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Saturday, March 24 News

Lofty goal: Replica of Whitehead aircraft promotes local 'first in flight' legacy

Daniel Gombos is in his 80s now, but he remembers while attending McKinley School as a child that it was "common knowledge" that local aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead had flown a motorized aircraft before the Wright brothers.

Gombos was at Sherman Green on Thursday morning to see the replica of that plane -- the Condor 21 -- built and flown by a team led by retired Fairfield teacher Andy Kosch in tribute to Whitehead's achievements.

Whitehead's granddaughter, Gombos said, was two grades behind him at McKinley School. "With us kids, it was very common knowledge," he said, and recalled that a distant relative of his once told him that her mother was one of the women who helped sew the silk fabric for the plane's wings.

Thursday marked the 113th anniversary of what Whitehead advocates say was the first motorized flight, which they say took place along the town's shoreline near what is now the South Benson marina and open space.

Whitehead, a German immigrant who lived in both Fairfield and Bridgeport, last year gained recognition from "Jane's All The World's Aircraft" as the first to fly a motorized plane as opposed to brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, more widely credited as the first to fly at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December 1903.

At the green, Kosch also displayed photos of newspaper clippings and Whitehead memorabilia. He read from a Bridgeport Herald article about that first flight in 1901, recounting , how Whitehead and his assistants drove the plane down what is now Fairfield Avenue to the area of Turney Farm in Fairfield.

"No one can say exactly where he flew from," Kosch said, adding that even supporters of Whitehead's "first-in-flight" recognition differ on the path of that first flight. "We can say it was in the area of Jennings Beach and South Benson marina, in that general area," he said, "but we can't tell exactly where he took off from."

The clippings describe the flight as being "beyond Fairfield in a large field." When a test flight, without Whitehead, happened first, the Herald reported that the aircraft "looked for all the world like a great, white goose." It was the test flight, Kosch said, that let Whitehead know the plane would work the way he expected it to.

The body of the plane resembles a boat. "I often wonder what he was thinking," Gombos said. "Was he thinking he was going to fly over the water and land?"

The Condor, Gombos said, is particularly amazing when considering that it wasn't towed to the makeshift airfield, but was actually driven there.

Kosch is heading up a new First in Flight Advisory Committee established by First Selectmen Michael Tetreau, with a mission to promote Gustave Whitehead and his local achievements. Tetreau, for instance, has suggested creating a Gustave Whitehead trail through Fairfield, Bridgeport and Stratford to highlight the sites important to his legacy.