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Where It All Began: Visiting The Wright Brothers National Memorial

Many readers of Simple Flying will be well aware of the story of the Wright Brothers and their exploits leading to history’s first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with their Wright Flyer aircraft on December 17th, 1903. Yet fewer may be aware that the site of their endeavors and ultimate success hosts a United States National Parks Service memorial and visitors’ center that is open to the public.


Location

Located 4 miles (6 km) south of the town of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, you will discover The Wright Brothers National Memorial at a site known as Kill Devil Hills. Not only is this facility a fine tribute to the two self-taught mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who changed our world forever, but it is actually located on the same site where those historical events took place. The center is well worth visiting should you find yourself in that part of the United States. Let’s take a closer look at what is on offer.

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A brief recap of the history

Growing up in various places before the Wright family settled, Orville and his brother Wilbur never amounted to much while at school. In December 1892, the brothers opened a bicycle repair and sales shop and, in 1896, began manufacturing their own brand of cycles. The profits earned from this venture funded their growing interest in flight.

In the late 1890s, the brothers worked on plans for building their own flying machine. Having taken inspiration from others, they started by understanding the fundamentals of flight and how birds flew before embarking on plans to build a glider that could carry one of them.

In 1900 the brothers went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to begin their manned gliding experiments. Having consulted with others, such as Octave Chanute, who were also experimenting with unpowered flight, the brothers settled on the mid-Atlantic for a trial site.

The coastal location offered steady breezes and a soft, sandy landing surface. Wilbur also examined meteorological data he obtained from the US Weather Bureau. After receiving information from the government meteorologist stationed there, Wilbur finally fixed on Kitty Hawk as their favored location.

Although remote, Kitty Hawk was closer to Dayton than other places suggested to them, including sites in California and Florida. The spot also gave them privacy from reporters, who had turned other flying experiments of others into something of a media circus.

Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills are located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, USA. Image: Google Maps 

Success with gliders

From 1900 to 1902, the brothers flew three incarnations of their prototype glider across the flat sands of Kitty Hawk beach. The brothers first flew the glider for a few days in the early autumn of 1900 at Kitty Hawk.

In the first tests on October 3rd, Wilbur was aboard while the glider flew as a kite not far above the ground, with men below holding tether ropes. However, most of the kite tests were unpiloted, with sandbags or chains as ballast.

The brothers then went on to fly on the glider themselves. Wilbur, but not Orville, made about a dozen free glides on only a single day, October 20th. For those test flights, the brothers trekked four miles (6 km) south to the Kill Devil Hills, a group of sand dunes up to 100 feet (30 m) high, where they made camp in each of the next three years.

Although the glider’s lift was less than expected, the brothers were encouraged because the craft’s front elevator worked well, and they had no accidents.

As planned, the pilot lay flat on the lower wing to reduce aerodynamic drag. As a glide ended, the pilot was supposed to lower himself to a vertical position through an opening in the wing and land on his feet with his arms wrapped over the framework. Within a few glides, however, they discovered the pilot could remain lying on the wing, headfirst, without undue danger when landing. They made all their flights in that position for the next five years.

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Progression to powered flight

With the flight of the gliders, the Wright brothers developed a working knowledge of lift versus gravity and developed models which included thrust and drag as variables. They also devised a formula for power-to-weight ratios and incorporated propeller efficiencies.

If they could only figure out what sort of power would be required to produce a propeller that could overcome drag, they knew how to supply a power source to the propellers necessary to deliver the thrust to maintain flight

The Wright Flyer

In 1903 the brothers built the powered Wright Flyer using spruce wood, their preferred material for constructing a solid and lightweight frame, coupled with muslin for flight surface coverings. They also designed and carved their own wooden propellers and had a purpose-built gasoline engine fabricated in their bicycle shop.

After years of traveling back and forth between Dayton, Ohio, and Kitty Hawk by rail, the brothers were finally ready to test fly their powered aircraft.

In camp at Kill Devil Hills, the Wrights endured weeks of delays caused by broken propeller shafts during engine tests. After the shafts were replaced (requiring two trips back to Dayton), the brothers were ready to fly their ground-breaking aircraft.

However, because December 13th, 1903, was a Sunday, and the brothers were from a religious family, the brothers did not attempt to fly that day, even though the weather was good.

They decided that their first powered test flight would be the following day, which just happened to be the 121st anniversary of the first hot air balloon test flight made by the Montgolfier brothers on December 14th, 1782, in France.

Wilbur beat Orville at a coin toss and made a three-second flight attempt on December 14th, 1903, stalling after takeoff and causing minor damage to the Wright Flyer. However, undeterred and with the damage quickly repaired, the first flight of the Wright Flyer took place on December 17th, 1903. with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running at one of the wingtips.

This world-famous photo shows Orville Wright piloting the first powered flight, with Wilbur assisting at the wingtip.  Photo:
John Daniels via NPS

The brothers eventually made four flights that first day, making two flights each from level ground into a freezing headwind gusting to 27 miles per hour (43 km/h). The first flight, by Orville at 10:35, traveled a distance of 120 feet (37 m) in 12 seconds, at a speed of 6.8 miles per hour (10.9 km/h) across the ground.

