The first ground crew
It took the village of Kitty Hawk, N.C., to help the Wright brothers raise the plane that took the first sustained powered flight.
KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — For the 4,757 residents of Dare County, there was little indication that the third Thursday of December 1903 was going to be much different from other wintry days along the North Carolina coast.
Certainly most wouldn't have guessed that this would be the day that the little town of Kitty Hawk and 90-foot Kill Devil Hill, part of a nearby 26 acres of local dunes, would become almost as well known as New York or Washington.
Fewer still would have realized that they had played a possibly pivotal part in the historic event that captured the world's attention that day - the first sustained powered flight by a heavier-than-air machine.
The names of Orville and Wilbur Wright are synonymous with the birth of manned flight. But most of their local helpers became footnotes to history, if they're remembered at all.
Still, their descendants insist that the extensive aid of the North Carolinians may have made a difference in the success of the first sustained powered flight.
Without them, it certainly would have taken place much later than it did.
The Wrights had been experimenting with wooden gliders for the previous three years in this area along the Atlantic Ocean. From the beginning, they had called on local people for help. As the brothers from Ohio launched gliders from the dunes - about 1,000 flights in all - residents brought them food and mail, built sheds, and delivered needed lumber.
"Surfmen" - members of the Kill Devil Hills United States Lifesaving Service Station - held guide wires and ropes for many trial flights.
The leader of those men was Capt. Jesse Ward, who was in charge of the lifesaving station. Captain Ward was responsible for making a schedule that allowed him and his men to help the Wrights carry each of their gliders, which weighed from 50 to 600 pounds, up the steep sand dunes for test after test.
The brothers also entrusted him to ferry glider propeller shafts to Elizabeth City and to ship them back to Ohio for retooling.
On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers again called on the surfmen, this time to be witnesses to the day's events - just in case success was finally theirs.
Orville Wright set up a 5-by-7-inch glass-plate camera with a black drape cloth, a bellows, and a rubber bulb, which he asked surfman John T. Daniels to squeeze "if something interesting happened."
Mr. Daniels's photograph at the moment of liftoff put the brothers on the aviation map, says his grandson, John W. Daniels of Wingate, N.C. "The Wright brothers were nothing without the photographic proof ... my grandfather took."
"The scientific part of the Wright brothers' flights were developed by them," says Bill Harris, mayor of Kitty Hawk. "But the Wrights did depend on locals to bring them supplies from Elizabeth City," at that time a long and treacherous boat trip down the coast. "I doubt if the Wrights could have launched [the historic] plane without the locals' help."
His view is a common one among descendants of the early residents.
The flight might not have happened if "it not been for the men who lifted the plane and put it on the track," says Grace Daniels, recounting what her father-in-law, John T. Daniels, had told her about it.
The steel rail rack the Wrights had rigged up for launching their gliders was constructed of three 10-foot-long boards and a 10-foot steel beam with bicycle wheels that rested on the track to allow movement. "It took several of those lifesavers to put it on the track," Mrs. Daniels adds. "Two men couldn't have done it by themselves."
For the surfmen, working with the Wrights "was hush-hush at the time, because they would get terminated from their jobs for not being on duty," says Ward's great-grandson Jesse E. Ward III, of Richmond, Va.
Although those in the Outer Banks area were willing to pitch in and help the Wrights, Mayor Harris suspects that villagers of the time did not fully apprehend the historic importance of the experimental flights.
The brothers' gliders "were kites to [residents], and kites were play toys," he says. "And the locals were too concerned with living day to day to tell the world about the Wrights and their experiments."
As he was growing up, talk of the Wrights' experiments "just never came up in [household] conversation," says Daniel (Grady) Tate.
No one made a big deal about Mr. Tate's father, Tom, getting to fly on the Wrights' 1900 glider when Tom was 12 years old. Nor did the family fuss about his uncle Bill Tate, who wrote one of the letters that convinced the Wrights that the area's tall dunes were the place for their historic experiments and who housed them for the early part of 1900.
And few details were mentioned about Grady Tate's grandfather, Dan Tate, whom the Wrights employed to watch the dune camp that housed parts of their gliders until they returned each year.
But Mrs. Daniels remembers her father-in-law describing how he watched the Wrights "mimicking the birds to see if they could understand how birds flew," she says. "They would run along the sand dunes and wave their arms up and down and move as the birds changed their flight direction."
John T. Daniels "thought the Wright brothers were fine gentlemen, educated men," she adds. "But he didn't consider he'd made any great contribution [to their efforts]."
At first, the local Western Union telegraph operator, Alpheus Drinkwater, thought the Wrights were "little more than bicycle mechanics from Dayton," said his daughter, Marguerite Booth.
Mrs. Booth, who still lives a short drive west of Kitty Hawk in Manteo, said her father thought their "contraptions looked like cheesecloth-covered machines."
Mr. Drinkwater may have been skeptical at first, but his attitude changed when the news of the first flight came to his door. Drinkwater sent a telegraph message from the brothers to alert their family and the outside world that their flight had been successful.
It was the birth of modern aviation - in a then-remote section of coastal North Carolina.
Approximately 10 descendants of Kitty Hawk residents who aided the Wrights in their quest will reenact the first successful powered flight for the First Flight Centennial Celebration on Dec. 17 at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk. Most of the reenactors are descendants of surfmen.
Proving to be as helpful in the Wright centennial as his grandfather was to the famed aviators, Mr. Ward tracked down the descendants and organized the reenactment. He also researched details such as the navy-blue wool uniforms the surfmen wore and had replicas of the garments tailored for the participants.
• For more information on the First Flight Centennial Celebration activities, which take place Dec. 12-17, see www.firstflight centennial.org.