The sound of an engine bleating loudly broke the morning silence on a lonely beach in North Carolina. Then a fragile looking craft with two fabric covered wings struggled down a wooden rail and slowly lifted off into the air, piloted by a young man laying prostrate on its lower wing. For the first time in history a "power-driven, heavier-than-air machine" overcame gravity and took a person off the ground in a "free, controlled and sustained flight." Just as the flying machine lifted off another young man pressed a rubber bulb attached to a box camera, capturing for posterity the miracle that occurred near Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. The man who took that photograph, probably the most famous aviation photo in history, was Surfman John T. Daniels of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
As the nation prepared to celebrate 100 years of powered flight, most will recognize the names of the two brothers who made it happen: Wilbur and Orville Wright. Few know about the many other persons who worked behind the scenes and helped them make their dream of flight come true. Remarkably, many of these forgotten men worked for the Lighthouse Service and the Life-Saving Service, both forerunners of today's Coast Guard.
Wilbur and Orville Wright, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio who ran a bicycle manufacturing and repair shop, were determined to be the first to build and fly a powered aircraft. They began their experiments using gliders and needed an isolated location that had a steady wind with rolling hills and long flat beaches for launching, flying and landing those gliders. After checking with the U.S. Weather Bureau, they chose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The postmaster at Kitty Hawk, and soon to be a light-keeper with the U.S. Lighthouse Service, William J. Tate, responded to the Wrights' queries by noting that Kitty Hawk was an excellent place for their experiments. He wrote, in a gracious invitation, that: "If you decide to try your machine here & come, I will take pleasure in doing all I can for your convenience & success & pleasure, & I assure you you will find a hospitable people when you come among us."
Wilbur arrived at Tate's front door on the morning of September 13, 1900 and the postmaster welcomed him into his home. Orville soon arrived and the brothers began putting together their first glider in the Tate's front yard, using Mrs. Tate's sewing machine to stitch together the glider's wing fabric. Mr. Tate later remembered what the locals thought of the two men from Ohio who dreamed of reaching for the sky:
Cranks or not the locals welcomed the Wrights to their isolated community and the brothers built a campsite on the beach and began gliding - to the amazement and delight of the residents. The brothers' experiments were successful that year and they returned each fall in the following years to test newer and larger gliders. After the 1902 season ended they were ready to begin construction of a powered flying machine.
The brothers arrived back in the Outer Banks in September of 1903 and began putting together their new flying machine while continuing to fly a glider. That year a surfman from the nearby Life-Saving Station at Kill Devil Hills, Adam Etheridge, along with his wife and child, visited the campsite. Etheridge's visit initiated a friendship between the Wrights and the keeper and crew of the station, a friendship that would provide these lifesavers with the opportunity to witness history.
The man in charge, known as a keeper and referred to as captain, was Jesse Etheridge Ward. Ward was born on Roanoke Island in 1856 and grew up on the Outer Banks. He had worked as a fisherman prior to joining the Life-Saving Service in 1880. Ward's first assignment was to the Seatack Lifesaving Station in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Later, the Service promoted him to keeper-in-charge of the Whales Head station (now known as Currituck Beach, North Carolina) on 21 February 1891. In October of 1899 he was transferred and made keeper of the Kill Devil Hills station.
Captain Ward's crewman, Will S. Dough, Adam D. Etheridge, Bob L. Wescott, John T. Daniels, Tom Beacham, and "Uncle Benny" O'Neal, were not quite sure what to make of these two men from the Midwest who never appeared in public in anything other than starched collars, ties, suits, and hats. But curiosity replaced the initial doubts once the surfmen watched the experiments. They also noted the kindness and respect shown to the local community by the brothers. Captain Ward, fascinated by the Wrights' attempts to make history, graciously agreed to help them. He even permitted his crew, when they were not on duty, to assist them when they were needed.
The surfman began helping out around camp and delivering mail. Surfman Etheridge noted:
Additionally the lifesavers gathered food and other supplies. Surfman Daniels later recalled: "Besides obtaining mail for the Wright Brothers, Coast Guardsmen often did marketing for them." The brothers reciprocated by inviting the surfmen to dine with them. Both of the men from Ohio, according to the tough Outerbanksmen, were excellent cooks.
The Kill Devil Hills crew by now became almost indispensable. The Wrights hung a red flag from their hangar to alert any off-duty surfman willing to lend a hand during the test flights. The surfmen helped assemble the aircraft, which became known as the Wright Flyer, and carried it to its launching rail that served as a primitive runway. They were, in fact, an aircraft ground crew.
Through fits and starts throughout the fall the brothers continued their preparations. Minor delays, however, including broken propeller shafts, postponed their first powered flight. Captain Ward transported the broken shafts in his launch from the Outer Banks to the coast for further shipment back to Dayton to be repaired. By early December the brothers and their machine were finally ready.
