April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
What the Wright brothers did in a wild and distant place made its name famous around the world. Their biographer visits the Outer Banks to find what remains of the epochal outpost.
Wilbur Wright boarded a Big Four train at the Union Station in Dayton, Ohio, at six-thirty on the evening of Thursday, September 6, 1900. Thirty-three years old, he was setting off on the first great adventure of his life. Other than a trip to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with his younger brother, Orville, in 1893, Wilbur had ventured no farther than a bicycle ride from his home in more than sixteen years. Now he was traveling southeast through the night toward one of the most remote and isolated spots on the East Coast of the United States.
His destination, a place called Kitty Hawk, was a tiny fishing village that lay midway down the first leg of a 120-mile-long ribbon of sand running south from Norfolk in a great arc paralleling the coast of North Carolina. These were the fabled Outer Banks, a thin chain of barrier sand islands ranging from a few hundred feet at the narrowest point to perhaps three or four miles at the widest. They were broken by a series of channels or inlets that connected the wild Atlantic surf to the shallow inland sounds that separated the inner shore of the Banks from the swampy wilderness of mainland Carolina.
Wilbur had prepared for this journey with his usual care, studying maps of the region and reading what little he could find on the subject in the Dayton Public Library. Already he was captivated by the undeniable romance of the Outer Banks. Even the place names—Currituck, Albemarle, Pamlico, Nags Head, Wanchese, Manteo, Ocracoke—had an exotic ring to the ears of a city boy from Ohio.
He knew that the earliest chapters of American history had been written on the shifting sands and shallow waters of coastal Carolina. Giovanni da Verrazano and the crew of La Dauphine had cruised this coast in 1524. Verrazano passed close by the Nags Head Woods, very near the spot where Wilbur and Orville would be camping. He remarked upon the “sweet savours” of the trees and kidnapped an Indian boy for presentation at the French court.
The English had followed in Verrazano’s wake. Gazing across Kitty Hawk Bay, you can see the lonely pines of Roanoke Island, the site of the first English colony in the New World—the first outpost of Elizabethan empire. It was the Lost Colony, vanished without a trace, and the first English child born in the New World gone with it.
This had been Blackbeard’s country as well. The pirate died in a sea battle fought off Ocracoke in 1718.
Not all the local pirates had operated at sea. Many of the exotic place-names reflected a sinister past. Nags Head and Jockey’s Ridge, for example, recalled the exploits of the eighteenth-century wreckers who ventured out onto the crests of the dunes leading a horse with a lantern tied around its neck. The bobbing light, resembling the sternpost lantern of an inshore vessel, lured mariners onto the treacherous shoals, where their cargoes could be salvaged.
The origin of other local place-names remained a puzzle. By Blackbeard’s time the spot Verrazano had dubbed Arcadia was already appearing on coastal maps as Chickahauk. Whether this was a corruption of chicken hawk or a version of some long-forgotten Indian word is uncertain. Another century was to transform it to Kitty Hawk, and so it would remain.
Wilbur had assured his father that this journey to the remote fastness of Kitty Hawk was a pleasure trip, pure and simple. That was not really true. Prior to boarding he had helped load the parts of a glider into a boxcar at the rear of the train. Wilbur was determined to fly.
It was an odd ambition for a man whom friends and neighbors had simply regarded as completely ordinary. He and Orville were the bachelor sons of a church bishop. They were quiet, well dressed, hardworking, and polite to a fault. But for Wilbur, it was no longer enough simply to be well thought of in the community. Life seemed to be slipping through his fingers. Determined to make his mark before it was too late, he had set off in search of a challenge against which he could measure himself. He found it in the airplane.
Most sensible men and women regarded the flying machine as the very definition of the impossible. By the spring of 1899 Wilbur had decided they were wrong. He had read most of what was available on the subject of flight and discussed it with Orv, whose own interest was now piqued. They argued the issues back and forth between them, drawing a few basic conclusions of their own in the process. That summer they translated what they knew, or thought they knew, into a biplane kite designed to test the validity of their notions of flight control.
It worked, and they immediately pressed forward to the design of a glider/kite large enough to carry a man into the air. The actual construction of the machine would have to wait for a while. As usual, the brothers spent the fall and winter of 1899–1900 constructing the next year’s stock of Wright bicycles. Business at the shop would keep them busy through the following spring and summer. They were, however, able to devote a few hours to the task of selecting a testing ground.
