Wings Over North Carolina

Why Tarheels are 'First in Flight'

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If it's important enough to be the sole slogan on the state's license plates, it's probably important enough to be in some history book about the state. But the flight of Wilbur and Orville Wright wasn't important enough to make a well-regarded history of North Carolina published in 1906.The Wrights also didn't make it into Makers of North Carolina History in 1911, or the book's later editions in 1916, 1923 and 1930, says Thomas C. Parramore, a history professor emeritus at Meredith College in Raleigh.

But Parramore, in this volume published last spring, has unearthed the stories of dozens of Carolina characters — adventurers, showmen, tinkerers, novelists and even newspaper editors — from those early days of aviation in North Carolina. North Carolinians caught up in the Wright centennial will enjoy Parramore's stories, from the mythical Chowan Indian conjurer to the aviators of World War I.

In 1852, for example, a balloonist's advertisement promoting a balloon exhibition in Statesville assured that citizens with "strictest" religious principles, presumably distressed that mankind would be ascending into the realm of the Almighty while still living, should "feel no repugnance in witnessing" his performance.

We also learn of 15-year-old Delia Jaquin of Charlotte, who was so captivated by a balloon exhibition in 1892 that she got permission from her parents to join the troupe. Within days, she had soloed in the balloon and parachuted out from 4,000 feet.

The Charlotte Observer and its turn-of-the-century editor, Joseph Caldwell, had no peer in the newspaper industry in their conviction that people one day would fly. But the Observer gave little coverage to the events at Kitty Hawk, before or after Dec. 17, 1903.

Parramore's burden is to produce a readable book for a general audience at the same time that he assembles the historical record for the benefit of future historians. He pulls it off pretty well, even though the more extended accounts of intrepid failures get a little precious after a while.

The sections of the book dealing with the Wrights at Kitty Hawk are Parramore's finest moments. The chapter is not as complete an account as that of Tom Crouch in the authoritative biography The Bishop's Boys, and there are differences in many of the details. But telling the tale from the perspective of the local citizenry makes it distinctive.

Bill Tate, the acting postmaster and assistant weatherman at Kitty Hawk, was the first convert among the Outer Banks community. His family gave the Wrights room and board. Tate would race through his chores so he could head out to help the Wrights. On Oct. 3, 1900, Tate and the Wrights held on to ropes tethering the glider and ran downhill until the craft lifted off the ground, at which point Wilbur hopped onto the lower wing for his first-ever glider ride (an immediate failure). Tate's stepbrother Dan Tate and Dan's 11-year-old son Tom came by two weeks later to see what was going on, and young Tom ended up as 70 pounds of ballast on some tethered flights.

The "surfmen" from the lifesaving station at Kitty Hawk also helped get gliders into the air. Not all had been believers. At a 25-year reunion in 1928, surfman T.N. Sanderson reminded Orville that "I told you not to waste ... time" on flying because it would "never amount to anything."

This chapter alone is worth the price of the book ($18.95 list, $13.27 on Amazon) for aviation buffs.

Neil Skene is a lawyer and writer living in Tallahassee. He can be reached at [email protected].

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