wright brothers

Wearing the visiting team’s colors on the home team’s side of the stands at a basketball game is just asking for trouble, or at least a little good-natured my-school-is-better-than-your-school ribbing. However, I never expected a full-blown argument to erupt over the origin of flight.

But there I was in Joel Coliseum, my first game in my adopted home state of North Carolina, having a finger wagged in my face over my defense of my alma mater and its namesakes: Wright State University and the Wright brothers, respectively.

The exchange began innocently enough. It was halftime. My Wright State Raiders were getting thumped by his Wake Forest Demon Deacons. I was wearing my Raiders shirt. He was wearing his Deacs shirt.

“So where is Wright State, anyway?” Mr. Deacon asked.

Flattered by his curiosity, I explained that the school is named for Orville and Wilbur Wright and is just outside the brothers’ — and my — hometown of Dayton, Ohio. And then, regrettably, I added those three magic words … those three fighting words: “Yeah, Dayton, Ohio, the ‘Birthplace of Aviation.’ ”

Mr. Deacon paused, apparently overcome by my audacity, and then, in no uncertain terms, explained that while the Wright brothers may have been from Dayton, Ohio, they solved the problem of flight here on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was here that the Wrights made that first flight. The first flight. That, he said, is why North Carolina is the “Birthplace of Aviation.”

In response, I produced my Ohio driver’s license with the saying emblazoned across the top. He produced a North Carolina state quarter depicting the Wright Flyer; I did the same with an Ohio quarter. At one point in the exchange, I recall saying, “A brick could fly at Kitty Hawk.” Mr. Deacon replied with a “flying leap” comment.

Finally, I offered an argument that I thought would put this fellow in his place: My mother graduated from Wilbur Wright High School. My father was stationed at Wright Field. I graduated from Wright State. All of which are in Dayton, Ohio. If North Carolina is so proud of the Wright brothers, why aren’t there similar tributes here?

With that, he paused. Looked at me sympathetically, almost pityingly, and said: “You’ve never actually been to Kill Devil Hills, have you?”

• • •
 

Getting out to the Outer Banks, to Kill Devil Hills, to Kitty Hawk, is relatively simple these days — at least relative to what Orville and Wilbur endured. On a good day, the 200-mile drive out U.S. Highway 64 from Raleigh to Nags Head takes about three hours. During the summer, on holiday weekends, and when you decide, “No, I don’t need to stop to use the restroom; I’ll just wait until we get to the hotel,” the trip can take much, much longer.

Wilbur Wright made his first trip to the Outer Banks in September 1900. He boarded a train with the makings of their 1900 glider on September 6 in Dayton and — after a steamer ride to Norfolk, Virginia; another train trip down to Elizabeth City; and a harrowing three days on a rickety schooner crossing the Albemarle Sound — Wilbur set foot on Outer Banks sand in the fishing village of Kitty Hawk on the morning of September 13.

Like many tourists, Wilbur — and Orville, who joined his brother in Kitty Hawk 11 days later — came to the Outer Banks for the sand and solitude. And maybe a little fun, as Wilbur told his father in a letter dated September 23, 1900: “My trip would be no great disappointment if I accomplish practically nothing. I look upon it as a pleasure trip pure and simple, and I know of no trip from which I could expect greater pleasure at the same cost.”

“The brothers made the Outer Banks sound like a slice of heaven,” says Amanda Wright Lane, a trustee of the Wright Family Foundation and great-grandniece of Uncle Orv and Uncle Will. “They described the fishing, beautiful beaches, hunting. But they also wrote about the mosquitoes and hot weather.”

The biggest reasons the brothers chose Kitty Hawk, though, were steady winds and, believe it or not, the Outer Banks’ proximity to Dayton.

“If you look at a map, Kitty Hawk is about the closest beach to Dayton,” says Bill Harris, Kitty Hawk native and a former superintendent of the Cape Hatteras Group of the National Park Service, which includes the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills. “It’s a little more difficult to get here, of course.”

The Wrights’ first powered flight wouldn’t put Kitty Hawk on the map for another 25 years, but the brothers’  impact on the tiny fishing village was immediate.

“The economics of this place were so nicely balanced before our arrival that everybody here could live and yet nothing be wasted,” Orville wrote to his sister in the fall of 1900. “Our presence brought disaster to the whole arrangement. We, having more money than the natives, have been able to buy up the whole egg product of the town and about all the canned goods in the store. I fear some of them will have to suffer as a result.”

Some of the locals weren’t too keen on what the fellas from Ohio — dressed in their business suits and derbies and throwing their funny-looking kite off the dunes — were up to, either.

“Some thought they were doing the Devil’s work,” Harris says. “We had two religions in the community: Methodists were the ‘down-the-road’ community and primitive Baptists were ‘up the road.’ The primitive Baptists would have been very much opposed to the Devil’s work that the Wrights were involved in. And they would express that.”

