Exploring Aviation History in North Carolina

As you fly away to your next destination, have you thought about the wonders of flight? A great escape is to explore aviation history in North Carolina. Here is what you need to know.

Cold winds gust…the engine roars to life…now the flyer is in the air. These were the first words I saw when I entered the Visitors Center at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They had considerably more significance after I saw the exhibits and stood on the site where Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first motor-operated flying machine. Who would have guessed that aviation history in North Carolina would be so interesting?

Like most people, I learned about Wilbur and Orville Wright in school. I knew the first flight occurred on December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. However, I didn’t know their success was the culmination of four years of scientific experimentation that included many setbacks and failures.

Aviation History in North Carolina, the Wright Brothers have a dream.

Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first motor-operated flying machine on December 17, 1903. Photo by Marni Patterson

During a recent press trip to the Outer Banks, I had the opportunity to explore aviation history in North Carolina. Join me on a tour to learn how the Wright Brothers taught the world to fly.

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A Toy Helicopter Changed Aviation History

I was surprised to learn that a wind-up toy powered by a rubber band changed aviation history. In 1878, when Wilbur was 11 and Orville was 7, their father bought them a toy helicopter. When they threw it in the air, it flew across the room, hit the ceiling, and fluttered instead of falling to the ground. The helicopter design fascinated the brothers, which inspired their lifelong love of aeronautics and flying.

Helicopter Toy.

Wilbur and Orville’s father gave them a toy that inspired their lifelong love of flying. Photo by Marni Patterson

Why Were the Wright Brothers Successful?

I was amazed at how many other inventors tried to design flying machines. Some tried using a steam-powered or internal-combustion engine. Others experimented with gliders to find a way to maintain level and balance. So, why did the Wright Brothers succeed when so many others failed?

The brothers designed a lightweight commercial engine because they weren’t satisfied with the available ones. They also developed the first effective airplane propeller. However, their major breakthrough was inventing three-axis control—roll, pitch, and yaw, which gave pilots complete steering control and changed aviation history.

Aviation History in North Carolina, Three Axes of Control.

The Wright Brothers’ invention of three-axis control was a major aviation history breakthrough. Photo by Marni Patterson

How Bicycles and Birds Contributed to Aviation History

I would never have believed that riding a bicycle could hold the key to designing a flying machine, but the Wright Brothers did. In the 1890s, bicycles were a new craze catching fire nationwide. Wilbur and Orville opened the Wright Cycle Company in Dayton, Ohio, in 1892 to fix bicycles and eventually manufactured and sold two bicycles they designed.

Wright Cycle Company.

The brothers applied their knowledge of bicycles to design a flying machine that pilots could steer and control. Photo by Marni Patterson

They applied what they knew about balance and control while riding bicycles to flying and accomplished what other inventors had failed to achieve. They also observed how birds twist their wings in flight to maintain control in air currents and replicated the same motion with the flying machine’s fixed wings.

Pro Tip: Get a close-up view of a reproduction of the Wright Brothers’ flying machine in the Visitors Center. The original is in the National Air and Space Museum in the Smithsonian.

Why Kitty Hawk was the Perfect Test Site

I wondered why the Wright Brothers chose Kitty Hawk as a test site when they lived in Dayton, Ohio. I got the answer when we joined a tour led by a park ranger.

The brothers needed a sparsely populated area with wide-open treeless spaces and strong, steady winds. Kitty Hawk was ideal because of its Mid-Atlantic coast location and miles of sloping dunes for takeoffs and soft landings.

We also learned several downsides came with those advantages. Few people lived in the Outer Banks at the time. So, there weren’t many machine shops or places to buy tools and materials. If the brothers needed to fix or repair components, Wilbur or Orville often had to return to Dayton and make them in their workshop.

The brothers lived on the test site, and we saw a reproduction of the hangar and their living quarters. However, they got some relief from the spartan conditions because many residents invited them to dinner or offered them a room in their homes during the winter.

The living quarters on the test site.

Reproduction of the Wright Brothers’ living quarters at the test site. Photo by Marni Patterson

Pro Tip: The tour is 30 minutes long and is available daily at 11:00 am, 1:00 pm, and 3:00 pm. Listen for the announcement and meet on the steps behind the Visitors Center.

12 Seconds That Changed the World

After more than four years of hard work, experimentation, and many setbacks, the Wright Brothers were ready to test their flying machine. We stood in the exact spot where they made aviation history almost 120 years ago.

The Wright Brothers take-off point.

A large boulder shows where the first flight piloted by Orville Wright left the ground. Photo by Marni Patterson

The brothers flipped a coin to see who’d make the first flight. Orville won and flew 120 feet in 12 seconds. Wilbur went next and flew 175 feet in 12 seconds. It was Orville’s turn again, and he flew 200 feet in 15 seconds. During the fourth and final flight, Wilbur flew 852 feet for 59 seconds.

The flight landing markers.

The Wright Brothers made four flights, and markers show the location of each landing. Photo by Marni Patterson

The Wright Brothers Monument and Sculpture

After finishing the tour, we visited the 60-foot-tall Wright Brothers Monument at the top of Kill Devil Hill, where the brothers conducted glider experiments. The cornerstone was laid on December 17, 1928, the 25th anniversary of the first flight. Over 1,000 people attended the official dedication in 1932, including Orville Wright.

Aviation History in North Carolina, the Wright Brothers Monument.

The Wright Brothers Monument is atop Kill Devil Hill, where the brothers conducted glider experiments. Photo by Marni Patterson

Our last stop was a bronze and steel sculpture south of Kill Devil Hill that shows a reenactment of the first flight. It was a gift from the State of North Carolina and was dedicated in 2003. Orville is the pilot, and Wilbur runs alongside as the flying machine lifts off the ground. Witnesses who assisted with the flights and helped change the course of aviation history are watching and cheering them on.

Wright Brothers Sculpture.

A bronze and steel sculpture south of Kill Devil Hill shows a reenactment of the first flight. Photo by Marni Patterson

Pro Tip #1: There are three parking areas along the road that circles Kill Devil Hill. Park in the second lot by the sculpture for the best view of the Wright Brothers Monument.

Pro Tip #2: It’s OK to touch the sculpture and climb on it but be careful because the surfaces get hot and can be slippery.

Achieving The Impossible

In 1903, people thought human flight was an impossible dream and a trip to the Moon was pure fantasy. When Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon 66 years later, he carried a wood fragment from the left propeller and a piece of fabric from the upper left wing of the flying machine to recognize the Wright Brothers’ contribution to aviation history. Both are on display in the Visitors Center.

The Wright Brothers and Moon Landing are a testament to North Carolina's Aviation History.

Neil Armstrong paid tribute to the Wright Brothers when he walked on the surface of the Moon. Photo by Marni Patterson

Our trip ended the following day, and we went to the beach for a last look at the ocean. At 11:00 am, I was knee-deep in the Atlantic Ocean with sand between my toes. A few hours later, I was home in Phoenix, Arizona. A trip that took weeks or even months 100 years ago now takes hours because the Wright Brothers believed the impossible was possible and never gave up.

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More Insights on History and North Carolina

Whether you’re looking for windswept beaches, mountain scenery, quaint historical towns, or aviation history, you’ll find it in North Carolina.  Be sure to check out Wander With Wonder for more ideas on where to learn more exciting history and what to see and do in North Carolina.

As you fly away to your next destination, have you thought about the wonders of flight? A great escape is to explore aviation history in North Carolina. Here is what you need to know.

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Exploring Aviation History in North Carolina

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