963 photographs of a Whitehead aeroplane taken on the grounds of the Brooklawn Country Club Fairway, on the border of Fairfield and Bridgeport, Connecticut. For over half a century Brinchman continued the quest of her father, to place Gustave Whitehead in his rightful place, that of First in Flight, before the Wright brothers. It is clear from the history books that Orville and Wilbur Wright made that famous flight at Kitty Hawk, but the author would have you to believe by countless eyewitness accounts and sworn affidavits that Gustave Whitehead made the first flight two years earlier, in 1901.
Proof of the flights by Gustave Whitehead was abundant, even in the 1960’s. Resistance to the information by the Smithsonian was strong and hard to fathom – that is, until “the Contract” with Orville Wright’s heirs was unearthed by Maj. O’Dwyer in 1976, with the assistance of Senator Lowell Weicker, Jr. (later, Governor), of CT, published in “History by Contract” (O’Dwyer and Randolph, 1978). The “Smithsonian-Wright Agreement of 1948”, between the Wright executors and the United States of America, stipulated that the Smithsonian Institution would purchase the original Wright Flyer for $1 and other considerations, but neither the venerable Smithsonian Institution or its near-200 affiliated museums and research facilities could recognize any other airplane or person as “first in flight”, or the Wright Flyer would revert to the heirs. This “Contract” as it came to be called, finally explained the extreme reactions that had been seen to documentation of Whitehead’s successful flights by Smithsonian officials and their agents. This agreement is still in place, legally, today, so says Brinchman. Not until 2014, during the research conducted for this book, however, did it become known that those who crafted the required labels for the Wright Flyer crediting Orville were the same friends of Orville Wright who had worked together for nine years to disparage Whitehead as “first in flight”. We have, unfortunately, received an incomplete and some think, misleading history of first flight and early aviation, so says Brinchman. Thus, the conspiracy theory!
This book is replete with photographs and diagrams documenting the construction and flight of Whitehead’s “first in flight” aerial device, as well as affidavits and numerous eyewitness accounts crediting Gustave Whitehead with being the “first in flight” two years before the Wright brothers. In a telephone interview with the author, she indicated to me that her prime motivation for writing this book was to correct history. Perhaps this comes from her lifetime of being an educator.
Perhaps most revealing in this book is how Gustave Whitehead himself describes that first flight in 1901, as he states: “I never felt such a strange sensation as when the machine first left the ground and started on her flight. I heard nothing but the rumbling of the engine and the flapping of the big wings. I don’t think I saw anything during the first two minutes of the flight, for I was so excited with the sensations I experienced. When the ship had reached a height of about forty or fifty feet I began to wonder how much higher it would go. But just about that time I observed that she was sailing along easily and not raising any higher.”
This is a fascinating story, but more than that, it is an attempt to correct history. This true history of the first years of powered flight is a must-read that leaves no doubt of Whitehead’s accomplishments, changing perceptions about early aviation history, forever. For a signed copy of the book from the author go to www.gustavewhiteheadbook.com.
"Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight" is available on Amazon in print and as an eBook here.
Dennis Moore is the Associate Editor of the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine, as well as a freelance contributor to EURweb based out of Los Angeles. Mr. Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.