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What was the Coast Guard’s role in the world's first heavier than air flight, made by the Wright Brothers, on 17 December 1903?


The Wright Brothers First Flight

The most famous aviation photograph ever taken.  The Wright biplane, piloted by Orville Wright, has just taken off from a monorail launching strip on a field at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 17 December 1903.   Wilbur Wright, running along the right side of the aircraft, held onto the wing to balance the machine until it left the monorail.  This is the only photograph of the world's first flight in a power driven heavier than air machine, which was invented by Wilbur and Orville Wright.  This picture was taken for the Wright Brothers, and posterity, by Surfman J. T. Daniels, a member of the crew of the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station.  He and the other members of the crew assisted the brothers as described in the following article.  More importantly, they acted as eyewitnesses to the flight.  Who better to verify the flight than five employees of the U.S. Government?

Orville Wright wrote, in an article entitled "How We Made The First Flight,":

"We had arranged with the members of the Kill Devil Life-Saving Station, which was located a little over a mile from our camp, to inform them when we were ready to make the first trial of the machine.  We were soon joined by J. T. Daniels, Robert Westcott, Thomas Beacham, W. S. Dough, and Uncle Benny O'Neal of the station, who helped us to get the machine to the hill [Big Kill Devil Hill] a quarter of a mile away [This was the first trial flight which proved to be unsuccessful]. . .

During the night of December 16, 1903, a strong cold wind blew from the north.  When we arose on the morning of the 17th, the puddles of water which had been standing about the camp since the recent rains, were covered with ice.  The wind had a velocity of 10 or 12 meters per second [22 to 27 miles an hour].  We thought it would die down before long and so remained indoors the early part of the morning.   But when 10:00 o'clock arrived and the wind was as brisk as ever, we decided we had better get the machine out and attempt a flight.  We hung out the signal for the men of the life-saving stations.  By the time all was ready, J. T. Daniels, W. S. Dough, and A. D. Etheridge, members of the Kill Devil Life-Saving Station, W. C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Johnny Moore, a boy from Nags Head, had arrived.  One of the life-saving men snapped the camera for us, taking a picture just as the machine had reached the end of the track and had risen to a height of about 2 feet.  This flight lasted only 12 seconds, but nevertheless it was the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power in the air in full flight, and sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started."

In a statement made 32 years later on 12 March 1935, Mr. J. T. Daniels, then a member of the Nags Head Coast Guard Station, said that all he knew about the machine was that, in 1902, the Wrights were using a glider, which they used until 1903, when they made the machine and "put power in it."  He stated:

"Orville Wright made the first flight in the plane with the power in it, between then and eleven o'clock, the 17th of December, 1903, and he went some 100 feet.  Then we carried it back on the hill and put it on the track and Mr. Wilbur Wright got in the machine and went about one half mile out across the beach towards the ocean.  Then we carried the machine back to camp and set it down and the wind breezed up and blew it over and just smashed it to pieces with me hanging on to it.  The way they decided who was to make the first flight was as they were talking, Wilbur and Orville walked aside and flipped a coin, and Orville won the toss and he made the first flight."

Mr. A. D. Etheridge who was at the Nags Head Lifesaving Station on March 12, 1935, gave a few more details on the preparation for the flight in 1903 when he was stationed at the Kill Devil Lifesaving Station:

"We assisted in every way and I hauled the lumber for the camp.   We really helped around there hauling timber and carrying mail out to them each day.  It would come from Kitty Hawk by patrol each night.  In pretty weather we would be out there while they were gliding, watching them.  Then after they began to assemble the machine in the house, they would let us in and we began to become interested in carrying the mail just to look on and see what they were doing.  They did not mind us at all because they knew where we were from and know us.  We inquired what day they expected to fly.  Finally they told us the day.  Finally, on this day, the 17th of December, Daniels, Dough and myself were out there helping to get the machine out of the camp out on the track.  They started the motor, testing it out for quite a while.  Finally, they got to talking about getting together about flying and got it ready to turn loose.  Finally, they decided to try the flight and then they went on just about the way you have been told by Daniels.  They talked matters over---how delighted they were in what they had done in their flights and were expecting to try it---the machine---over and they gave up right then an packed up and went home.  They said they were very well satisfied with what they had done.  At that time they assembled everything they wanted to take away.  They said they were going to take the engine back with them and the wings of the plane they left with me.  Later I got a letter from a man in Philadelphia telling that Wilbur had written and told him that I had the old plane and that he wanted to buy it if I would dispose of it; so I wrote him a letter that I would sell it to him for $25.00.  He sent me a check for it, and it is right here that I lost a fortune if I had kept it."

