Lifesavers Serve As Wright Brothers’ Flight Support Crew

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

Life Saving Stations Established

Before the turn of the century, there were many ships (some estimate thousands) wrecked on the sandbars off the shore of the Outer Banks, N.C. The carnage justified the name, Graveyard of the Atlantic.

In 1874, in an effort to cut shipping losses and loss of life, Congress provided funds to establish a series of lifesaving stations along the coast. Initially there were seven, which included one at Kitty Hawk and later eleven more were built, which included one at Kill Devil Hills. The stations were manned by dedicated men who risked their own lives to save those who were shipwrecked.

Beginning with their first visit to Kitty Hawk in 1900, the Wrights developed a friendship with the lifesavers. Orville and Wilbur often visited them and the lifesavers were a major help in conducting their flight experiments.

The lifesavers helped carry the gliders up the sand dunes, ferried Wright associates and packages to and from Manteo and other numerous helpful tasks. In short, they became a vital part of the daily lives of the Wrights.

On the surface they couldn’t have been more different. The lifesavers were fisherman, day laborers and farmers. Many were illiterate. The Wrights were city boys and educated. Beyond these differences, there were compelling similarities. All the men were disciplined and engaged in a dangerous occupation. Whatever it was, they enjoyed each other’s company. It may have been this mix of similarities and dissimilarities that provided the fuel to enjoy each other’s company.

Lifesavers Involved in Success Of First Flight

The landmark year of 1903 saw much activity from the lifesaving crew with the Wrights. On December 13, the Wrights were ready for their first attempt of powered flight. As was the usual practice, they flew a red flag as a signal to the lifesaving station at Kill Devil Hills, which was about a mile away, that they were about to fly.

Soon, Bob Wescott, John Daniels, Tom Beacham, Willie Dough and Uncle Benny O’Neal arrived (there is some doubt on whether O’Neal was a lifesaver). Also, two boys and a dog accompanied them. Three of the men helped push the Flyer 150 feet up the lower slope of Big Kill Devil Hill to get ready for the attempt.

When the engine started, it made such a loud racket that the boys and their dog ran away.

Wilbur successfully lifted off the ground, but stalled the machine and made a hard landing after a 3-1/2 second, approximately 60-foot flight. They would have to try again.

On December 17, they were ready. This time the red signal flag attracted John Daniels, Willie Dough, and Adam Etheridge from the lifesaving station, and in addition W. C. Brinkley, a lumber merchant, and a 16-year old boy. All of these people witnessed the historic first flight. In addition, Bob Wescott, on duty at the Kill Devil Hills Station, witnessed the first flight using a spyglass, as did S. J. Payne four miles away at the Kitty Hawk Station.

Lifesaver John Daniels snapped the famous classic picture of the Flyer just as it took-off on its own power from the launching rail. It was the first picture he had ever taken and reportedly his last.

Telegraph Success

After the fourth flight of the day, the Wrights ate lunch and then walked the four miles to the Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station to send a telegram home to their father to report their success. The station had the only telegraph on Kitty Hawk at the time. Joe Dosher, who manned the Weather Bureau office at the station telegraphed the news to the weather bureau headquarters office at Norfolk who in turn in turn passed the information to a Western Union operator for transmission to Dayton.

The Black Pelican

In 1915, the U.S. Lifesaving Service became the U.S. Coast Guard. New, larger facilities were built along the beach and the older stations were used as boathouses. Most are now gone.

The one at Kill Devil Hills was privately purchased and moved north to Corolla. The one at Kitty Hawk still exists at its original location. It is now operating as the Black Pelican Seafood Restaurant.

The original old building is an integral part of the expanded restaurant. The main dining room is where Dosher telegraphed the news of their flights and where the Wrights obtained information on temperature and wind velocity for their experiments. The original gothic structure has survived numerous hurricanes and noreasters since it was built during the summer of 1874. The restaurant is located on Virginia Dare Drive at mile marker 4.

The Historic First Flight

By 1903, the Wright Brothers were confident that they had unlocked the secret of flight. They had spent 55 months researching, testing and designing their airplane, the Wright Flyer, in Dayton, Ohio, and Kitty Hawk, NC. Now they had one goal and that was to get the powered machine off the ground in sustained and controlled flight.

There was still much work to do to fine-tune the machine. The machine was built on close margins. The simple, but lightweight, gasoline engine was particularly temperamental. The first one they built had blown-up. Later, during testing at Kitty Hawk, the vibrations from the rough-running engine damaged the propeller shafts that necessitated sending them back to Dayton twice for repair.

New Building

They had left Dayton on September 23rd and arrived at big Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk on the 25th. They found the building they had built in 1901 and enlarged in 1902 had been blown off its foundation and moved several feet nearer the ocean. They set about repairing the damaged building to serve as their home and erecting a new second building to serve as a workshop for assembling and housing the Flyer.

