Sculpture commemorating Wright Brothers flight
Sculpture commemorating the first flight (John Keatley)

The story of the Wright Brothers is one of tenacity. Writing to the Smithsonian, where Samuel Langley was being paid by the Department of War to test unmanned aircraft, they realized that their untested ideas about flight could succeed if they put them into practice. “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill,” said Wilbur.

Kill Devil Hill
Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk

Standing at the base of Kill Devil Hill, the central feature of Wright Brothers National Monument, you realize that the landscape around you is not what the Wright Brothers saw when they came to the Outer Banks in the winter of 1901 to test their theories about aircraft. To prevent Kill Devil Hill from vanishing by wind erosion, it, and the grounds that surround it, are now as grassy green as a grass runway. Nearby dune parks provide a better perspective of what the Outer Banks looked like in their day.

Dunes near Kill Devil Hill
The Wright memorial as seen from nearby dunes (John Keatley)

At the Visitor Center, the story of Orville and Wilbur’s genius unfolds. The interpretive panels are simple, but the sheer volume of their “firsts” – well beyond “first in flight” – astounded both of us. As bicycle makers and repairmen, they used the same tools on their aircraft that they used on their bikes. If they didn’t have something, they manufactured it themselves.

Replicas of the first US aircraft
Replicas of the first aircraft (John Keatley)

They designed and perfected the exact wing shape that all aircraft still use today. They created the aileron, the moveable portion of the wing that you may have noticed when looking out the window above 30,000 feet. And they designed the first-ever wind tunnel for testing their models.

Human testing of first aircraft in America
Human testing was the only way to ensure an aircraft would work

The best part? They tackled and solved the mysteries of flight on their own, out of the sheer joy of discovery. The War Department wasn’t paying them to do anything.

Walking along the path of the First Flight Markers, a glance back at the monument atop the 90 foot high dune focuses the senses. You’re standing on the first airstrip. Ever.

Walking the path of the first airstrip
Walking the path of the first airstrip

Reconstructed versions of the buildings the Wright Brothers called home when they visited Kitty Hawk – their cabin/workshop and hangar – provide perspective on the grassy plain.

Wright Brothers quarters at Kitty Hawk
Cots hung like hammocks (John Keatley)

The brothers alternated as pilots. Before they added a motor, they tested their theories with over a thousand glides off the top of the sandy dune, landing in the dune swales below.

Sculpture depicting the first flight
Sculpture depicting the first flight (John Keatley)

Orville enjoyed taking photography, so their experiments were well-documented. The crew from the nearby life-saving station would often come over and watch. In December 1903, they added an engine they’d built themselves to be the propulsion for motored flight. Their first attempt dove into the sand after 12 seconds, but they’d proved that motored flight was possible.

After a few days for repairs, they were aloft again, and flew three times on December 17. The final flight lasted almost a minute, but the ideas they unleashed with that flight would forever change our world.

Kitty Hawk Marker 4
Aircraft flying over the marker for Flight 4

Visit Wright Brothers National Memorial