“People in Kitty Hawk didn’t understand it, but they were willing to lend a hand,” Wright Lane says. But, she adds, “North Carolina was not alone in thinking the guys were a little odd. People in Dayton were skeptical, too.”

• • •
 

Even before the Wrights arrived on the Outer Banks, locals were helping the brothers. When Wilbur sent a letter to the Weather Bureau Office at Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station asking whether the area might be suitable for flying experiments, the village’s postmaster, William Tate, replied with an enthusiastic invitation: “If you decide to try your machine here & come I will take pleasure in doing all I can for your convenience & success & pleasure, & I assure you you will find a hospitable people when you come among us.”

Wilbur’s first taste of that hospitality came when he stepped off the boat onto Outer Banks sand. Wilbur was met by a teenage Elijah Baum — Bill Harris’s grandfather — who was crabbing along the shore. Wilbur — wet, tired, and hungry from his trek — asked Elijah how to get to the Tates’ house, and instead of telling the outsider directions, Elijah led Wilbur down a shortcut across a swamp to the Tates’ doorstep.

The Wrights stayed with the Tates until the brothers were ready to pitch camp south of the village later that fall. Orville and Wilbur then spent most of October 1900 testing their glider — and honing their theories about pitch, roll, and yaw — on the slopes of Kill Devil Hills. By the end of their first visit, and after several dozen successful manned flights, the inventors from Dayton were entertaining the prospect of returning to the wind, sand, and solitude of the Outer Banks. But, Wright Lane says, “It was the Outer Banks hospitality that clinched them coming back.”

Over the next three autumns, the Wrights’ camp was a regular feature south of Kitty Hawk. The brothers were still mostly known as strangers to villagers, more by their attire than from conversation, but they did forge bonds with members of the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station, which was about a mile south of the Wrights’ camp.

“There is a gene in every lifesaver to want to help,” says James Charlet, historic site manager at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site and Museum in Rodanthe. In the Wrights’ case, the help the lifesavers provided was essential to solving the problem of flight: “They were the world’s first ground crew,” Charlet says.

On days when the wind was strong and steady, the Wrights hoisted a red flag made from a bedsheet that signaled to the lifesavers at the Kill Devil Hills station that the brothers would need help carrying the glider up the dunes — a task with which the off-duty lifesavers would help on  countless occasions.

The pinnacle of the lifesavers’ contribution to the story of flight was when one of those lifesavers, John Daniels, photographed the first flight — one of the most reproduced images  in the world. It’s the same scene, complete with Daniels and the camera, that’s reproduced in the five-ton, stainless steel-and-bronze “December 17, 1903” sculpture/jungle gym at the south end of the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

When the Wrights set up camp among the sand dunes south of the tiny village of Kitty Hawk, the only building in what today is Kill Devil Hills was the seaside life saving station.

 

Pacing off the 120 feet Orville Wright flew on the first flight is pretty easy. A First Flight Boulder at the Wright Brothers National Memorial marks the spot where the Wright Flyer lifted off on the morning of December 17, 1903, and a stone marker denotes where the 12-second trip ended.

Even with a steady headwind, the 50 or so steps from the boulder to the marker take about as long to walk as it did for Orville to fly the same distance.

The hardest part of the pedestrian version of the flight is resisting the urge to recreate the trip by running down the path with outstretched airplane arms — while imitating the sound of a sputtering airplane engine, of course.

The most inspired of the almost 500,000 visitors to the Wright Brothers National Memorial continue in airplane-arms mode to the marker for the second flight at 175 feet, and then to the third flight at 200 feet.

In homage to the brothers’ achievement, a few aviation fanatics keep up the I’m-a-plane charade all the way to the fourth flight marker — 852 feet from where the 1903 Wright Flyer lifted off — but, really, unless you’re 4 years old, the act gets a little silly after 100 yards or so.

At the end of their walking “flights,” visitors about-face to walk those 120, 175, 200, or 852 feet back to the start, to the base of Kill Devil Hill — a 90-foot-tall grass-covered dune on which the Wright Brothers Monument stands.

From this head-on angle and almost a half-mile away, the scale of the 60-foot-tall monument is difficult to appreciate. At this distance, the pines and oaks that ring the 428-acre site seem like shrubs, and the people climbing up the paths that braid around the dune seem impossibly tiny compared to the monument above.

On breezy days — or, as they’re known in Kill Devil Hills, “days” — kites climb and dip and zigzag around, but never above, the monument. The same wind blows down the beach just a couple of blocks to the east, but the air carries more weight, and deserves more respect, here. It’s an honor to play on the same drafts that Orville and Wilbur mastered more than a century ago.

