Gustave Whitehead's Last Best Hope

Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight by Susan O'Dwyer-Brinchman,
432 pp, ill., with index, Apex Educational Media, May 2015, ISBN-10: 0692439307 ISBN-13: 978-0692439302

In a recent Huffington Post article, I commented...

"It's unlikely that Ms. O'Dwyer-Brinchman's book will provide any new, much less compelling, evidence that Whitehead ever flew."

Now that I've had a chance to read her book, I can say with certainty that Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight contains no new and compelling evidence that Whitehead ever flew.

Susan O'Dwyer-Brinchman's book also fails to provide a sense of time, place and circumstance, which she likely never intended to provide, anyway. Her primary objectives appear to have been these...

1) to assemble and present a mass of sources,

2) provide excuses for the many strange events and comments attributed to Gustave Whitehead, and

3) to attack the historical status of the Wrights.

As such, her book is a blend of bibliography and polemic.

It is difficult to call it a history, for she glosses over a number of events and statements by Whitehead which are problematic for those who support his claims. She has sanitized the record - removed or minimized or suppressed Whitehead's most obnoxious comments and claims.

In pushing the Whitehead claims, Ms. O'Dwyer-Brinchman does what other Whitehead supporters have done recently, attack the Wrights. Of course, it's true that whether or not (and he did not) Whitehead "flew" in 1901 has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not (and they did) the Wrights flew in 1903. Conversely, if the Wrights had not flown in 1903, it would have no impact on whether or not Whitehead did so in 1901. In short, the two events are unrelated. It seems to me her approach stems from a recognition by Whitehead supporters of just how weak the case for Whitehead is - it cannot stand on its own merits, and, indeed, it cannot.

The Whitehead Myth is a fascinating study in near-cult behavior, applied to historical events, especially in the case of those elected officials in Connecticut who have attempted to embed the Whitehead story within the body politic. Typical of cult activists, they've sought to inculcate the Whitehead Myth in their school curriculum and to thus ensure that their favorite Myth survives the tests of time and truth.

This book captures the full flavor of The Whitehead Myth, with an impressive amount of material, both pertinent and off-center. The author presents very little that wasn't already known to those who have researched this matter, and much of what is included is not what serious scholars and historians would term "evidence."

Drawing on her father's (Maj. William O'Dwyer) archive of Whitehead material, it was possible new and compelling material would be included, but that appears to not be so. It is dated in crucial areas - for instance there's no mention that in April 2015 IHS/Jane's disowned the pro-Whitehead editorial which appeared in the March 2013 Jane's All The World's Aircraft and which began (together with a now-completely discredited "forensic photo analysis") the current outbreak of Whitehead Fever.

As the story of someone who dedicated a large part of a lifetime to working on the puzzle of flight while living in humble circumstances, Whitehead deserves attention and recognition. He also represents a "seat of the pants," undocumented, scattered approach to scientific questions which provides a fascinating contrast to the meticulous, documented, scientific testing and trial and error path taken by the Wrights, and in failing where the Wrights succeeded, Whitehead proves the value of the approach Wilbur and Orville took.

The Whitehead's "flights" of 1901 and 1902 were certainly myths and fabrications. As a gathering of support for the Whitehead claims, this book is about as good as one will ever be, but it does not make a persuasive case.

Of course, it's difficult to prove a falsehood.