The brothers knew that they would not be able to fly their machine in Dayton. They had calculated how much their glider would weigh when it was complete and how much lift its wings would generate. If they were to remain in the air for any length of time, the Wrights would have to locate a spot where there were strong, steady winds blowing from fifteen to twenty miles per hour, day in and day out. Ideally the site would also offer seclusion, high conical hills down which to glide, and soft sand to ease the shock of landing. Dayton had none of those things.
It was not in their nature to indulge in guesswork. The brothers wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, requesting information on prevailing wind conditions. A few weeks later they received the August and September 1899 numbers of the official Monthly Weather Review, which included a tabulation of the average hourly wind velocities recorded at 120 Weather Bureau stations.
They learned that Chicago was, indeed, one of the windiest cities in the nation, with an average daily velocity of 16.9 miles per hour for the month of September. But the Wrights had already decided that they would not conduct their experiments in an urban area, where they might attract the attention of the press. Nor did any of the other four stations recording average winds of more than 13.5 miles per hour meet the requirements of isolation, suitable hills, and sand.
Moving down the list, they discovered that the sixth highest average wind in the United States (13.4) had been recorded at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Neither of them had ever heard of the place. Few people had. Still, while the average wind was on the low side for the calculated performance of the planned glider/kite, additional tables in the journal indicated that Kitty Hawk offered a reasonable number of clear, rain-free days each fall, with occasional winds much above the average. It would bear looking into.
On August 3, 1900, Wilbur wrote to the Weather Bureau office at Kitty Hawk. Joseph J. Dosher, the sole bureau employee on the scene, sent a short reply indicating that the beach near his station was a mile wide and clear of trees and other obstructions. The winds in September and October blew from the north and northeast. Wilbur would be able to obtain board in the village, Dosher said, but housing would be a problem. He would have to bring a tent and camp out.
In an afterthought, Dosher passed Wilbur’s letter on to William J. Tate, a local postmaster, notary, and recently elected member of the Board of Commissioners for Currituck County. Tate responded to Wilbur on his own, commenting on the relative “fitness of Kitty Hawk as a place to practice or experiment with a flying machine, etc.
“In answering I would say that you would find here nearly any type of ground you could wish; you could, for instance, get a stretch of sandy land one mile by five with a bare hill in the center 80 feet high, not a tree or bush anywhere to break [the] evenness of the wind current. This in my opinion would be a fine place; our winds are always steady, generally from 10 to 20 miles velocity per hour.”
Tate was obviously a man of some warmth. He closed his letter with an invitation that was difficult to resist. “If you decide to try your machine here & come,” he remarked, “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.” Kitty Hawk it would be.
The task of building the glider would be split between Dayton and Kitty Hawk. The Wrights began by cutting, sanding, steaming, and bending the roughly one hundred wooden pieces that would form the wings and frame of the craft. In addition, they purchased other materials that would not be available at Kitty Hawk, including metal fittings and fasteners, spools of fifteen-gauge spring steel wire for trussing the wings, and yards of glistening sateen fabric to be cut and sewn into the panels that would cover the finished wings.
Wilbur, they had decided, would make the journey alone. Orv remained behind to tend the bike shop. He would join his brother only if conditions at Kitty Hawk seemed promising. Wilbur had never been a particularly adventurous soul. Years before, when they had first become interested in cycling, Orv had been the “scorcher,” the fellow who risked life and limb in the races at the county fairground. This time Will was the one traveling into the unknown. It was a trip he would never forget.
Arriving at historic Old Point Comfort at six o’clock on the evening of Friday, September 7, 1900, Wilbur loaded his gear onto the steamer Pennsylvania for the short trip across historic Hampton Roads, where the James and York rivers flow across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic. He was up and about early the next morning. The lumberyards back in Dayton had been unable to furnish the long pieces of spruce that would be required for the main wing spars of the glider, and Norfolk, the largest city on his route south, was his last chance to get them. Close to collapse after several hours of fruitless searching in the humid hundred-degree heat of Indian summer on the Virginia peninsula, he finally settled for white pine.
But there was no way to travel down the length of the Banks. There were no roads at all, and no bridges across the inlets or the sounds. So Wilbur boarded another train that carried him south to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, situated near the spot where the Pasquotank River entered Albemarle Sound.
He arrived on September 8. After checking into the Arlington Hotel, he visited the city docks, inquiring about the price of water transport on to Kitty Hawk. Wilbur was startled to discover that “no one seemed to know anything about the place or how to get there.” Not until Tuesday, September 11, was he able to find a boatman, Israel Perry, who was willing to ferry him down the sound and across the head of Roanoke Island to the Outer Banks. Perry explained that his boat, a flat-bottomed fishing schooner, was anchored three miles down the Pasquotank, in the relatively deep water midchannel, just inside the entrance to the sound.
