Visiting the Wright Brothers National Memorial

Updated on August 13, 2017
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Traveling has always been one of my passions. It exposes us to new cultures, experiences, and makes the world a better, more tolerant place.

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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.

First flight of the Wright Flyer I
First flight of the Wright Flyer I | Source

It is 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.

The Wright Memorial atop Kill Devil Hill
The Wright Memorial atop Kill Devil Hill | Source
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Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills, NC:
Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948, USA

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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.

There were many skeptics to the Wright Brothers claim to have been the first to achieve powered flight. Do you believe they were indeed the first?

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Replica of the Wright Flyer I
Replica of the Wright Flyer I | Source

Unbeknownst to many is the fact that the Wright brothers performed over 2,200 glider tests prior to attempting powered flight. This was instrumental in learning how to achieve maximum lift and to control and maneuver the glider while airborne.

Replica of the Wright Flyer
Replica of the Wright Flyer | Source

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.

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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, 13 seconds, 175 ft

Flight 3: 11:40 am, 15 seconds, 200 ft

Flight 4: 12:00 pm, 59 seconds, 852 ft


Hangar, workshop and home of the Wright Brothers while in Kitty Hawk.
Hangar, workshop and home of the Wright Brothers while in Kitty Hawk. | Source

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.

The view from the Wright Brothers Memorial
The view from the Wright Brothers Memorial | Source
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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 $7 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
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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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Bill De Giulio

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      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        19 months ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Alun, thank you. What the Wright Brothers accomplished there in Kitty Hawk truly was one of the defining moments of the 20th century. Today we take flight for granted but the brothers toiled for years to understand the concept of flight. Really amazing.

        And to your point of making the most of trips, absolutely. Whenever we go anywhere I am thinking of what can we see and how do we make the most of this visit. This trip for a wedding was a perfect example. Not only did we get to Kitty Hawk, but we managed to see the wild Spanish Mustangs that have been roaming the beaches of the outer banks for over 500 years.

        Thanks again, have a great weekend.

      • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

        Greensleeves Hubs 

        19 months ago from Essex, UK

        Great record of the events of 17th December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, Bill, with many facts - some interesting and some quite sentimental - about that day, and about subsequent flights. Two facts in particular struck me. The rapid turn around between the 2nd, 3rd and 4th flights was only 20 minutes, and each was longer than its predecessor. That must have involved a lot of feverish activity, good organisation and self confidence. And the 1905 flight of 24 miles must have implanted the seed of the idea (if it hadn't already existed) that powered flight really did have a practical future. The whole of that period in the early 20th century involved incredible experiences for the Wright brothers.

        Great video to end the article too - glad that movie film captured some of the pioneering flights.

        On a more personal note, the circumstances of your visit whilst attending a family wedding, should be instructive on how to make the most of any travel itinerary. Wherever one goes, whether for an engagement such as that or for a business trip, if time permits, one should really make the most of the opportunity to see what the local area has to offer, and the chance in this case to see a place where true history was made.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thank you Linda. I really enjoyed putting this hub together and of course our visit to the site. The more I read up on the Wright brothers the more I realized how interesting and driven they were in their pursuit. They really were two fascinating individuals and together wrote an important chapter in American and World history.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        This sounds like an enjoyable place to visit, Bill. The "Interesting Facts" section at the end of the article was definitely interesting, as well as informative.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thank you Flourish, glad you enjoyed the hub. I also got a kick out of those two facts. The one about taking the two small pieces of the original Flyer to the moon I found amazing. Also, the one day where the brothers flew together for the only time and then giving their father the only ride of his life, incredible stuff.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Glenis. Thank you for stopping by. From my reading it appears that both brothers worked in the printing business for a while and then did very well with their bicycle shop. During the mid 1890s they opened a shop to make, rent and repair bicycles and were very successful. I assume their income from the bicycle shop afforded them the opportunity to pursue flight.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        2 years ago from USA

        I've been able to visit several times and you described this landmark superbly in words as well as photos. I especially liked the facts at the end. The one about taking the father for his first airplane ride and taking mementos of the plane to the moon were my favorite. Great article!

      • Glenis Rix profile image

        GlenR 

        2 years ago from UK

        I also like the fact about Neil Armstrong. I'm wondering how the Wright brothers funded and made the time for their experiments. Were the independently wealthy?

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Dave. Thank you, glad you enjoyed the tour. It's a beautiful fall day here and we are enjoying it, thank you and same to you and yours.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thank you Carb Diva. So glad you enjoyed the tour. Perhaps someday you will find yourself in the vicinity of the Outer Banks and be able to visit. If not, I'm glad I was able to bring it to you. Thanks again and have a nice weekend.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Heidi. Thank you. Sure is amazing how far we've come. Almost hard to believe. Wilbur and Orville really dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit of flight, neither ever married, their life was working on the idea of flight. And what a story they wrote. Thanks for the comment, have a great weekend.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Bill. Thank you. I thought this might be a place you would enjoy. Amazing story of perseverance and ingenuity. I really find it hard to fathom how far we have come in the last 100 years. From a 12 second flight to the outer reaches of the solar system. Great stuff. Have a wonderful weekend.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        2 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Susan. Thank you. Clearly you enjoyed your visits to Kitty Hawk and have some fond memories, you'll certainly never forget your sons comment :). We had wanted to visit for years but were never really in the area to give it a go, until now that is. A fascinating place to visit and the story of their work is even more incredible. Thanks for the comment, have a great weekend.

      • chateaudumer profile image

        David B Katague 

        2 years ago from Northern California and the Philippines

        My wife and I have been to this memorial a few decades ago. Well written article and enjoyed reading it. Have a wonderful autumn day!

      • Carb Diva profile image

        Linda Lum 

        2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        What a wonderful hub! I doubt that I will ever have an opportunity to visit this museum, and I feel as though I have already been there, because you put this together so well. You are a great tour guide--I always love your hubs.

        Have a great weekend!

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        2 years ago from Chicago Area

        What a cool photo tour and informative hub! Definitely a site worth a stop when visiting the area. Hard to believe that was only about 113 years ago. How far (literally) we've come!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        2 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I would definitely go see this, as much as I love history, but probably won't make it back there in this lifetime...second best option, to let you take me on a tour. Thank you my friend tour guide, and Happy Saturday to you.

      • SusanDeppner profile image

        Susan Deppner 

        2 years ago from Arkansas USA

        This was so interesting to read. I've been to the Wright Brothers Memorial a few times and definitely recommend it. During one visit, when our son was just a toddler, our observant little guy asked, "Why is that man sleeping on that bed?" Your photo near the top of the page shows what he was referring to. Just one of my good memories of Kitty Hawk and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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