I Saw Kitty Hawk: Film, Memory, and Archives
December 17th marks the 110th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk. To celebrate the day, our colleagues in the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab have shared I Saw Kitty Hawk, featuring a first-hand account from a man who claimed to be present at the first Wright brothers flight:
The man is not identified in the film, and there is no further information in the production file. However, a little research turned up this 1962 article with details similar enough that we can reasonably say that this is Frank B. Wood. According to Wood’s story, he and automobile racing pioneer Barney Oldfield were present for the Wright brothers’ earliest flights in Kitty Hawk.
Wood’s story, although compelling, is not without critics. In First in Flight: The Wright Brothers in North Carolina, author Stephen Kirk disputes Wood’s version of events.
Certainly, there are elements of Frank Wood’s story that seem more likely to be embellishment, like his claim that it was Barney Oldfield that made a crucial suggestion to change the wing that made the December 17th flight possible. But which parts are fact and which are fiction?
Perhaps we can explain the discrepancies with the adage (commonly attributed to Mark Twain) that advises one should “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” In the case of the making of this little Air Force film, it could be that Wood’s account was too interesting to spend much time fact-checking. Maybe we don’t need to know whether Wood was there since it has no bearing on the events of December 17th, 1903 or the Wright brothers’ historic flight.
But it certainly makes a good story.
Does anyone out there have more information that could add to our understanding of this film? We would love to hear from you.