“We started in his skiff,” Wilbur wrote, “which was loaded almost to the gunwale with three men, my heavy trunk and lumber.
“The boat leaked very badly and frequently dipped water, but by constant bailing we managed to reach the schooner in safety. The weather was very fine with a light west wind blowing. When I mounted the deck of the larger boat I discovered at a glance that it was in worse condition if possible than the skiff. The sails were rotten, the ropes badly worn and the rudderpost half rotted off, and the cabin so dirty and vermin-infested that I kept out of it from first to last.”
They started down the Pasquotank immediately after dinner in a wind so light that it was nearly dark by the time they entered the sound and turned east toward the Banks. “The water was much rougher than the light wind would have led us to expect,” Wilbur noted. “Israel spoke of it several times and seemed a little uneasy.”
The reason for the skipper’s unease became apparent when the wind shifted to the south and east and began to grow stronger. Even a landlubber like Wilbur could see that Perry’s flat-bottomed scow, with its large deck cabin and light load, was ill equipped to make its way against the growing headwind.
“The waves which were now running quite high struck the boat from below with a heavy shock and threw it back about as fast as it went forward. The leeway was greater than the headway. The strain of rolling and pitching sprang a leak and this, together with what water came over the bow at times, made it necessary to bail frequently.”
By eleven o’clock that night the north winds were driving the boat dangerously close to the shore. Perry was struggling to make his way past the North River Point light, so that he could swing up into the channel of the North River and take shelter behind the point. Just as they drew abreast of the river, a gust blew the foresail loose from the boom with a “terrible roar.” Wilbur wrote in his journal: “The boy and I finally succeeded in taking it in, though it was rather dangerous work in the dark with the boat rolling so badly.”
After some further frightening maneuvers, during which the mainsail also tore loose from the boom, Perry worked the schooner around and back up into the safety of the North River channel. They remained at anchor in the channel, making repairs, until midafternoon of the following day. Unwilling to touch any of the food aboard the schooner, Wilbur subsisted on a single jar of jelly that his sister, Katharine, had packed for him.
Looking across the choppy waters in the fading afternoon light of September 12, Wilbur could just make out the dark line of trees that marked the sound side of the Outer Banks. It was 9 P.M. when they tied up at the single dock in Kitty Hawk Bay. Venturing ashore for the first time in two days early the next morning, he was met by a young fellow who introduced himself as Elijah Baum and who guided him up a sandy lane to the Tate house. It was a two-story structure, sided with unplaned lumber weathered by the elements to a blotchy slate gray.
Wilbur was expected and received a warm welcome. He arranged to lodge and board with the Tates, at least temporarily. He had only one request: Having inspected the shallow open well in the yard, Wilbur asked that he be provided with a pitcher of boiled water each morning. The danger of typhoid was never far from his mind.
He set to work immediately, assembling the glider beneath a canvas shelter erected in the Tates’ front yard. The woodwork and rigging went quickly enough. Mrs. Tate allowed Wilbur to use her pride and joy, a Kenwood sewing machine, to stitch the fabric wing-panels together. Orv appeared at the Tates’ door on Friday, September 28. Unable to wait any longer, he had hired a young fellow to watch the shop.
Orville shared his brother’s room at the Tates’ for a few days while they were putting the finishing touches on the machine. They moved out of the Tate house on October 4 and set up camp in a tent pitched half a mile away. The weeks and months of dreaming were over. The time had come to test their theories in the harsh and dangerous laboratory of the sky.
We are not certain when they made their first trial, but it was probably on Wednesday, October 3, 1900—the day before they set up their camp on the edge of the dunes. The day began with a series of tests during which the machine was flown as an unmanned kite. After a few minutes of this, Wilbur found it impossible to resist trying his hand at the game. Orv and Bill Tate towed him aloft by running into the wind.
The two of them would fly the machine like a kite, playing out the line as slowly and carefully as possible considering the excitement of the moment. Many years later Orville recalled that Wilbur had reached an altitude of perhaps ten feet when the glider began to bob rapidly up and down. That was quite enough for Will, who began to scream, “Let me down!” A sustained tug on both tether ropes was enough to settle the craft gently back onto the sand. Orville had difficulty containing himself. Why all the worry just when things were getting interesting? Wilbur could only comment, “I promised Pop I’d take care of myself.”
