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Whitehead Replica Flies Untethered For First Time

December 30, 1986

STRATFORD, Conn. (AP) _ A wood-and-cloth replica of an early airplane lifted off a runway in brief flights in a man’s quest to show that a local inventor could have been ahead of the Wright brothers.

On one flight the small plane veered off course and one of its wingtips clipped a newspaper photographer, breaking his arm.

The 16-foot plane made about 10 flights Monday a few feet above a runway at Sikorsky Memorial Airport, with the longest flight about 230 feet.

″It’s just doing what we knew it would do. It’s not a question of any surprise,″ said builder William O’Dwyer of Fairfield. ″The ultimate goal of this is so we can leave to the people in the next century to come the history of a man who was deliberately overlooked because of ... politics.″

He said there is evidence that Gustave Whitehead, a German native who lived in Bridgeport, successfully flew on Aug. 14, 1901, in Stratford. Orville and Wilbur Wrights’ first flight was on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C., when Orville flew 120 feet in 12 seconds.

Whitehead’s flights were chronicled by the Bridgeport Herald and a few magazines, but the articles lacked photographs of the feat. Witnesses have since come forward to verify the flight. Whitehead died impoverished in 1926.

O’Dwyer, who began his research in 1963, said Whitehead left a good description and enough photographs of his plane to allow engineers to construct a perfect replica.

He said the group aims to match the half-mile flight Whitehead recorded.

″It’s just the beginning of an awful lot of testing,″ he said of Monday’s flights. ″It will have to be another year before we will have all the answers.″

Pilot Andrew Kosh declined comment on Monday’s flights, saying he was more concerned about Bridgeport Post-Telegram photographer Wayne Ratzenberger, 47. Ratzenberger was in satisfactory condition at Bridgeport Hospital with arm fractures sustained when he was hit while stationed beside the 600-foot runway.

The research project has been carried out since 1974 under the auspices of the Gustave Whitehead Museum in the inventor’s birthplace, Leutershausen, West Germany, O’Dwyer said. A local developer contributed $10,000 to the project.

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