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Fairfield, First in Flight? From museum to pancakes, Whitehead tributes soar

Updated 12:36 pm, Friday, March 15, 2013

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  • Aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead with his No. 21 flyer that is beleived to have made the first manned flight in Fairfield in 1901. Photo: Contributed Photo / Fairfield Citizen contributed
    Aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead with his No. 21 flyer that is beleived to have made the first manned flight in Fairfield in 1901. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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It's taken more than a century, but news that the Fairfield flight of an aviation pioneer has won new recognition as the first-ever manned flight has a small but growing group of town residents flying high.

"What?" and "No way!" were common reactions by Fairfielders surveyed informally this week when told that Jane's All the World's Aircraft, an internationally respected authority on aviation history, is recognizing a 1901 flight by Gustave Whitehead as the first by man and not the fabled 1903 flight by the Wright brothers in North Carolina.

The Jane's recognition of Whitehead, a German immigrant who lived in both Fairfield and Bridgeport, is sweet vindication for those who for many years advocated that his aviation achievements get the credit they deserve.

The news also has prompted local Whitehead admirers to suggest ways that Fairfield can capitalize on its new "First in Flight" crown.

The Alvin Street home in Fairfield, where Whitehead lived at one time, could be converted into a museum paying tribute to the aviator's local exploits, according to Andrew Kosch, of Fairfield, a teacher at Platt Technical High School in Milford, who has researched Whitehead's history and for many years contended that he has failed to receive the credit he is due.

"It's the third house down from the corner," Kosch said of the small Alvin Street dwelling. "It's empty and it's sitting there rotting away. I think the town should jump on this. ... And make a little museum. Every kid in Fairfield should study this."

First Selectman Michael Tetreau isn't ready to commit to a museum project yet, but said Wednesday that he was both surprised and excited to learn of the town's key place in aviation history.

"I think we want to make sure that we memorialize it properly," he said. "Certainly, that's something we're going to advertise big time, especially during next year as we get into our 375th birthday party. I think that's just another thing to celebrate."

"Right now I'm just excited about learning more," he said. "This is fabulous. This always seemed to have happened somewhere else. I'm very excited to learn it might have been here in Fairfield."

Taking note of Whitehead's several early flights -- the one believed to be his first was along the local shoreline near what is now the town's skate board park -- Tetreau observed, "He was a frequent flyer before there was flying."

Nearby Whitehead's home, atop Tunxis Hill, where Whitehead's bat-winged, boat-like aircraft also took to the skies, Chip's Family Restaurant is making plans to pay tribute to the neighborhood achievement.

Chip's manager Laura Robertson was among those surprised by the news this week, but in the spirit of its multitudinous menu offerings, she said the restaurant will be featuring a Whitehead special called "Number 21."

"I did a little research," she said. "That was the name of the aircraft that was first supposedly flown."

Since Whitehead hailed from Germany, she said, "the Number 21 will consist of a 3-egg omelet filled with chopped hamburger, cheddar cheese, onions and potatoes, served with our German apple pancakes."

"I think it will go over well," she added.

Unfortunately, some longtime Whitehead advocates are no longer alive to see their cause vindicated. Among the most notable was William J. O'Dwyer, a former Fairfielder who was instrumental in researching and publicizing Whitehead's achievements.

"He did much of this research and got me interested in it," said Kosch.

O'Dwyer was a retired Air Force pilot who wrote a book detailing what he said is the Smithsonian Institution's refusal to acknowledge Whitehead because of its ties to the Wright brothers' heirs, called "History by Contracts."

After meeting O'Dwyer, Kosch was motivated to build a replica of Whitehead's No. 21 plane. "I told the (O'Dwyer), I could build this thing and fly it," Kosch remembered. "He said it would help give Whitehead credit."

Kosch said it's a shame that many of the older people who tried over the years win recognition for Whitehead's accomplishment have since passed on.

"I wish they could have seen it," he said. "I didn't think I'd live to see this guy get credit."