Those first few seconds aloft were enough to convince Wilbur of the need for continued testing of the glider as an unmanned kite. Using a borrowed fish scale to measure the pull of the glider on the line and an anemometer to determine the wind speed, the brothers set to work calculating the forces operating on the machine in flight.
Just how dangerous this flying business really was became clear to them on the afternoon of October 10. They had just completed a test flight and were adjusting the control lines when, as Orville recalled, “without a sixteenth of a second’s notice, the wind caught under one corner, and quicker than thought, it [the glider] landed twenty feet away.”
It was over in a flash. The right side of the machine was completely smashed. The brothers dragged the pieces back to camp and spoke of going home.
Things looked brighter the next morning. The damage was extensive but not irreparable. Wilbur and Orville had the required woodworking skills, and it would be a shame to abandon the tests so soon. They had been out only three days and had made only one aborted attempt at a manned ascent.
As Orville reported, “The next three days [October 11,12, and 13] were spent in repairing, holding the tent down, and hunting; mostly the last….” It was a respite from the excitement of experimentation and their first opportunity to look around. They were fascinated by what they found.
Compared with the amenities of life in middle-class Dayton, this was a harsh and unforgiving country. “But the sand! The sand is the greatest thing in Kitty Hawk, and soon will be the only thing,” Orville said. He noted that the dune on which they were camping rested on what had once been a small house. Fierce winter storms sweeping across the Banks had buried the homestead. The rotting upper branches of a shade tree protruding above the dune was all that remained to mark the spot. Bill Tate was in the process of tearing down a house near the Wright campsite, “to save it from the sand.”
The Wrights had never encountered anything like a storm on the Banks. The wind shaking the tent sounded like thunder, Orville explained to his sister, Katharine, a few days after arriving in Kitty Hawk. “About two or three nights a week we have to crawl up at ten or eleven o’clock to hold the tent down. When one of these 45-mile nor’easters strikes us, you can depend on it, there is little sleep in our camp for the night…. When we crawl out of the tent to fix things outside the sand fairly blinds us. It blows across the ground in clouds. We certainly can’t complain of the place. We came down here for wind and sand, and we have got them.”
The winter cold of the Outer Banks cut straight through to the bone, as Wilbur wrote his father and sister, three seasons later. “In addition to … 1, 2,3 and 4 blanket nights, we now have 5 blanket nights, & 5 blankets & 2 quilts. Next come 5 blankets, 2 quilts & fire; then 5, 2, fire & hot water jug…. Next come the addition of sleeping without undressing, then shoes & hats, and finally overcoats.”
Nor were the storms and cold the only hardships to be faced at Kitty Hawk. A plague of blackflies and mosquitoes descended on the isolated dune country in the late summer and early fall. “They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks,” Orville reported to Katharine. “Lumps began swelling up all over my body…. Misery! Misery!”
But there was another side to the Outer Banks. “The sunsets here are the prettiest I have ever seen,” Orville told his sister. “The clouds light up in all colors in the background, with deep blue clouds of various shapes fringed with gold before. The moon rises in much the same style, and lights up this pile of sand almost like day. I read my watch at all hours of the night on moonless nights without the aid of any light other than that of the stars shining on the canvas of the tent.”
Ultimately it was the Bankers themselves who most appealed to the Wrights. They tended to be a wild, undisciplined, and self-reliant lot who eked out a marginal existence by moving from one job to another with the changing seasons. There was fishing in the spring and summer, hunting in the fall, and a winter’s work to be had at one of the U.S. Lifesaving Service stations located every seven miles or so down the Banks.
As Wilbur explained to his father, there was “little wealth and no luxurious living” in Kitty Hawk. The houses were small and austere. The Tate house, for example, was unpainted, inside and out. The floors and ceilings were of unvarnished pine. While clean and comfortable, the furnishings were a stark contrast with the overstuffed Victorian splendor of the Wright parlor. “He has no carpets at all, very little furniture, no books or pictures,” Wilbur reported to the folks back in Ohio. “There may be one or two better houses here but his is much above average…. A few men have saved up a thousand dollars but this is the savings of a long life. Their yearly income is small. I suppose few of them see two hundred dollars a year. They are friendly and neighborly and I think there is rarely any real suffering among them. The ground here is a very fine sand with no admixture of loam that the eye can detect, yet they attempt to raise beans, corn, turnips, &c. on it. Their success is not great but it is a wonder they can raise anything at all.”
