(At least that’s what he told everybody.)
You’ve seen the photograph; black and white, a flimsy, almost frail device looking more kite than aircraft on a lonely beach, and the two brothers—one flying, one steadying the aeroplane.
It’s the photographic record of the world’s first powered flight—the most famous of the many photographs taken of the efforts and inventions of the Wright brothers over a hundred years ago.
That picture was taken by a member of a U.S. Lifesaving Station at Kill Devil Hills, John T. Daniels. A lifeguard.
On December 17th, 1903, Orville and Wilber completed some final minor repairs to their Wright Flyer, which had been damaged in an unsuccessful flying attempt a few days before. The Wright brothers raised a flag over their camp which notified the local U.S. Lifesaving Station that the brothers are going to try to launch their invention, and could use some assistance. Three crewmen from the life saving station, Daniels, Will Dough, and Adam Etheridge, came over to lend a hand. Two more local men, W.C. Binkley and John Moore, also showed up to help.
The Wright brothers were meticulous record keepers; they relied heavily on drawings, data reports, and photographs to record their experiments and observations, and to prepare for any future patent applications. They placed John Daniels at their camera, a Gundlach Korona V view camera on a tripod, to record any flying that day.
And Daniels took that first flying photo. His timing was perfect. The Wright Flyer was only in the air for 12 seconds. John T. Daniels captured that event for all time.
The Wright brothers flew three more times that day. The Wright Flyer was damaged slightly in a rough landing on the fourth flight, and was being returned to the storage shed/workshop for repairs when a sudden gust of wind picked up the plane, and sent it tumbling down the beach.
Daniels was holding on to the plane when the wind picked up the Flyer. North Carolina author, Willie Drye, related his version of Daniels’s story for National Geographic News: “John Daniels stubbornly hung on as the flyer overturned and so he was flung about, banging against the engine and propeller chains.
“When the flying machine finally stopped flipping, he was bruised and scraped but otherwise not hurt.
“For the rest of his life, he would take great delight in saying he’d survived the world’s first plane crash.”
The Wright Flyer was damaged after that wind gust, and never flew again. But the spirit of invention lived on with Wilbur and Orville. Their vision and precision, their courage and persistence, their experience in engineering traveled back to Dayton with the brothers, where they designed, fabricated, tested, and flew again in the skies over Huffman Prairie.
A lifeguard, John T. Daniels, took that first photo—and survived that first “crash.”
For the National Geographic version of John Daniels’s first encounters with flight, check out First Flight: How Wright Brothers Changed World Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books. Drye lives in Plymouth, North Carolina.