The brothers took turns flying three more times that day, getting a feel for the controls and increasing their distance with each flight. The following two flights covered approximately 175 and 200 feet (53 and 61 m) flown by Wilbur and Orville, respectively. Their altitude was about 10 feet (3.0 m) above the ground.

A final flight flown by Wilbur, his second and the last flight of the day, achieved a distance of an impressive 852 feet in 59 seconds.

After the men hauled the Wright Flyer back from its fourth flight, a powerful gust of wind flipped it over several times, despite the crew’s attempt to hold it down. Severely damaged, the Wright Flyer never flew again.

The brothers shipped the airplane home, and years later, Orville restored it, lending it to several US institutions for display. It was later displayed in the Science Museum in London before it was finally installed in 1948 in the Smithsonian Institute National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, its current residence.

Eye-witnesses and corroboration

Five people witnessed the flights – three locals, all of the US government coastal lifesaving crew (one of whom snapped the historic first flight photograph of Orville’s first flight), a local area businessman, and a teenager that lived close by.

The Wrights sent a telegram about the four flights to their father. In that telegram was a message which read,

Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty-one mile per hour wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty-one miles longest 57 seconds. Inform the Press. Home for Christmas.

Incidentally, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is often referred to in the history books as the location of the first flight. This is inaccurate as the first flight was, in fact, at Kill Devil Hill, a few miles to the south. However, as the closest post office that had a telegram facility available was in the nearest town of Kity Hawk, the location provided by the message above was Kitty Hawk itself, ensuring that the town went down in history as the location for the first powered, heavier than air, human-crewed flight – albeit inaccurately!

The Wright National Memorial

Located just off US Highway 158, the Wright National Memorial is located at Kill Devil Hills, just to the south of the small coastal town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The National Memorial is the place where Wilbur and Orville Wright spent years working on the mysteries of flight, the place where they first successfully flew, and the place where both the USA and indeed the world commemorates their historic achievements.

On entering the center, you are met by a stunning building that houses the Visitors’ Centre, shop, cafe, and various informative and interactive displays, including a full-scale replica of the Wright Flyer. The exhibits tell the story of the Wright brothers and their appetite for flight.

They also tell how the brothers came up from humble beginnings in Ohio to earn their place in aviation and world history. The displays are educational, engaging, and appropriate for all ages of visitors, young and old alike.

Next, as you leave the Visitors’ Center, you come across two small wooden shacks slightly to the west. These buildings are reconstructions of the two buildings used by the Wright brothers during the long spells they spent in North Carolina.

One was used to protect the aircraft from the elements, while the other provided the brothers with rudimentary living quarters. These two buildings offer a fascinating insight into what life was like spending season after season working on their aspirations of successfully proving that powered, human-crewed flight was possible.

Heading south from the two shacks, you walk along probably the most impressive and historic part of the National Memorial. This long track follows the path that the Wright Brothers used during their four powered flights on December 17th, 1903.

With the launch site near the southernmost point on the track, the landing spot of each of those four flights is marked with an engraved memorial stone detailing the total distance, flight duration, and pilot of that particular flight. These markers offer a fascinating glimpse of how the flights progressed on that historic day before the fateful gust of wind brought proceedings to an abrupt and unfortunate close.

Four marker stones indicate the distance that each of the four flights achieved. Photo:
NPS

The Wright brothers’ memorial monument

At the far southern end of the grassy field that once witnessed two brothers trying to make and fly a machine they designed that would change the world is a large stone monument set atop a lone hill, known as ‘Big Kill Devil Hill’.

The impressive and beautifully sculpted memorial monument, which can be accessed through a slightly heart-rate increasing climb, commemorates the historic achievements of the Wright brothers and provides a lasting reminder to the world and everyone who visits of the imagination, foresight, and bravery displayed by the two brothers as they went about changing the world forever. Orville Wright himself attended the dedication ceremony upon the monument’s completion in 1932

Just behind the hill that provides the naturally elevated position for the memorial stone itself is another reproduction of the Wright Flyer – only this time, it is a sculpture said to represent the day of the first flight, with Orville and Wilbur, along with their assistants all painstakingly reproduced in bronze.

As a nice touch to make the whole experience more interactive, the National Parks Service describes this sculpture as a ‘please-touch’ sculpture, inviting visitors to walk through, climb on and touch the sculpture to fully immerse themselves in the exhibit.

This sculpture recreates the famous events of December 17th, 1903. Photo:
NPS 
 

Final reflections

I visited the Wright National Memorial before the COVID-19 pandemic as I drove up the eastern seaboard of the USA and visited the Outer Banks area of the North Carolina shores. The site really is a place not to be missed for any genuine aviation enthusiast, as well as the more curious passer-by.

To stand in the very spot where the Wright brothers battled against the elements, technology, and gravity (as well as against a tsunami of negativity from doubters and skeptics worldwide) to achieve what most believed to be impossible is both a privilege and enthralling in equal measure.

By achieving what they did, the Wright brothers changed the course of history and paved the way for a mode of passenger transport that we can all enjoy today.

Moreover, without the Wight brothers’ tenacity and ingenuity, the world might be a far bigger place, and of course, the Simple Flying website a much quieter, emptier one!

Have you visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial? If so, do let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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