On December 14th the brothers tacked up the red flag. The surfman on duty in the station's lookout tower yelled down to the men not on duty that they were needed at the campsite. Orville wrote: "We were soon joined by J.T. Daniels, Robert Westcott, Thomas Beacham, W.S. Dough, and Uncle Benny O'Neal of the station, who helped us get the machine to the hill (Big Kill Devil Hill) a quarter of a mile away."
The lifesavers prepared the aircraft for launch under the watchful eyes of two local boys and a dog. The Wrights' decided who would fly the first flight by a coin-toss. Wilbur won and climbed on the lower wing. Then he fired up the small engine, frightening the two boys so much that they and the dog scampered away.
Before the barely-trained ground crew was ready, however, the Wright Flyer moved down the rail and quickly into the air - and then just as quickly back to earth. Wilbur had stalled it before gaining sufficient speed to achieve stable flight. The left wing struck the ground first, spinning the aircraft around and slightly damaging it. Wilbur cut the engine and emerged shaken but unhurt. But there were to be no more flights that day.
Wilbur and Orville spent December 15th repairing the machine and were ready to try again the following day but this time the weather proved to be uncooperative - there was no wind. On the morning of the following day, however, the brothers awoke to a cold but clear day and a steady 27-mile-per-hour wind, perfect flying weather. They once again tacked up the red flag and were soon joined by off-duty surfmen Etheridge, John Daniels and Will Dough.
Surfman Bob Westcott was on duty at the station preparing the mid-day meal but ran up to the top of the station's lookout tower and peered through a spyglass to watch the day's events. He became so engrossed in the activity that he forgot about the pancakes he left on the griddle--and they were consequently burned beyond recognition. Needless to say there was no lunch served at the station that day.
The men placed the flying machine on the monorail and then the brothers set the engine's ignition and turned the propellers. The engine coughed to life and the Wrights retired behind the whirling propellers and shook hands. One surfman recalled: "we couldn't help notice how they held on to each other's hand, sort o' like two folks parting who weren't sure they'd ever see one another again." This time it was Orville's chance to fly and he laid down on the lower wing. Wilbur set up his Korona-V glass-plate box camera, pointing the lens towards the end of the monorail in what he hoped would be the perfect location to capture the first moments of flight. He asked Daniels to assist him and told the surfman to depress a rubber bulb that activated the camera's shutter the instant the flying machine lifted into the air. Wilbur then hurried back to the machine.
Over the noise of the engine Wilbur shouted to the surfmen to "not to look too sad, but to. . .laugh and holler and clap. . .and try to cheer Orville up when he started" in an effort to calm the nervous pilot. At 10:35 the flying machine started down the monorail and after traveling forty feet it lifted into the air. Everyone let out a yelp of joy and Daniels pushed the rubber bulb, capturing the historic moment on a plate glass negative. Orville's first flight lasted all of twelve seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet - not much of a flight but enough to put the brothers in the history books.
The surfman then helped drag the Wright Flyer back to the start of the monorail three more times, with each flight lasting longer and covering more distance. The fourth flight was the longest, with the machine flying for over 852 feet in 59 seconds. It was slightly damaged after landing, however, and while the brothers discussed repairing it a strong gust of wind blew across the beach and threatened to flip the Flyer over. Surfman Daniels risked his life by jumping onto a wing to attempt to hold the Flyer down, but the wind gust was too much and lifted the machine and Daniels end over end. Daniels finally slipped free from the tumbling Flyer and fell 15 feet to the ground, injuring his ribs and getting a few bruises, but was otherwise intact. He remembered: "I found myself caught in them wires and the machine blowing across the beach heading for the ocean, landing first on one end and then on the other, rolling over and over, and me getting more tangled up in it all the time. I tell you, I was plumb scared."
Daniels was in one piece, but the Wright Flyer was too damaged to fly again without extensive repairs. So the surfmen helped the brothers carry it back to the hangar where they shipped the Flyer to Dayton. The Wrights thanked the men for their assistance, gave them copies of a photo they had taken of the surfmen in front of their station, and left them five dollars for their upcoming Christmas dinner. They also gave a Wright bicycle to Surfman Daniels and he used it for many years on his lonely patrols along the beach.
The story did not end there. The lifesavers continued to help the Wrights in later years when they returned for other experiments. These underpaid, brave and tough government employees became local heroes and were bombarded by the press during the anniversary celebrations over the next decades. Daniels even overcame his fear of flying during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first flight and took a ride as a passenger on board another revolutionary aircraft, a Coast Guard helicopter. Lieutenant Stewart Graham, USCG, (Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot #2) an aviation pioneer in his own right, was the pilot.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Tom Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1990.
F. C. Kelly, (Editor). Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: Straus and Young, 1951.
Lynanne Wescott & Paula Degen, Wind and Sand: The Story of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.
M. W. McFarland. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright: Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953.