Kill Devil Hills – First Powered Flight

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Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a string of barrier islands that today provides miles of open beach and attracts large numbers of tourists in the temperate summer months. During the winter, however, the islands are cold, windy and nearly deserted. In 1900, two bicycle mechanics from Dayton Ohio arrived near the town of Kitty Hawk to set up a shop near one of the taller hills in the area, Kill Devil Hill. But they weren’t building bicycles. They were building and testing airborne gliders with a larger goal in mind. That goal brought them back to the Outer Banks every winter as they worked to refine their skills and their inventions.  It was a windy December day in 1903 when the two brothers from Dayton would write their names into the history books. On that 17th of December, almost 112 years ago, to the day from this date of publication; Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first aviators in a successful mechanical powered airplane. The opening image features a close up of Orville Wright at the controls on a sculpture depicting that first flight.

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On that lonely, windy hill stands a monument to the ingenuity and to the achievement of these two dedicated brothers. The Wright Brothers National Monument features a large monolith erected in their honor. More than that, an interpretive center, some building reconstructions, first flights markers and a large sculpture featuring a 3-D recreation of that first flight invite people to stop and learn of one of the longest desired and greatest achievements of mankind, powered flight on demand. The large hill upon which the monument stands is Kill Devil Hill.

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From the hilltop at the monument, the view is open in all directions. As was the case with most of our North Carolina visit, many of our days were spent under a layer of clouds. The view in the image above is east toward the Atlantic Ocean and the resort beach houses along the wide, sandy shore near Kitty Hawk.

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Statue busts of Orville and Wilbur flank the stairway to the monument itself. 1903 would be their last year in Kitty Hawk as they moved their experimentation and development back to Ohio. Certainly adding an engine to the airplane gave it range and the ability to fly on demand; however the real invention that made the practical airplane functional was the full development of three-axis control. The Wrights spent many hours watching turkey vultures as they effortlessly glided overhead searching for their next meal. The breakthrough that resulted was in noting that whenever the vulture turned, slight changes in the bird’s wing tip feathers on one wing upward, the other downward, seemed to be the only thing needed to allow the bird to change direction smoothly and easily. To accomplish this in a mechanical aircraft, the Wright Brothers developed a method of warping the wings during the turn to simulate the changing angle of the bird’s feathers. This technique, eventually abandoned in modern aircraft in favor of the use of ailerons, small movable “winglets” at the trailing edge of the wingtips, was the subject of much patent litigation over the years.

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The Wrights built first one building, then a second to act as hangar, workshop and living quarters when they were on the island. The two buildings are just visible on the right in this view of the monument from near the interpretive center. A plaque of the two brothers sits just outside the large interpretive center. While you are there, you should be sure to listen to one of the park staff tell the story using one of the few fully flyable replicas of the aircraft. The original aircraft in the Smithsonian Institute is no longer flyable due to structural damage and the fact that it was never reassembled correctly for flight, only for display.

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The speaker spent about an hour describing the details of the flight and some of the engineering and experimentation required. This was no boring technical talk and even the youngsters sat attentively throughout his presentation. It was probably the highlight of our visit. In deference to the fragility of the aircraft, the speaker wore a cotton glove on one hand while he manipulated the flight surfaces as he spoke.

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There is a long walkway that runs along the flight path of those first four flights on December 17, 1903. The airplane was launched by travelling along a 60-foot rail until it had enough speed to fly off the end of the rail. In the image above, the large stone marker on the left marks the end of the rail and the aircraft’s launching point. Visitors walk along that path to the four stone markers, the first of which is only 120 feet (36.6 m) from the launching point. That was the point of landing for the first flight. The second and third markers were at 175 feet (53.3 m) and 200 feet (61 m), respectively. The fourth and most successful flight that day terminated at the 852-foot mark. Obviously, I couldn’t get that marker in the above image without taking a very wide panoramic image.


This image was taken of the first flight by John Daniels, a volunteer who came to help and to witness what would be a historic moment. This is the only photo of that first flight, and it has been digitized and retouched in digital format. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.

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The first flight was memorialized near the monument by sculptor Stephen H. Smith. Unveiled at the 2003 Centennial of Flight Celebration, the sculpture features a collection of individual pieces including the sculpt pictured above, John Daniels, capturing the first photograph. The opening photo on this page features a closeup of Orville Wright airborne on his first powered flight. The sculpture of the airplane tops out at over 10,000 lbs. (4535 kg). Other components include Wilbur running alongside. The other four witnesses to the flight were added one at a time in subsequent years.

John Steiner

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