While the book “The Wright Brothers,” by David McCullough, provides interesting and accurate information about the tenacious sibling inventors, being in the actual spot where the first flight took place induces greater understanding and wonder. One truly connects with history when witnessing where Ohioans Wilbur and Orville Wright lived off and on for months, enduring harsh weather and relentless mosquitoes. As I stood on the windy runway, it was much easier to imagine their thrill as each brother took turns flying a little farther on that momentous day in 1903.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial on the Outer Banks near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is the first official runway where the power-driven flight took place, and visitors can walk the path of the four flights that occurred that day.
The Remote LocationThe Outer Banks is a 200-mile strip of barrier islands primarily off the coast of North Carolina but also extending along the Virginia coast. By consulting the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1900, the Wright brothers learned that the Outer Banks served their needs with its broad, open expanses of shifting sand and steady northeasterly prevailing winds. And, near the town of Kitty Hawk, one of the only towns on the Outer Banks in the early 1900s, is a series of sand dunes referred to as Kill Devil Hills—a name based on various, unconfirmed legends that had to do with pirates's rum.
The high hills were ideal for testing their gliders, while the steady wind speeds and wide-open spaces ultimately contributed to their achieving engine-powered flights.
While getting to Kitty Hawk is no easy task for modern travelers, it was monumentally difficult in the Wright brothers’ day, and far off their beaten path. Several trains got the brothers from their Dayton, Ohio, home to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. During Wilbur’s first trip, a journal notation in September 1900 conveys the remoteness of Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks: “I spent several days waiting for a boat to Kitty Hawk. Nobody seemed to know anything about the place.”
Of the perilous boat ride, Wilbur wrote that the waves “broke over the stern very badly.” It took him a week to travel from Ohio to the Outer Banks.
Today, there are roads and bridges, but still the drive is long, past seemingly endless marshlands and rural farming communities before finally crossing waterways such as Alligator River and Currituck Sound to arrive on the Outer Banks. Then, depending on where visitors end up on the 200-mile sandy strip, they must then get to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which is approximately at the midway point of the Outer Banks.
Yet, again, nothing compares to visiting the on-site museum to see a replica of the flying machine and then planting one’s feet on the runway. There, visitors can start out walking the first 120 feet and look overhead to imagine Orville leaving the ground for 12 seconds; they can end up 852 feet from the starting point, where the last flight of that day ended after 59 seconds.
On Dec. 17, 1903, a monumental historic event took place that changed the world—and 120 years later we have an opportunity to take in at least a bit of the awe.