Shortly after completing the work on the buildings, a storm arrived with winds up to 75 miles per hour. The tarpaper on the roof began to peel off, requiring emergency repairs to save the roof.

Wilbur describes the incident. “Orville put on my heavy overcoat, and grabbing the ladder sallied forth from the south end of the building. —- I sallied out to help him and after a tussle with the wind found him at the north end ready to set up the ladder. He quickly mounted to the edge of the roof when the wind caught under his coat and folded it back over his head. As the hammer and nails were in his pocket and up over his head he was unable to get his hands on them or to pull his coattails down, so he was compelled to descend again. The next time he put the nails in his mouth and took the hammer in his hand and I followed him up the ladder hanging on to his coattails. He swatted around a good little while trying to get a few nails in, and I became impatient for I had only my common coat on and was getting well soaked. He explained afterward that the wind kept blowing the hammer around so that three licks out of four hit the roof or his fingers instead of the nail.”

They found the 1902 glider they had left behind in relatively good shape and with some repairs ready to fly. They decided to use the glider to practice their flying on good days and work on the new machine on rainy and calm days.

They were determined not to return home until they had flown their Flyer at least once. But, testing and repair dragged on into December.

Weather Turns Cold

By then, the weather turned cold and winds were blustery. Orville wrote home to his sister Katharine:

“In addition to the classification of last year, to wit, 1,2,3 and 4 blanket nights, we now have 5 blanket nights, & 5 blankets & 2 quilts. Next comes 5 blankets, 2 quilts & fire; then 5, 2, fire & hot-water jug. This is as far as we have gone so far. Next comes the addition of sleeping without undressing, then shoes & hats, and finally overcoats.”

More Problems

It was early November before the machine was assembled and the engine and propellers were tested. It wasn’t long before problems developed.

During the first test of the machine, the engine ran roughly and the sprockets on the propeller shaft came loose. The resulting vibration damaged the propeller shafts and they had to be mailed back to Dayton for repairs on November 5.

The repaired shafts were received back at Kitty Hawk on November 20.

The problem of the sprockets shaking loose remained. The nuts kept coming loose from the bolts. They found a solution from their bicycle experience. They glued the sprockets on the shaft with tire cement named Arnstein’s Hard Cement.

Orville wrote, “We stuck those sprockets so tight I doubt they will ever come loose again.”

Then while running the engine on November 28, the shafts broke again. This time Orville took them himself to Dayton where he decided to make new shafts out of solid spring-steel. The previous shafts were tubular. The new shafts were smaller and would allow for spring that would absorb some of the vibration that was causing problems.

The First Attempt

Finally on December 14 they were ready to try again. It was a beautiful day. There was only one problem. There was no wind.

To compensate for the lack of wind, they decided to lay their so-called “Junction Railroad,” a 60-foot monorail made of “2 by 4s,” 150 feet up the lower slope of Big Kill Devil Hill. The 9-degree slope would take advantage of gravity and give the machine a faster start.

They flew a large red flag signaling that they were about to fly and could use some help from the men at the Kill Devil Hill Life-Saving Station located about a mile away. Five men and two boys arrived. When the engine started-up, it made such a loud racket that the two boys ran away, having been startled by the loud noise.

A coin was flipped and Wilbur won the toss to be the pilot. Orville walked to the right wing tip to steady the machine. Wilbur pulled the restraining rope to release the machine, but nothing happened. The pressure of the machine resting against the restraint prevented the release from working.

Three of the volunteers pushed the machine uphill releasing the restraint. Immediately, the machine started down the track faster than expected. Orville, steadying the right wing, couldn’t keep up. Wilbur pulled the elevator to the up position to take-off. The machine climbed steeply, stalled, and then nosed down. The left wing struck the ground swinging the machine around until the front skids hit the sand hard enough to splinter one of the elevator supports. Wilbur was shook-up, but uninjured.

The machine actually flew for 3 1/2 seconds rose to a height of 15 feet and traveled for a distance of about 60 feet, but a short duration flight that stalled and ended with a crash landing didn’t qualify as a successful flight. The Wrights were not discouraged because this was their first attempt at flying the machine and pilot error was to be expected.

Wilbur wrote to his father, “The power is ample, and but for a trifling error to lack of experience — the machine would have undoubtedly have flown beautifully.”

It would take a couple of days to make repairs and they would be ready to try again. They were ready on Sunday, the 16th, but they had promised their father that they would not fly on Sunday.

The Second Attempt

Orville and Wilbur were up early on Monday December 17, 1903. They didn’t try to fly the day before because it was Sunday and they had promised their father that they wouldn’t fly on Sunday. The day was cold and clear. The wind was blowing off the ocean with gusts up to 27 miles per hour. It was cold and the wind chill factor was a cold 4 degrees. Puddles of water were covered with thin layers of ice. The conditions for flying were not good.

Orville, looking back after years of experience commented,

“I look with amazement upon our audacity in attempting flights with a new and untried machine under such circumstances.”

But they were anxious to return home by Christmas. Besides, they were confident and impatient to try again.

