Every December 17, National Air and Space Museum senior curator Tom Crouch attends the annual wreath-laying ceremony in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, to mark the anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight. This year I tagged along. Our first stop was the Outer Banks History Center in nearby Manteo, where curator and archivist KaeLi Schurr treated us to a tour of the library and archive.
An inveterate researcher, Crouch is always on high alert for new findings about early aviation. I dove into the boxes of archival photographs, looking for buried treasure. There were many well-known images of the Flyer on the dunes, the usual stuff. Then I struck gold when I pulled out a photo of an elegantly dressed petite woman in a stylish cloche hat, laying flowers at the Wright Brothers National Memorial sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, from the look of the photo. Who was she? Schurr, the go-to gal for Outer Banks history, didn’t know.
At the Wright Memorial early the next morning, after the wreath ceremony and flyover, we headed in for a luncheon. Schurr appeared, with a Xerox of the print that had captivated me—complete with the woman’s name, Mrs. David Simpson. Turns out she is the granddaughter of Adam Etheridge, a witness to the December 17, 1903 flight. I searched out Lois Smith, another descendant of one of the witnesses, whose grandfather John T. Daniels took the iconic first-flight photo. “Do you know this name?” I asked. “Is this woman still alive?” I held out little hope.
“Why, she was here a moment ago, but she just left,” Smith said. What a disappointment. I had missed her by seconds.
Moments later, as the crowd dispersed, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Said Mrs. David Simpson, “Are you looking for me?” She had never seen the photograph before. Although she was about to leave, she walked back over to the memorial, where I snapped another picture. A magic moment, where the past and future come together, and I was fortunate to be a witness.
Caroline Sheen is the Photography and Illustrations Editor at Air & Space.