Whitehead No. 21

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Plane rear w crew.jpg
Gustave Whitehead and his 1901 monoplane taken near Whitehead's Pine Street shop. His infant daughter, Rose, sits on her father's lap, and the engine that powers the front landing-gear wheels is on the ground in front of the others.
Role experimental
Manufacturer Gustave Whitehead
Designer Gustave Whitehead
First flight purportedly August 14, 1901
Primary user Gustave Whitehead
Produced 1901
Number built 1
Drawing of No.21 aloft.

The Whitehead No.21 was the aircraft that aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead claimed to have flown near Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 14, 1901. Mainstream aviation scholars dispute the flight; in 1980, C.H. Gibbs-Smith called the story a "flight of fancy".[1] More recently, the 100th anniversary edition of Jane's All the World's Aircraft has credited Whitehead as the first man to build and fly an operational heavier-than-air flying machine.[2]

The flight was reported in the August 18, 1901 issue of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald and was reprinted in the New York Herald, the Boston Transcript and the Washington Times, which ran it on 23 August 1901. Within months, the story ran in nine other newspapers in all parts of the country, as far away as California and Arizona.[3]

No photographs were taken, but a drawing of the aircraft in flight accompanied the Sunday Herald article. The No.21 was a monoplane powered by two engines—one for the wheels during the ground run, the other driving the propellers for flight.


The No.21 was a wire-braced monoplane with bat-like wings and triangular horizontal tail. There was no vertical fin, and lateral control was intended to be accomplished by shifting the pilot's body sideways.

The wings were constructed with radial bamboo ribs and covered with silk, and had a span of 36 ft (11 m). They had noticeable dihedral, which would have contributed to the aircraft's stability had it ever flown, and could be folded like a fan for transport.

The fuselage was of rectangular box section with constant height, curved to taper inwards at front and rear when seen from above. Four small wheels were fixed to the bottom.

Although having two engines and twin propellers, the aircraft was not a conventional twin. It had separate engines for ground running and flight, both designed and made by Whitehead. The ground engine was of 10 hp (7.5 kW) and drove the wheels to reach takeoff speed. Propulsion was then changed to a 20 hp (15 kW) acetylene engine driving two counter-rotating tractor propellers mounted on outriggers.[1] The aircraft could supposedly take off under its own power and without assistance.

Later analysis by aviation historians concluded that the design as a whole was flimsy and aerodynamically unsound.[4]


According to Whitehead and a reporter supposedly at the event, the monoplane's longest flight was 60 meters (200 feet) above ground for 800 meters (0.5 miles). These claims are contested. Whitehead did not keep a log book or document his work.

In an article in the August 18, 1901 issue of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald the reporter states he witnessed a night test of the plane, at first unpiloted but loaded with sand bags, and later with Whitehead at the controls.

Whitehead reportedly made four flights that day, supporters of Whitehead's claims offer that as the reason for conflicting accounts from different witnesses. The conflicts have been used by opponents of the claims to question whether any flights took place.

Before his reported 14 August flight, Whitehead was quoted in a 26 July article in the Minneapolis Journal, credited to the New York Sun, in which he described the first two trial flights of his machine on 3 May. Andrew Cellie and Daniel Varovi were mentioned as his financial backers and assisted in the trial flights. The machine was unmanned and carried 220 pounds of sand as ballast and flew to an altitude of 40 to 50 feet for an 1/8 of a mile 650 feet (200 m). According to Whitehead, the machine flew a distance of 1/2 mile 2,600 feet (790 m) during its second test flight for one and one-half minutes before crashing into a tree. He also explained his desire to keep the location of any future experiments hidden to avoid drawing a crowd who might make a "snap-shot verdict of failure".[3]


  1. ^ a b Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. (2003). Aviation: an Historical Survey. London: NMSI. pp. 286–7. ISBN 1-900747-52-9. 
  2. ^ Jackson, Paul (3/8/2013). "Executive Overview: Jane's All the World's Aircraft: Development & Production". Archived from the original on 2013-03-13. Retrieved 28 March 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Library of Congress, Chronicling America website retrieved on 2012-01-10 [1]
  4. ^ Moolman, Valerie (1980). The road to Kitty Hawk. Epic of Flight. Time-Life Books. p. 145. ISBN 0-8094-3260-9. 
  • Weissenborn, G.K,; "Did Whitehead fly?", Air Enthusiast thirty-five, Pilot (1988), pp19–21, 74-77.