Papp family: Elizabeth standing , Bert - smaller boy standing, Andrew - standing behind Bert, Both boys were Whitehead mechanics; Wedding photo - Stephen and Elizabeth Koteles, wearing fabled white silk dress, used on planes' wings; Storefront: residence of Stephen Elizabeth Koteles, neighbors and friends of Gustave and Rose Whitehead, Pine St., CT - photo courtesy of Robert and Dorothy Koteles; Whitehead is 3 rd from left in back row, wife with baby in back, right.
Whitehead Flew First!
“Sure, We All Saw Him Fly!”
In 1900, Gustave Whitehead, his Hungarian-born wife, Louise Tuba and daughter Rose moved to a flat at 241 Pine Street, Bridgeport, CT. My grandparents, Stephen and Elizabeth Papp Koteles were their neighbors and friends. They had just built a multi-family dwelling housing a grocery store on the street level which they owned and operated. It was typical of the housing in the area.
It was in the West End, the heart of the Hungarian community, where the efforts of the young genius inventor Whitehead were realized. He stirred the imagination of countless young boys and eager mechanical assistants who tirelessly developed engines and re-designed structural components to support his innumerable flights.
It was your grandparents and great-grandparents, uncles and great-uncles (all native-born Hungarians) – the Ratzenbergers, Papps, Leskos, Koteles, Bereczs, Wargos, Ciglars, Pruckners, Harworths, Galamboshes, Haverys, Jusewicz/Savages, Feketes and others who enthusiastically and unconditionally contributed their mechanical expertise, meager financial resources, and “muscle” to transport Whitehead’s experimental aircraft to launch sites, often by horse and wagon.
This highly socialized community observed countless Whitehead flights in the West End, at Seaside Park, Gypsy Springs, the embankment at Bostwick Avenue, the circus lot, and the flats near St. Stephen’s School. When not spectators, they were frequently awakened by the roar of Whitehead’s engines, rumbling in his work shed on Pine Street or his later workshop at Cherry Street and Bostwick Avenue. An article on Whitehead’s assistants, taken from the webpage “Gustave Whitehead’s Flying Machines”, states that “Without the help of these interested boys and their efforts to keep up and get along with the crazed inventor, Whitehead would never have been able to complete his historic projects.”
When Whitehead and his family moved to Tunxis Hill in Fairfield, CT, they were welcomed by an enthusiastic contingent of Hungarian residents. He continued his experimental flights from atop Tunxis Hill, elevations at Turney Farms and over Fairfield Beach to Long Island Sound. They were greeted with enthusiasm and amazement by spectators. Over 20 sworn statements of eyewitness accounts fill the publications of previous Whitehead historians.
In 1965, at a Thanksgiving celebration, I tape-recorded a conversation with my grandmother, Elizabeth Papp Koteles at age 84, as to her recollections of family history and the Whitehead flights.
“Sure, lots of people see him fly. See it with our own eyes. Up in the air, then come down.”
Her two brothers, Andrew and Bert Papp, were mechanics who assisted Whitehead with all aspects of his production and experimentation in flight. When asked to assist, she volunteered, and with Mrs. Whitehead, they disassembled her silk wedding dress and petticoats. These pieces were then sewn into sheets of fabric used to cover portions of the aircraft structure, as silk was extremely expensive.
At the age of 93, she was contacted by CBS 60 Minutes for an interview, as the last living eyewitness to the Whitehead flights. Approaching 94, she was clear-spoken, despite her Magyar accent. Cognitively intact, she recounted her observations, and when she did not know something … she said so. That interview speaks to the authenticity of her recollections, and the validity and reliability of her statements.
The two most singularly important individuals responsible for the amazing revelation of events, affirming and attributing to Gustave Whitehead’s aeronautical genius as inventor of the airplane are John Brown, Aviation Research Historian, and Paul Jackson, Editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. Indeed, all the world owes them a debt of gratitude.
A search for the truth has been an uncompromising task for 112 years. The champions of this quest have displayed courage without reservation, and fulfilled the expectations of generations of Hungarians who held strong to their testimony as humble eyewitnesses. To their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews and nieces who have submitted countless academic reports elucidating the experiences of their proud Hungarian heritage, and extolling the humility and nobility of Whitehead (the genius of the century), who have been rebuffed by the unenlightened … know that your moment is at hand for the world to appreciate Whitehead and to revere his accomplishments as you have!
For Whitehead himself made a contribution to the Hungarian culture and lexicon: the word repülőgép, not common to their Magyarország when they departed Hungary in the 19th century.
Whitehead’s ghost can now step from the shadows, with his Hungarian wife and family who endured much hardship, flanked by smiling Hungarian co-workers and friends whose faith in him has been unshakeable for over a century.
I am personally convinced that a wealth of knowledge has yet to be discovered in the photo albums and documents stored in the attics of the Hungarian community. History now welcomes your contributions, no matter how insignificant you may feel them to be, in depicting the era and places in which Whitehead lived and worked.
If you have any information you are willing to share, please contact
Jolly Strasse #4
Stephen (István) Link is an Adolescent Psychologist. He is former Editor of the CT Personnel and Guidance Association Journal, and has written for TIME magazine, Family Health magazine, etc. Born in Bridgeport, three of his grandparents were Hungarian. His maternal grandparents could trace back their Hungarian roots to 1425. His wife is a granddaughter of the pianist and composer Jan Paderewski, who served as Prime Minister of Poland in 1919.