My grandmother, Martha Etheridge, told me as a boy that as a young woman in 1902, she traveled with a group from Wanchese by boat to Colington, where they hitched a ride by horse drawn wagon to the grounds at today's Wright Memorial where the Wrights were flying gliders to both teach themselves to fly as well as establish the basis for flight design for the "Wright Flyer." That craft is the famous flying machine used to make history the following year and which now hangs from the building at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The brothers spent two to four months each of four years from 1900-1903 refining their work on the site for the flight. Grandma Martha also told me that on my grandfather's side, a cousin served on the ground crew of the final flight day for the Wright's. His name was Adam Etheridge and family ancestry records would show him as growing up in Kitty Hawk, probably a first cousin to my great-grandfather.
Here are the names of the men who served as ground assistants in a volunteer capacity. Nearly all of them were lifesavers, a tough breed of strong men, many not even able to read, but all had a keen insight about danger and the Wright's admired that in them. First, here's the list of those who participated in the first day of flight, December 13, 1903: Bob Wescott, John T. Daniels, Tom Beacham, Willie Dough and "Uncle" Benny O'Neal. All but O'Neal were lifesavers stationed at the oceanfront Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station (O'Neal's status was never fully determined) and they knew when the red flag flew from the flight site that they were needed for help. In addition to those identified, there were two boys and a dog on sight witnessing as well, but when the loud noise of the engine began, the boys and the dog ran away. Wilbur flew successfully for only sixty feet, the flight was very difficult to control and crashed after only three and one half seconds in air.
The next and final day of flight occurred four days later, delayed to make a few repairs from the crash. The lifesaving crew was slightly different this time, with Daniels and Dough accompanying another lifesaver from the station, Adam Etheridge as well as lumber dealer W.C. Brinkley. The day's crew pushed the "Flyer" up the slight inclined track of one hundred fifteen feet before being released under pilot Orville Wright who rose and fell like before, but this time staying in the air for one hundred twenty feet and twelve seconds in air. Three more flights would be conducted that day, each better than the day before until on the last one the soon to be famous aircraft would cover eight hundred and fifty-two feet and stay in the air for fifty nine seconds. Shortly thereafter, a telegram was dispatched from the Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station, the only active telegraph on the beach, to both the Norfolk and the Dayton, Ohio newspaper in their hometown.
Imagine the thrill that those lifesavers must have felt when they realized they were now part of history. And it's ironic that men like the Wrights, considered weird weird or strange by most, built such a bond with those men of the sea on a windswept stretch of sand by the ocean which would ultimately earn the title: "Birthplace of Aviation." It took quite a while for many to recognize just what their efforts meant, at the time it took place many editors wouldn't even print the story, thinking it to be insignificant. But today, thousands each year pay tribute to the Wrights when they visit the site and the large and grand memorial that bears their name. It added an interesting air rendition to the seafaring history of those glorious Outer Banks.