There are a few things you’ll definitely notice if you visit North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The sand dunes are hard to miss and Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the most visited park in North Carolina, protects the tallest active sand dune system in the Eastern United States. There’s the beach, of course, and Brew Thru, a chain of legendary drive-thru convenience stores that sell beer, wine and “world famous” t-shirts. There’s the winged horse statues, part of a public art installation started in 2003 to celebrate 100 years of flight.
That – the flight stuff – is something you’ll definitely notice if you visit the Outer Banks, home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the site of the world’s first successful, manned & powered flight.
It all started in 1900, at least the part that includes the Outer Banks.
Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, wanted to conduct some manned gliding experiments and, after looking at some data from the U.S. Weather Bureau to find the most favorable and consistent winds for their flying adventures, headed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They’d been thinking about flight for a few years at that point and were finally ready to test some of their theories and creations.
They tested a glider that first year in Kitty Hawk, launching it from the Kill Devil Hills, a spot they’d continue to use as the base of their aviation experimentation for the next several years and the spot where, today, the Wright Brothers National Memorial sits.
After a few years of experiments and near-constant tweaking of their gliders, the brothers built the Wright Flyer I, their first powered machine. On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville climbed aboard the flyer. The wind was cold and hard at 27 mph. At 10:35 a.m., Orville released the wire, the flyer rolled down its rail and lifted into the air for 12 seconds while Wilbur ran along beside it.
According to the National Park Service, it was the first time “a manned, heavier-than-air machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started.”
That same day, the Wright Brothers conducted three more test flights, taking turns piloting the flyer with each flight. When Wilbur flew his second flight, and their fourth and final attempt that day, he managed 852 feet in 59 seconds, a considerable jump from their first 12-second flight.
Today, a marked flight path shows the end of each of those four first flights attempted by the Wright Brothers in 1903.
The Wright Flyer I never flew again. A gust of wind caught it just after its fourth flight, flipped it over and damaged it beyond simple repair. The brothers sent a telegram to their father reporting on their success.
On March 2, 1927, the site of the Orville and Wilbur’s first flights was dedicated as Kill Devil Hill Monument. A few years later, in 1933, the War Department handed it over to the National Park Service and 20 years later, on Dec. 4, 1953, fifty years after the first flight, the site was designated as the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
Today, the 400-acre national park includes a 60-foot memorial that sits on top of the now-stabilized Kill Devil Hill. It was dedicated in 1932, on a cold, windy and stormy day, and Orville Wright himself was the guest of honor. There’s the flight line to explore too, reconstructed camp buildings and a sculpture that serves as an artistic rendering of the first flight.
I visited the park on the last day of my last minute beach vacation back in May. I’d driven past the entrance to this park dozens of times over the years on various Outer Banks adventures, but had never taken the time to go inside the park. I got there early, right after they opened and just as a school bus full of screaming, racing, scampering children poured into the park. I was ahead of them for a little bit – it takes time to organize a gaggle of school kids – but they caught up to me as I walked the flight line, racing their way from point to point, screaming, laughing and yelling the entire way.
As it turns out, history can be real fun for kids, so long as they can barrel through it at full speed and maximum volume.
Every time I visit North Carolina, I’m reminded of its flight-related feud with Ohio.
The Wright Brothers lived in Dayton, Ohio, and Ohio has taken credit for their accomplishments, adorning their license plates with “Birthplace of Aviation.” In 2003, Congress even declared Ohio as the birthplace of aviation since that’s where the brothers were from.
Still though, North Carolina’s plates claim the state at the “First in Flight.”
It’s also possible they’re all wrong, that the first flight had nothing to do with the Wright Brothers and that neither Ohio nor North Carolina can claim it as a license plate-worthy highlight.
Wright Brothers National Memorial is located in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, in the state’s Outer Banks. It’s open daily (except on Christmas Day) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to the park is $10 per adult, while kids under $15 can visit for free. While there are parking spots located close to the memorial, be prepared to walk in the sun during your visit and plan to allow around two hours for a thorough visit.