Wright Brothers National Memorial: The World’s First Airplane Flight

Wright Brothers National Memorial: The World's First Airplane Flight

The spot where the Wright Brothers flew their first successful flight is marked by a humble boulder, and just beyond the boulder and a stretch of trees extends First Flight Airport’s lone runway. Standing by the boulder, where just over a century ago two men guided their self-built airplane into the sky for the first time, we watched as a much more modern Cessna 172 descended from the blue sky toward its touchdown. Watching planes land anywhere else on the planet might be somewhat commonplace, but from that spot it felt like history had come full circle. The Cessna 172 is not a big plane, and it’s not the most exciting aircraft out there, but it was hard to ignore the fact its flight was somehow powered by the history that took place beneath our feet.

I’m fascinated by aviation and all that goes into making air travel safe, and when we visited North Carolina’s Outer Banks we couldn’t miss the chance to explore Wright Brothers National Memorial to learn more about one of aviation’s most famous duos and their history-making experiments that changed travel for the better. If you are planning a visit to the Outer Banks, here’s a glimpse into what you might experience and why this stop should be at the top of your vacation itinerary.

Wright Brothers and Aviation: a Brief History

The Wright Brothers Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia
By the time the Wright Brothers discovered an interest in aviation, the idea of flying humans in manmade aircraft was nothing new. Aviation got its start in the 1700s with hot air balloons, and more than a century later controlled gliders debuted in airspace. It was Otto Lilienthal’s work that inspired Orville and Wilbur more than most; he advanced the idea that people could fly using a glider in Germany, and his death in 1896 was the catalyst for the research and prototypes that would eventually culminate with a flight along North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Gliders were a good idea, but the Wright Brothers dreamed of something bigger: controlled motorized flight. They focused on what they called the “flying problem,” but they started with the thought that the solution to the problem already existed. They studied birds to learn about how they controlled their wings and bodies to become aerodynamic, and they discovered it was in how they turned, or banked, that seemed to make a difference. They also found important insights by keeping their focus on the ground as well, considering how steering might make a difference in keeping a plane wing-level.

In 1900, the Wright Brothers were ready to put their knowledge and designs to the test, and they were ready to begin that test in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although the Wright Brothers were from Ohio and had conducted their research there, North Carolina was recommended because its geography and meteorological conditions favored flight attempts more than Ohio. The Outer Banks tend to have breezy days that would help with lift, and the sandy coastline was a bit softer than Ohio’s soil in case the plane made a hard landing. For a few years, the brothers were focused on building a glider and on achieving lift. In 1903, they were ready to add power to the plane they had constructed. They designed propellers specifically built for aviation— no such propellers existed at the time— and their shop mechanic built a custom engine for them to use. In December 1903, they brought their Wright Flyer to the sandy banks of the USA’s east coast to begin their attempts at powered flight.

Wilbur Wright circa 1903 (Source: Wikipedia)
Wilbur Wright circa 1903 (Source: Wikipedia)
The first attempt was made on December 14, 1903 and resulted in a 3-second flight, primarily due to the engine stalling after takeoff. The second attempt took place on December 17th, when Orville travelled 120 feet in 12 seconds. By the end of the day, three more attempts were in the history books: the second flight took Wilbur 175 feet down the shore, the third flight carried Orville 200 feet through the air, and the final attempt of the day sent Wilbur 852 feet down the shore in 59 seconds. The plane pitched toward the ground in the final seconds of the attempt, leaving the plane damaged when it made contact with the ground, but they achieved success: the Wright Brothers had built a motorized plane that could sustain flight.

We know what happened next: built on the research and ideas the Wright Brothers so passionately defended, aviation began to take off— literally— around the world. It wasn’t without its challenges; there were demonstration flights, lawsuits, and an accident that claimed the life of passenger Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge and left Orville injured with multiple broken bones all impacted public trust in how safe flight might actually be. Ultimately, the Wright Brothers’ advocacy contributed to where aviation is today. Many of us don’t think much about the incredible feats of engineering and physics that allow us to buckle into our seats and head 30,000 feet into the air. We certainly don’t think about how aviation’s humble beginnings are still a big part of how we fly today. The planes are flashier, the technology is more advanced, but the principles are the same. We owe a lot to the two brothers who built an aircraft and took it to North Carolina to see if it would fly. And for many of us, we can visit the very spot where powered flight crossed from concept to reality.

Visiting Wright Brothers National Memorial

Although our vacation to the Outer Banks was mostly inspired by plans to visit the site of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, there was no way I was going to spend time so close to the birthplace of powered flight and not stop by to experience it for myself. As the co-host of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, aviation safety is a passion of mine, and I spend an hour a week exploring why flight is safe because of what we learn from accidents.

Wright Brothers National Memorial Flight Markers
Wright Brothers National Memorial Flight Markers
It was a cloudy, windy day when we arrived at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. It was breezy, and some of the strongest gusts made me shiver a bit despite the heat of the mid-July day. I thought about what it might have been like for the Wright Brothers to be in the same spot in the chill of winter in similarly windy conditions, and I was instantly glad our visit was in the summer.