Ascending the dune, the sweeping wings carved into the sides of the wedge-shaped monument take shape. Likewise, the inscription wrapping around its base comes into view: “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Conceived by genius. Achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”

Visitors mill about the base, unaware that the monument’s star-shaped plaza is identical to the one under The Statue of Liberty. Unaware that the 1,200 tons of granite used for the monument were quarried in Mount Airy and ferried here on barges. Moms and dads snap smartphone pics of their kids in front of the inscription’s “GENIUS,” which stands alone on the pylon’s north edge. Teens peer out over the treetops toward the ocean and the miles of beach that they’re not sunbathing on.

The monument at the Wright Brothers Memorial is the nation’s largest tribute to Orville and Wilbur, but not the first on the Outer Banks. That distinction goes to a six-foot-tall marble marker erected in 1928 in the Tates’ front yard. Pride in the Wrights and the role Kitty Hawk played in the brothers’ feat inspired townspeople to donate spare dimes and dollars to raise $210 for the marker. This original monument, cracked and worn from the elements, was moved to the town hall in 1987, and a marble reproduction was erected where the original had stood.

Local pride gave way to national pride with the dedication of the Wright Brothers National Memorial in 1932. Organizers of the event prepared for overflowing crowds, but wind and rain kept the turnout to about 1,000. Wilbur had died of typhoid in Dayton in 1912, but Orville attended the dedication — one of the first times a living honoree attended his own memorial dedication.

Along with celebrities of the day, such as Amelia Earhart, Wright Lane’s father and uncle, who were 10 and 12 years old at the time, attended the dedication. Surrounded by trench coat-clad dignitaries, the boys amused themselves by watching the wind punish the flaps of the circus-size tent in which everyone was assembled, wondering when the structure would take flight.

Like the first tribute to the Wrights, the elements took a toll on the monument over time. Constructed on a budget of $213,000, the restoration of the landmark totaled $931,490, which was paid for by the nonprofit First Flight Foundation.

• • •
 

Hats don’t stand much of a chance on top of Kill Devil Hill. Most hats, anyway. Visitors stand with one hand on top of their head to keep their baseball caps from blowing off, but National Park Service historian Darrel Collins’s stiff-brimmed ranger hat barely quivers. Maybe Collins knows more about how the angle of the wind affects lift. Or maybe he’s been sharing the story of the Wrights’ solving the problem of manned flight for so long that he  knows just where to stand so that his audience blocks the wind for him.

Along with hats, conversations also fall victim to the whistle of the wind — at least conversations between soft talkers, among whom I count myself and Collins.

With my hand cupped against my right ear, I turn my head to hear Collins tell the tale of Icarus, which is depicted in bas-relief on the monument doors. Just as hubris is about to doom the intrepid Greek aviator, someone else catches my eye and my ear.

“Well, that’s just stupid,” I hear, and see a stranger in a New York Yankees cap yell at my wife, Megan, as she searches out a spot out of the wind, along the monument’s perimeter.

Before Icarus can even return to earth, I visit Megan to find out what, exactly, Mr. Yankee finds “stupid.”

“What was that about?” I ask Megan.

Apparently, she explains, Mr. Yankee is miffed that he pulled his family off the beach to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial only to find out that the brothers aren’t buried here.

“I told him they’re buried in Dayton, Ohio, where they lived and where they died,” Megan says.

As Mr. Yankee is collecting his brood to leave, he offers a parting shot to no one in particular: “We should have just gone to Dayton, Ohio.”

I’m sure Mr. Yankee meant for his farewell to be taken as an insult of some sort, but, instead, here, in the state that welcomed the Wrights, on the dunes where the brothers returned every year to master the wind, on the spot where flight was conquered, Mr. Yankee’s words fell clumsily to the ground like some pre-Wrights coulda-woulda-shoulda flying machine.

If Mr. Yankee wants to share the entire story of flight with his family, of course he should go to Dayton, and see Huffman Prairie where Orville and Wilbur mastered steering their machine. He should go to Le Mans, France, to see where Wilbur flew the Wrights’ aeroplane for cheering crowds and where the world’s first monument to flight stands. And he should visit the Kennedy Space Center and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. To fully appreciate what the Wright brothers did here in North Carolina for the first time ever and anywhere, Mr. Yankee absolutely should go anywhere and everywhere the Wright brothers’ invention is celebrated. Just don’t drive. Fly.


Carolinas Aviation Museum
4672 1st Flight Drive Charlotte, NC 28208
(704) 997-3770
carolinaaviation.org

North Carolina Museum of History
5 East Edenton Street
Raleigh, NC 27601
(919) 807-7850
ncmuseumofhistory.org

North Carolina Transportation Museum
411 South Salisbury Avenue
Spencer, NC 28159
(704) 636-2889
nctrans.org

Wright Brothers National Memorial
1000 North Croatan Highway
Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948
(252) 473-2111
nps.gov/wrbr


This story was published on

Todd Dulaney is the senior editor at Our State.

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