Calendar Features

December 2003 Feature

Testimony to Flight

Wright brothers first flight

Surfman John T. Daniel snapped this picture when the Wright Flyer made its historic first flight, December 17, 1903. Orville flew as Wilbur watched. (165-WW-7B-6)

The centennial of the Wright brothers' first sustained flight on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, NC, is an exciting time at the National Archives because our holdings include many significant records relating to the Wright brothers and the development of aviation.

The National Archives is the repository for historical records of the Federal Government. Surprisingly, there are many Government agencies that have some connection with the Wright brothers and early aeronautical history. These agencies include the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the U.S. Weather Bureau, and the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics. Records at the National Archives include a 1908 contract between the Wrights and the U.S. Army Signal Corps for the army's first flying machine, the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics contracts with the Wright Company, and numerous motion pictures about the Wright brothers.

For the centennial celebration of the first flight, the records of the U.S. Life-Saving Service are especially notable, because the Life-Saving Station employees at the Kill Devil Hills Station were the eyewitnesses and helpmates for the December 17, 1903, flights. Life-Saving Stations were facilities set up along the coast to house special rescue workers trained to help with shipwrecks and maritime disasters. The employees were called surfmen because they retrieved shipwreck victims in lifeboats launched and beached through the surf, usually during fierce storms. In Orville Wright's account of the flights at Kitty Hawk, he credits the help the surfmen of the Life-Saving Station at Kill Devil Hills, and cites their names. These names are documented in the Life-Saving Service records at the National Archives.

Life Saving Crew Kill Devil Hills Four crew members of the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Station in 1900. At left is Robert L. Westcott; second from right is Benny O'Neal. (26-CGS-74-07-24(1))

The Wright brothers set up a camp about a mile from the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Service on September 25, 1903, so they could use the side of big Kill Devil Hill for launching their new flying machine. The surfmen brought them their mail and transported supplies to the camp, including lumber. The Wrights arranged a signal light to notify the surfmen when they needed assistance because the aircraft was too heavy for two people to handle. Surfmen John T. Daniels, Robert Westcott, William Beacham, W. S. Dough, and Benny O'Neal helped them get the flying machine to the hill on December 14 and witnessed Wilbur Wright's unsuccessful flying attempt that day.

Because the Wrights wanted a strong wind for their next test flight, they waited until the early morning of December 17 to signal the station. At the time of the flight, there was a 23–27 mile-an-hour wind, and it was bitterly cold. Soon, Surfmen Daniels, Dough, and Adam D. Etheridge arrived on the scene.

Wilbur and Orville flipped a coin to see who would fly first. At 10:35 a.m., as the plane left the ground, Daniels, using Orville's camera, took a photograph of the first plane in flight with Orville at the controls and Wilbur alongside. The Wrights made three more flights on December 17, each taking a turn as pilot. After the fourth flight, a sudden gust of wind rolled the machine over. Surfman Daniels, with Orville and Wilbur's help, tried to rescue the machine from the wind. Daniels was bruised in the attempt to save the machine, and the plane was seriously damaged, so no more flights were possible that day. The Wright brothers left the wings with Adam Etheridge and returned to Dayton, OH, with their engine.

As we celebrate the centennial of the beginning of flight, we can remember not only the daring pioneers in aviation technology such as the Wright Brothers but also the efforts of the employees of the Life-Saving Service who were the spectators and participants in the historic flight.

Although the Wright brothers were private individuals on a private endeavor, the Federal Government created records about their amazing accomplishments, and these records are now part of the legacy of flight at the National Archives.

Rebecca Livingston
Navy-Maritime Reference Archivist

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