Bill Tate, the postmaster at Kitty Hawk whose letter back in 1900 convinced the Wrights to come to Kitty Hawk, didn’t think it was a good enough day to fly. So, when the Wrights tacked up the signal flag announcing they were going to fly, Tate neglected to see it, thus missing the event of the century.

Those who did arrive were John T. Daniels, Willie Dough, and Adam Etheridge of the Lifesaving Station, lumber merchant W. C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Johnny Moore, a 16 year old boy from Nags Head.

By ten-thirty, the Flyer was ready at the head of the launch monorail. This time they laid the 60-foot rail on flat ground at the bottom of Kill Devil Hill so that it didn’t accelerate as fast as it had done on the previous attempt. Anyway, they wouldn’t need the extra start provided by the slope. The high wind would provide plenty of lift.

Orville and Wilbur went to the rear of the machine and pulled the propellers through in unison. The engine started. They shook hands. One witness said it was the shake of friends who may not see each other for awhile.

It was Orville’s turn to be the pilot. He climbed into place beside the engine, prone in a saddle on the lower wing. He moved his hips side-to-side to check out the operation of the wing-warping mechanism and the rudder. He checked the movement of the elevator. Everything seemed in order.

Orville earlier had set up a tripod with a box camera to record the event. He showed John Daniels how and when to snap the shutter. Daniels had never taken a picture with a camera before, nor did he after.

The First Flight

Wilbur moved to the right wing tip to steady the plane as it moved along the rail. Orville flipped the gadget on the bottom of the leading edge of the wing that released the machine. The 605-pound machine powered by a four-cylinder, 12 horsepower gasoline engine, accelerated along the rail for about 40-feet and lifted into the air.

Orville, like Wilbur, had trouble piloting the machine.

“I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other.”

“As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder (elevator) dart for the ground.”

In such an undulating flight path, Orville managed to travel a distance of 120-feet in 12 seconds before landing on the sand. The strong headwind of 27-mph headwind resulted in a groundspeed of 6.8 mph.

It was the first time that a powered machine under control of a pilot flew in the air and landed at a point as high as its takeoff elevation. When compared with a Boeing 747, the flight went no higher than the 747’s nose and traveled slightly further than half of its wing span.

Daniels, stationed at the camera, was so excited he couldn’t remember whether he had snapped the picture. It turned out that he had taken a perfect picture. The classic picture of the first flight shows Wilbur running along the right side of the airplane just as it took off.

The brothers alternately flew three more times that day. The second attempt was 175 feet; the third attempt wasn’t much better but did fly for 200 feet. By now they were starting to get the hang of flying. The fourth and last flight Wilbur flew 852 feet lasting 59-seconds. He could have gone farther but he didn’t clear a sand bank. After removing the front rudder they returned to camp.

Flyer Damaged by Gust of Wing

After the last record breaking flight, they were so excited they forgot to tie the machine down. The oversight would change their plans for additional flights.

A sudden gust of wind caught a wing and started to turn it over. Orville and Daniels tried to hold the machine to no avail. Orville let lose, but Daniels hung on too long and got caught in the wires, wood and cloth as the machine tumbled over the sand. The engine broke loose as the machine collapsed around Daniels. Fortunately, Daniels was shook-up but not injured. Orville wrote his escape was miraculous. Daniels later said that he flew the 5th flight that day.

The 1903 Flyer never flew again.

Wilbur and Orville cooked lunch and washed the dishes. After lunch the brothers walked to the weather station in Kitty Hawk four miles away.

Orville handed a message to Dosher, in charge of the Kitty Hawk station. The understated telegram to the bishop, read:

“Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty-one mile wind Started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty-one miles longest 57 seconds inform press home Christmas.” Orevelle Wright

Through an error in transmission the telegram gave the time of the longest flight as 57 seconds; the correct time was 59 seconds. Also, the telegram gave the wind speed as 21 mph rather than 27 mph. What Orville meant was that the wind was at least 21 mph. Also, his name was misspelled.

Carrie, the Wrights’ housekeeper signed for the telegram when it arrived at Hawthorn Hill in Dayton. She immediately took it upstairs and gave it to Milton Wright. A short time later he came downstairs and said to Carrie and Katharine, “Well, the boys have made a flight.”

Katharine rushed to Lorin’s house and gave him the telegram who in turn took it to the Dayton Journal and showed it to city editor Frank Junison, who represented the Associated Press.

Junison didn’t think a flight of less than a minute was newsworthy enough to be printed in the newspaper the next day. He seemed annoyed that he was bothered about such nonsense.

For the Wrights, they were happy because “Will” would be on hand to stuff the Christmas turkey.

There were others that were not impressed. The respected Octave Chanute thought this was just one more step towards solving the problem of flight. The great inventor, Alexander Graham Bell thought there was a safer way for man one day to fly.

Today, the 1903 Wright Flyer is displayed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Previous post:

Next post: