Traveling has always been one of my passions. I love the excitement of seeing new places and the thrill of experiencing different cultures.
There may not be a more significant milestone over the last one hundred years or so that has directly impacted the lives of so many people around the world. It took place on December 17, 1903, just south of the small community of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, after years of testing and experimenting with the concept of flight finally achieved the first successful powered flight of an airplane.
On that historic day they actually completed four powered flights, each one progressively longer than the previous. The last flight lasted for 59 seconds and traveled 852 feet. Incredibly, their first flight was recorded for humanity in the photo here. It was taken by John T. Daniels and it was the first photo that he had ever taken. Amazingly, it turned out perfect.
It’s hard to comprehend how far we have come since that first flight. Today, we can fly virtually anywhere in the world and at any given moment there are thousands of airplanes in the air around the globe. We have flown to the moon and back, and we have sent spacecraft to other planets and to the very edges of our solar system. And to think it all started on a windy winter’s day in the sand dunes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brother’s Memorial had been on my radar for quite some time. When the opportunity presented itself with a family wedding to attend in nearby Corolla, we quickly penciled in a visit. Having been an air and space enthusiast for most of my life I found the memorial and the visitor center to be quite the education and a fascinating place to visit.
There are three components to visiting the Wright Brothers Historic Site. There is the visitor center, complete with a replica of the first 1903 Flyer and also their 1902 Glider. Then just outside the visitor center is the field where the Wright brothers lived, worked and made the first flight. And on a hill just behind the field is the memorial, which is worth the climb and presents an incredible view of the entire area.
Our day started in the visitor center with an excellent presentation on the history and work of Wilbur and Orville. It was fascinating to hear the details of that infamous day, including how their plane, the Wright Flyer I, was actually damaged after the first four flights by a gust of wind that blew it end over end breaking the plane. The flyer would be shipped back to Dayton, Ohio and would never fly again. It was eventually restored by Orville and today resides in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., where it has been since 1948.
In addition to the replica and the ranger led talk there are numerous displays, photos and historical documents in the visitor center. The photos from the era are remarkable to see and the complete history of how these two bicycle shop owners came to invent a powered flying machine is certainly a story of perseverance and extreme ingenuity.
When done in the Visitor Center it is time to venture outside to see where it all happened. As you walk out to the field you will pass the two reconstructed buildings where the brothers worked and lived. Just beyond is the giant stone marking the point where the flights began. As you look to the north you can see the four markers that pinpoint how far each flight went. The progress they made with each subsequent flight is impressive and the fourth flight, which travelled 852 feet and lasted almost a minute, must have surely had the brothers jumping for joy.
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December 17, 1903
Flight 1: 10:35 am, 12 seconds, 120 ft
Flight 2: 11:20 am, 12 seconds, 175 ft
Flight 3: 11:40 am, 15 seconds, 200 ft
Flight 4: 12:00 pm, 59 seconds, 852 ft
As you turn and face south you can see across the expanse the large monument that was built to honor the Wright brothers. It was fittingly placed atop Kill Devil Hill, the large sand dune that the brothers used for their many glider tests. The granite monument measures sixty feet tall and was dedicated on November 14, 1932. It’s a bit of a hike to cross the field and then climb the hill but you can simply drive down to the monument if you like. There is plenty of parking at the base of the memorial and the walk up the hill will take you no more than a few minutes. The view from the monument out across the surrounding area and the fields where the Wright brothers performed their magic is impressive. Interestingly, Orville Wright was still alive and attended the dedication as the main guest of honor. This was actually quite a rare happening to have a memorial being dedicated to a person while they were still alive.
You should plan on spending at least a couple of hours at the Wright Brothers National Memorial site to insure that you have a chance to see everything. The grounds are open daily from 9 am to 5 pm except for Christmas. The entry fee is $10 per person and is free for anyone 15 years old or younger. The memorial is located just off of US 158 in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.
If your travels are taking you to the beautiful Outer Banks of North Carolina and you are looking for a break from the beach there are plenty of other interesting things to do here. Certainly consider a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial or head north along the outer banks to see the Wild Spanish Mustangs of Corolla and Historic Corolla Village, which includes the Currituck Lighthouse.
I got more thrills out of flying before I had ever been in the air at all - while lying in bed thinking about how exciting it would be to fly.
— Orville Wright
Interesting facts about the Wright Brothers
- The brothers used a coin toss to see who would be the first to test the Wright Flyer. Wilbur actually won the coin toss but his first attempt on December 14, 1903 was unsuccessful. A few days later on December 17th, it was Orville’s turn, which proved to be the first successful flight.
- The original Wright Flyer I never flew again after December 17, 1903. After being damaged by a gust of wind that blew it end over end it was packed up and the brothers returned to Dayton, Ohio.
- Neither brother ever married. As they liked to say, they were married to the pursuit of flight and would not have had time for a wife and an airplane.
- In 1904 the brothers set about constructing the Wright Flyer II. They also cleared an area to be used as an airfield, Huffman Prairie, outside of Dayton where they would continue their work.
- In 1905 the Wright brothers introduced the Wright Flyer III. After some initial design problems were corrected the Flyer III flew for 24-miles over a span of 39 minutes. It was the first really practical airplane with the ability to take off and land at a distant destination.
- The first fatal aviation accident occurred on September 17, 1908 when Orville flew a two-seat Flyer demonstration for the US Army with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge on board. Shortly after takeoff the propeller shattered and the Flyer crashed killing Selfridge. Orville was severely injured but recovered after spending six week in the hospital.
- At the request of their father, Orville and Wilbur never flew together to eliminate the chance of a double tragedy and to ensure that at least one of the brothers could continue the pursuit of powered flight. That changed seven years after their first flight on May 25, 1910, a very eventful day for the Wright family. On that day the brothers flew together for the only time, and Orville took his 82 year old father, Milton, for the only airplane ride of his life.
- This one I love. In 1969, Neil Armstrong carried with him two small pieces of the Original Wright Flyer with him to the moon. A small piece of wing fabric and a piece of wood from the propeller were along for the ride in his spacesuit as he stepped onto the surface of the moon. What an amazing journey, accomplished in just sixty six years.
© 2016 Bill De Giulio