Monday, February 12, 2018

The First Flight at Kill Devil Hills

One hundred and fifteen years ago, on a remote, sandy beach in North Carolina, Orville Wright flew. It was the first time that a manned, heavier-than-air machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward without losing speed and landed on a point as high as that from which it started. The site of this first flight has been immortalized as the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and is a testament to the ingenuity and determination of man.

This historic site is not quite so remote these days, located at the epicenter of activity on the Outer Banks, in Kill Devil Hills. After making the short drive from Duck, our visit started in a temporary visitor center, as the Visitor Center is undergoing renovations through late summer/fall of 2018. We picked up Jr. Ranger booklets, took a look at the exhibits, and then set out on foot to the reconstructed 1903 hanger and quarters/workshop. The wooden structures depict the hangar used for the flyer that made history on that winter day in 1903, and the workshop is furnished with items like those the Wrights used.

A little further, a granite boulder marks where the first plane left the ground on December 17, 1903. The first flight was only 120 feet, but three more flights that day each flew longer and further, the fourth flying 852 feet in 59 seconds before a gust of wind flipped it over a short while later rendering it earthbound. These four flights are marked by smaller stone markers that allow visitors to walk in the shadow of this historic occasion; remember to stay on the path to avoid sand spurs and prickly pear cacti.

Heading down the walkway in the other direction from the First Flight Boulder takes visitors up to the Wright Brothers Monument atop Kill Devil Hill. The 60-ft monument honors the Wright Brothers and marks the site of the hundreds of glider flights that preceded the first powered flight. The 90-ft sand dune has a great view of the Park, the vista extending to the Atlantic Ocean and over the First Flight Airstrip.

Yes, the Park includes an actual airport! The 3,000-ft paved airstrip serves small planes, and during our visit there was constant air traffic – a perfect backdrop to exploring this historic site. The vantage point from up by the Memorial allows you to watch the small planes taking off and landing, entertaining the younger kids that aren't as interested in the historic aspect of the Park.

On the opposite side of Kill Devil Hill is the December 17, 21903 sculpture. The bronze and stainless steel plane recreates the historic flight, as captured in a photograph taken by John Daniels from the nearby lifesaving station who had come to watch the brothers as they attempted to make history. There are benches and picnic tables nearby, providing a nice place to relax and contemplate the wonder of flight while the kids dream up their own aviation adventures on the life-sized model.

Not even 70 years after the Wrights’ historic first flight on the Outer Banks we’ve landed a man on the moon – to think that the 1903 flyer was the first step in the evolution of human flight… The Wright Brothers National Memorial is an educational stop for visitors to the Outer Banks, one that proved anything is possible – even human flight.

After a short pause we headed back to the visitor center so that the boys could turn in their completed Jr. Ranger booklets, however our day's adventures were far from over; we were headed to nearby Jockey's Ridge for more sand dunes and flight...


Our visit occurred shortly before the anniversary celebration of the first flight, in late November. I recommend taking weather into consideration when planning your visit, as it gets extremely hot in the summer (also, the Park is very exposed to lightning and will shut down if it snows); bring water bottles and sunscreen, it is like a visit to the beach. Winter temperatures are rather mild, but the wind can be brutal. For entrance fees and operating hours, see park website.

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