History Hacks by Brad Dyson

Daniels' first photograph (restored) was the first flight of the Wright Flyer in 1903, the first instance of powered flight. Daniels died Jan. 31, 1948, one day after Orville Wright's passing.

John T. Daniels, his claim to fame

John T. Daniels, known as John T. to distinguish him from his father who was also John T. Daniels, accidentally became a part of history. He never sought fame or fortune, he was just helping out. Until December 17, 1902, no one had ever flown an airplane. Up until this time, only a handful of people had ever successfully flown and landed gliders. Most flights ended in crashes. Many so-called daredevils died trying. Gliders and airplanes differ in that gliders are in a constant state of controlled fall and rely on gusts of wind or a pocket of rising air to increase altitude. Airplanes, on the other hand, have engines and can, under their own power, climb, turn, and descend.

Controlled human flight, a dream of man since he first saw birds flying in the sky, was thought to be impossible by most people. Even today, over 100 years later, some people still say that if God had wanted us to fly he would have given us wings. That all changed on December December 17, 1902, when Orville and Wilbur Wright took turns launching, flying, and landing their “Flyer.” But John T. is not remembered for the Wright Brothers successful flight which made the impossible possible.

He is remembered for something that happened only a few seconds after Wilbur took the “Flyer” on the last flight of the day. John T. was a local at Kitty Hawk who lent a hand to anyone who needed it. In fact, he helped Orville and Wilbur launch the “Flyer” on several occasions. As Orville and Wilbur refused to allow anyone else to actually work on their flying machines, most of the tasks that John T. helped with consisted of moving things, holding things, and retrieving things. But John T. didn’t mind. Like the other dozen or so people who had witnessed their impossible feats, John T. was curious and amazed. But John T. isn’t remembered for something that went right, he is remembered for something that went wrong.

Wilbur had just landed the “Flyer” on what became the last flight of the day. He stepped off the airplane and was discussing the flight with Orville. John T. was holding one of the upright rudders on the “Flyer” listening to the discussion when a strong wind seemed to come from nowhere. This massive gust of wind lifted the “Flyer” off the ground and sent it flying. Without someone at the controls the “Flyer” quickly spun out of control and tumbled end over end. John T. had no time to react and his grip was strong. He went tumbling with the “Flyer.”

When he realized what was happening he tried to let go but he was tangled in the chain and numerous other support cables. The “Flyer” continued to tumble across the landscape and carried John T. with it. Finally, John T. came loose from the chain and cables and fell free from the “Flyer.” It continued to tumble and came to a stop a few feet from where John T. was laying.

The accident had only lasted a few seconds but to John T. it seemed like hours. The “Flyer” was a delicate machine and it would certainly need a lot of repairs. But what about John T.? The human body is a delicate machine as well. Orville and Wilbur rushed to the spot where John T. was laying and they feared the worst.

They checked him over. John T. was conscious. He was coherent. They could find no blood and only a few bruises.

Without ever intending to ride in an airplane, John T. Daniels,… John T., had just survived the first ever airplane crash.