1/72 1901 Gustav Whitehead
KIT #:  
REVIEWER: Chris Peachment
NOTES: Ten and 20 thou plastic card, rod, strut, and an old silk opera scarf. 


It is possible that this machine was the first heavier than air aircraft to achieve powered flight in 1901, some two years before the Wright Brothers managed it. The record sharply divides aviation authorities, and it is an argument I do not propose to get into here. You will find as many of the facts that are available on various websites below, including sworn testimonies from witnesses, and you can decide for yourself. Suffice it to say that Jane's All the World's Aircraft acknowledges this as the first powered flyer. And the Smithsonian does not. Although it is interesting that the Smithsonian is revealed as having signed a secret agreement with the Wright Brothers acknowledging only them as the first. Why this had to be secret is a mystery.

There are even eye witness claims that the Wright brothers were present at Whitehead's early flights. Something which they later fiercely denied. If you feel strongly about this matter, one way or the other, then please do not write about it to me. I avoid all arguments as they are vulgar and often too convincing.

A replica was built in the 1980s and successfully took to the air under the guiding hand of actor and aviator Cliff Robertson, which proved that it was at least airworthy, although it was towed behind a car.  No photographs of the first Whitehead in the air have survived. 

Gustave Whitehead was in fact born Gustave Weisskopf in 1874 in Germany. He emigrated to the US, changed his name by Anglicizing it, and became an aviation pioneer, building gliders, flying machines and engines between 1897 and 1915.

He claimed that he flew a powered machine successfully several times in 1901 and 1902. His reputation rests on a newspaper article written as an eyewitness account which stated that Whitehead made a powered flight in Connecticut on 14 August 14, 1901. In later months, details from this article were reprinted in newspapers around the world.  Whitehead's aircraft designs and experiments also attracted notice in Scientific American magazine. Whitehead later worked for sponsors who hired him to build aircraft of their own design, although none flew, and he became a known designer and builder of lightweight engines. Public notice of his work ended in 1915 and died in obscurity in 1927.

In 1937, a book asserting that Whitehead had made powered flights in 1901-1902 triggered debate in the 1930s and '40s among scholars, and aviation enthusiasts. Further independent research in the 1960s and 70s, including books in 1966 and 1978, supported the Whitehead claims.

In 2013 Jane's All the World's Aircraft recognized Whitehead as the first to make a manned, powered, controlled flight. This statement reignited debate over who flew first. On 26 June, 2013 the state of Connecticut enacted a law which specifies that "Powered Flight Day" honours the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead, rather than the Wright Brothers.


 Plans were found on one of the websites below. There is a hand written claim on them that they were drawn from memory, but they look accurate enough when compared to the few photos of the aircraft. I made several photocopies in order to cut them up as templates.

It really is quite a simple scratch build, and went together without any hitches. The fuselage is a simple boat shape, and indeed the engineering all round uses ship building technology, combined with wings which follow the shape of the gliders built by Otto Lilienthal.

A base was cut to shape, and two sides, which are best sprayed white and kept separate while the internal struts are put in place. Photos of modern replicas suggest these are simple two by fours, painted dark brown.  They are not even mortise jointed,  but simply screwed in place over each other, which makes construction easy.

Leave the various masts until later. I now made up the trickiest part which is the compression engine. There are some good quality close-ups of this on the various replicas, and I followed these while putting together plastic rod and tube of various thicknesses.  A crank shaft for each propeller is the only fiddly part, and is made of differing lengths of rod, with tiny cranks from card.  The engine was powered by acetylene, which I would guess came from a canister of compressed gas, probably hidden beneath the engine tray.

After that come the wings, which were lengths of bamboo, supporting a silk “sail” beneath, sewed to the bamboo struts at intervals. Two junction boxes for the struts were made up from card and tied together with a square section wing spar in the middle. The struts were lengths of rod, painted a pale yellow brown for bamboo.

And now the piece de resistance, something which I had never tried before, and may well come into use on future projects. I had an old white silk opera scarf, which had been my grandfather's, which he wore while flying in WWI.  It had worn into patches over the years. I had finally found a way of honouring it.  I made a paper pattern and then carefully cut the silk into shape, using a new sharp scalpel blade. If you are going to use this method, try to establish which way the grain of the silk goes, and cut accordingly to avoid too much fraying.

It was then attached to the bamboo struts using Humbrol Clearfix. I imagine any canopy glue would work well.  Small dabs of superglue gel held any fraying threads in place.

You can allow a little sagging between the struts, as the original shows it was a fairly makeshift affair. 

The same was repeated for the tail feathers. There was no fin on the aircraft, and changes of direction were effected by the pilot shifting his weight inside the boat. A technique still used on hang gliders and micro-light aircraft which have a horizontal bar instead of conventional control stick.

Once the wings are in place, the central mast, or kingpost, can be cemented between the engine tray and the wing spar. And also the bowsprit, or nose probe as it has come to be known by aviators. Rig the thing according to plan, using elastic thread, coloured silver with a gel felt tip pen, and attached by superglue gel placed with a sharpened toothpick.

Then four small wheels were threaded on axles underneath, which are dead tailwheels from the Big Bag of Wheels. Finally, I cut down the fan shaped props from an old Corsair propeller, which gave enough surface area to allow the unusual shape. They had tiny spinners attached, from card and rod. And then glued to the ends of the crankshafts.


There you have a tribute to what might have been the first ever powered controlled aircraft. Whatever its claims, you have to admire the courage of the man who climbed into it with every expectation that it might become airborne. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have done it. 








 Chris Peachment

July 2014 

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