At the time of our visit, despite my interest in flight, I realized I knew very little about the first flight attempts in Kitty Hawk or the Wright Brothers themselves. Fortunately, the visitor center provided a very complete and engaging walkthrough of the Wright Brothers’ history, passion for aviation, and research. Most impressive within the collection is the life-size replica of the Wright Flyer, which the brothers described as the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft to achieve controlled flight. By modern standards, it’s modest. To pretend for a moment that it’s 100 years ago- that the visitor center isn’t there, the cars aren’t parked 100 yards away, that the plane and two young men are the only things that aren’t the land or ocean— it’s the most impressive thing you can imagine.

The museum also introduces plenty of color and context to bring the Wright Brothers to life a full century after their flights. We especially liked how their story was told through their own quotes, which were found in journals that documented their work over the years. The quotes celebrate the joy in learning new things, the concerns they had for their well-being, and even one about the doubts they had for the sustainability of their work. In 1912, Wilbur reflected on the 1901 work they did, saying:

“We doubted that we would ever resume our experiments. Although we had broken the record for distance in gliding… when we looked at the time and money which we had expended, and considered the progress made and the distance yet to go, we considered our experiments a failure.”
– Wilbur Wright –

When I think of the Wright Brothers, failure is not part of my vocabulary. It was interesting to get a glimpse into their headspace and think about the realities they faced and the frustrations they overcame to fly. It made me wonder how different the world would have been had they given up.

Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina
Wright Brothers Museum
The museum also provides some great interactive options for visitors to learn about the mechanics of flight. Demonstrated through the “problems of flight” the Wright Brothers needed to solve, I enjoyed the tactile approach to learning that helped put some of the challenges into a more relatable perspective. After spending some time exploring how roll, pitch, and yaw contribute to a plane’s control, I felt a set of eyes on me and looked down to see a child, perhaps five years ago, staring at me. “That’s actually meant for kids,” he told me, gesturing to the activity I was using. Although I moved out of the way, I had to smile at his comment and my own realization that a good visitor center can teach something to everyone- and even bring out the kid in a curious adult.

Outside the museum are a few highlights, including the flight line marking where the flight attempts took off and landed. We walked the full length of the flight line to fully appreciate the distance the Wright Flyer travelled, and the distance between the landing spot of the third flight and that of the fourth feels massive in person. Not far from the flight line, we looked into the reconstructed 1903 camp buildings that were built to house the brothers while they attempted to fly. One of the buildings is a hangar that shielded the plane from the elements. I was taken aback by how small the building was; it took a moment to realize that it didn’t take a large building to house a small plane. Before we wrapped up our visit, we stopped once more at the Wright Brothers Monument, which sits on top of Kill Devil Hills and provides a spectacular vantage point of the coastline that brought flight to humans. We had learned a lot, we had seen a lot, and we were glad we prioritized our visit.

Tips for Visiting Wright Brothers National Memorial

Admission is free with a Parks Pass

Our National Parks pass has paid for itself many times over, and Wright Brothers National Memorial is one of the national parks that accepts it. Purchase a pass online or at the national memorial itself; the site sells them, which can save you some time if you would rather not wait for the Post Office to drop it off at your door.

Stop by the Monument to a Century of Flight

Monument to a Century of Flight
Monument to a Century of Flight
As a great bonus, another monument worth checking out is just down the road from the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The Monument to a Century of Flight features 14 pillars shaped like a plane’s wings that honor 100 key moments in the history of flight. You won’t need long to visit, but it’s a free, quiet, and peaceful place outdoors that showcases how quickly aviation matured.

The real plane isn’t there

The 1903 Wright Flyer is still intact, but you won’t find it in North Carolina. The original flyer is in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The Wright Flyer replica on display is still worth seeing, and the fact it isn’t the real plane takes nothing away from the visiting experience.

Check the weather

Our summertime visit had some warm temperatures, and although the breeze was helpful it was a hot, humid day. Take your outdoor basics—water, a hat, and sunscreen—to protect yourself from the hot sun and dehydration. The visitor center provides some relief, but the area near the flight path is largely unshaded.

Enjoy Wright Brothers National Memorial!

It gets a little windy in Kitty Hawk!
Vacation time is essential to our wellbeing, and for many of us relaxation starts as soon as our plane is wheels up and taking us to a warm beach, a vibrant city, or an unexplored spot. We didn’t need to fly to visit North Carolina, but our trip to the Wright Brothers National Memorial reminded us that so many of our favorite destinations and most treasured memories wouldn’t be ours without the art and science of flight. If your travels take you to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, spend an afternoon learning about air travel’s humble origins and how two brothers made the world more accessible to many of us. What you learn may change your perspective as you board your next flight!

More Information: NPS.gov/wrbr

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Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina