John T. Daniels was one of the three men from the Life Saving Station at Kill Devil Hills that helped the Wright brothers launch the Flyer on its first flight on December 17, 1903.
Daniels became famous, as he is the one that snapped the famous picture of that first flight. He had never taken a picture before but it turned out to be a perfect photograph.
He was also famous for trying to save the flyer after it was caught by the wind while it was sitting on the ground after the fourth flight that day. A sudden gust of wind sent Orville and Daniels scrambling to catch the Flyer. They were too late, Orville let go but Daniels was caught up and trapped inside the structure as the machine was sent tumbling over the sand. The Flyer ended up being smashed into a tangled wreck.
Daniels emerged dazed but not seriously hurt still holding on to a piece of the strut he had grabbed. Daniels held on to this piece of wood all of his life. As he told the story to others he would take a penknife and shave off a piece of wood and hand it to others as a souvenir. He had great fun saying that he was the first airplane casualty.
John Daniels’ eyewitness handwritten account of the First Flight may be the only one made other than that of the Wright brothers.
Here is his letter to a friend describing what he saw just as he wrote it. The letter was written 20 years after the famous event and Daniels confused some of the events that occurred on Dec. 17th with events that occurred on the 14th. The coin toss he describes occurred on the 14th.
June 30 —- 1933
I Don’t know very much to write about the flight. I was there, and it was on Dec the 17, — 1903 about 10 o’clock. They carried the machine up on the Hill and Put her on the track, and started the engine, and they through a coin to see who should take the first go, so it fell on Mr. Orval, and he went about 100 feet or more, and then Mr. Wilbur taken the machine up on the Hill and Put her on the track and he went off across the Beach about a half a mile or more before he came Down. He flew so close to the top of a little hill the he Pulled the Rudder off so we had to Bring her back to the camp, and it was there I got tangled up in the machine and she Blew off across the Beach with me hanging in it, and she went all to Pieces. It Didn’t Hurt me much I got bruised me some. They Packed up every thing and went home at Dayton. That ended the Day. I snapped the first Picture of a Plain that ever flew. They were very nice men and we all enjoyed Being out at the Camp with them mostly every Day.
That accident made me the first airoplane causiality in the world and I have Piece of the upright that I was holding on to when It fell.
Would be glad to Render any informattion at any time you need it.
John T. Daniels