The crew of the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station

The crew of the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, circa 1903.   These men provided critical assistance to the Wright Brothers during their historic flight on 17 December 1903.  (Left to Right) Keeper Jesse E. Ward, Surfman William Thomas Beacham; Surfman A. D. Etheridge (?), Surfman John T. Daniels, and Surfman W. S. Dough.

Was there a "lighthouse connection" to the Wright Brothers flight?

A lighthouse keeper of the former Lighthouse Service, another fore-runner of the Coast Guard, also made claim to assisting the Wright brothers.  An article in the 2 January 1929 Lighthouse Service Bulletin (Vol. III, No. 61, pp. 272-273) explained:

"On December 17, 1928, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first successful airplane flight, made by the Wright brothers, was commemorated by the laying of the corner stone for a national monument, which it is proposed will be surmounted by a light, on the summit of Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, NC, the point from which the Wrights started their gliding flights.  One of the active participants in these ceremonies was W. J. Tate, now keeper of Currituck Sound Lights, who assisted the Wright brothers in many ways during the period of their earliest flights at Kitty Hawk from 1900 to 1903.  Keeper Tate at that time lived at Kitty Hawk, and he has many interesting recollections and documents concerning those now historic events.

The first inquiries of the Wrights regarding Kitty Hawk were addressed to the postmaster.  Mr. Tate, acting for his wife who was then the postmistress, sent them full reports as to weather conditions and the lay of the land, on the basis of which Wilbur Wright came to Kitty Hawk on September 12, 1900.  He and his brother boarded with the Tates during their first stay in the vicinity.  Even today Kitty Hawk is a remote and comparatively inaccessible locality, but then it was reached by Wilbur Wright only after a 3-day trip in a 'miserable little flat-bottomed schooner'  called the Curlicue, and upon his arrival at Captain Tate's home he had been without food for 48 hours.

Keeper Tate states in a commemorative booklet compiled by him for the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first successful airplane flight:

     The mental attitude of the natives toward the Wrights was that they were a simple pair of harmless cranks that were wasting their time at a fool attempt to do something that was impossible.  The chief argument against their success could be heard at the stores and post office, and ran something like this: 'God didn't intend man to fly.  If He did He would have given him a set of wings on his shoulders.  No, siree, nobody need not try to do what God didn't intend for him to do.'

     I recall, not once, but many times, that when I cited the fact that other things as wonderful had been accomplished, I was quickly told that I was a 'Darned sight crazier than the Wrights were.'

It was in Tate's yard at Kitty Hawk that the first experimental glider was assembled in 1900; concerning this Orville Wright wrote to Mr. Tate on November 30, 1927, as follows:

     All of the parts were built in Dayton and shipped to Kitty Hawk, excepting four spars, which were made and shipped in from Norfolk.  The ribs, struts, hinges, and end bows were all built complete at our shop in Dayton.  The wing coverings were also cut and sewed in Dayton, but on account of Wilbur's inability to get 20-foot spars at Norfolk, a change was necessary in the coverings.  I remember he said this work was done on Mrs. Tate's sewing machine.

In another letter he wrote:

     I do not think that the Department of Justice would expect you to know as much about our other machines as you do about the first one, because you saw more of the first one.  As I remember, when we came back to Kitty Hawk in 1901, Irene and Pauline were wearing dresses made from the sateen wing coverings of our first machine.

Mr. Tate frequently assisted the Wrights in the launching of the glider, and in many of the experiments of 1900 and 1901.  At the spot in this yard where the first glider was set up, there was unveiled on May 2, 1928, a commemorative marker constructed with contributions made solely by the citizens of Kitty Hawk, to whom the Wright brothers had endeared themselves during those years of trial and frequent discouragement.  Mr. Tate says:

     Ask any person who knew them and you will be told that they were two of the finest men that ever honored our community with their presence.  Their uniform kindness to everyone, their lack of that disposition of holding themselves aloof and above the ordinary man as well as their disposition always at all times to be ready to render every courtesy to everyone, no matter how humble or unlettered, endeared these men to our coast people forever.  Proud fathers have named their sons after them, and the names Wilbur and Orville will endure forever on our section of the North Carolina coastland.

To aid in the location of the exact spots to be marked, and insure historical correctness, keeper Tate this year got together all living eye-witnesses of the first flight, and assembled all available information.

Keeper Tate has kept up his friendship with Orville Wright, and his interest in matters pertaining to aviation.  He was the first to make an inspection of navigational lights by airplane, in 1920, his son-in-law being an aviator; he has a number of times rendered assistance to aviators in distress, and has rescued disabled airplanes in the vicinity of his station."

Last Modified 1/12/2016