I Saw Kitty Hawk: Film, Memory, and Archives

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the 110th anniversary of The Great Train Robbery, a film that pioneered editing techniques that are so commonplace as to be invisible to viewers today and is acknowledged as the first example of modern film fiction narrative.

But this wasn’t the only important innovation taking place in December of 1903. December 17th marks the 110th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk.

To celebrate the day, we’re sharing I Saw Kitty Hawk, which features a first-hand account from a man who claimed to be present at the first Wright brothers flight. Like last week’s High Flight, this film also comes to the National Archives from the Defense Visual Information Center accession.

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 I feel confident that we can 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. Check out the film below for Wood’s account:

Note: this film is labeled as a “clip” because we cut out an introduction and conclusion that featured Frank Wood walking his dog with the copyrighted Simon and Garfunkel song “Bookends” on the soundtrack. No additional content is omitted from the clip we have featured here.

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. The first problem, which would be obvious to an aviation enthusiast (but wasn’t immediately obvious to me), is that Wood claims that he and Barney Oldfield were present for three short test flights on December 14th. The generally accepted history is that there was one failed attempt on the 14th that ended in a crash that damaged the flyer and caused a three-day delay for repairs.

Kirk also maintains that it’s unlikely that Barney Oldfield was at Kitty Hawk on December 14th because there is no record of him having been there. While this in and of itself is not proof that Oldfield was elsewhere, in December of 1903, Barney Oldfield was a very famous person. Just six months before, he became the first person to travel one mile in one minute in an automobile (that’s 60 mph). According to Kirk, it seems unlikely that no one would have made note of his presence.

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?

I think the answer to that question is another frustrating question: Who honestly knows? Maybe Frank Wood was there. Can anyone prove he was someplace else that day? After seventy years, most people get some details of their memories wrong, so perhaps the three flights and the advice from Oldfield were simply improvements to the story that, at some point, Wood believed to be true.

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.


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