Food was a perennial problem. There could be no such thing as subsistence farming in the thin, sandy soil, although virtually everyone kept a little vegetable patch. “Our pantry in its most depleted state would be a mammoth affair compared with our Kitty Hawk stores,” Orville noted. “Our camp alone exhausts the output of all the henneries within a mile. What little canned goods, such as corn, etc., [there are] is of such a nature that only a Kitty Hawker could down it. Mr. Calhoun, the groceryman, is striving to raise the tastes of the community to better goods, but all in vain. They never had anything good in their lives, and consequently are satisfied with what they have. In all other things they are the same way, satisfied in keeping soul and body together.”
“Trying to camp down here reminds me constantly of those poor Arctic explorers,” Orville remarked to Katharine. They appointed Mr. Calhoun their agent and authorized him “to buy us anything he can get hold of, in any quantities he can get, in the line of fish, eggs, wild geese, or ducks.”
The brothers, unaccustomed to being thought of as rich men, were startled to discover that their arrangement threatened to destroy the local economy. “The economics of this place were so nicely balanced before our arrival that everybody here could live and yet nothing be wasted. 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 suffer as a result.”
Hunting and fishing were the major commercial enterprises. Each season tons of fish were shipped north to Baltimore and other East Coast cities. The late-nineteenth-century taste for exotic millinery plumage led to the decimation of the local egret and heron colonies.
The Banks were a hunter’s paradise. “The people about Kitty Hawk are all ‘game hogs,’” Wilbur noted. Anything that ventured forth on four legs or two wings offered an acceptable target in a country where game laws were universally ignored. Each fall thousands of migratory wild fowl were blown out of the sky by vacationing sportsmen armed with small artillery pieces known as punt guns.
The Wrights had stepped into an area caught in the throes of change. Local fishermen still paid tribute to “Mad Mabe” (her name rhymed with Abe), the witch of Nags Head Woods, to ensure fair weather and a good catch. Orville remarked that his gasoline cooking stove was a curiosity in the neighborhood “more feared by the natives than those ‘bars’ up North River, where Israel Perry wouldn’t land ‘for a thousand dollars.’”
Bill Tate, whom Orville described as “postmaster, farmer, fisherman, and political boss of Kitty Hawk,” was particularly intrigued by the wonders of the Wright camp. “He gets interested in anything we have,” Orv noted. “[He] wants to put acetylene gas in his house because he saw my bicycle gas lamp, has decided to buy our gasoline stove when we leave….
“Mr. Tate would also like to spend his remaining days—which might be few—in experimenting with flying machines…. Tate can’t afford to shirk his work to fool around with us, so he attempts to do a day’s work in two or three hours so that he can spend the balance with us and the machine.”
Dr. Cogswell, Tate’s brother-in-law, warned Orville that “Captain” Bill would “be dead before Christmas from excitement if we don’t get out.”
But the Wrights were by no means the sole agents of change on the Outer Banks. The Audubon Society sent its first professional agent onto the Banks in 1903 in an attempt to control the annual slaughter of egrets, terns, and other migratory waterfowl. By 1903 a significant proportion of the male population was made up of seasonal employees of the federal government manning the lifesaving stations, lighthouses, Weather Bureau stations, postal service routes, or telegraph stations. A spidery fifty-foot radio antenna now rose from the Roanoke Island pines that had sheltered Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated colony. It was the work of R. A. Fessenden, a onetime employee of Thomas Edison, who was Guglielmo Marconi’s closest competitor in the drive to perfect wireless telegraphy.
Just as Kitty Hawk presented a paradox to the Wrights, so the locals were never completely certain what to make of the brothers. The Wrights were likable enough, and. they certainly did not put on airs. Yet the down-to-earth fishermen of the Outer Banks remained dubious about these two Yankees who came here at the worst time of the year, at the very onset of the winter storm season, and spent their time skimming down the dunes on enormous white-winged contraptions. After all, as one of their number later recalled, the Bankers were a “practical hard-headed lot who believed in a good God … a hot hell … and, more than anything else, that the same good God did not intend that man should ever fly!”
But fly they did. The Wrights had the repaired glider/kite back in the air three days after the accident, conducting additional flight tests designed to provide a detailed record of the performance of the craft over a wide range of wind and load conditions. Dan Tate, Bill’s half-brother, pitched in to assist with the trials. They flew the machine empty (fifty pounds), as well as loaded with up to seventy-five pounds of chain.
There was no question of repeating Wilbur’s kite ascent of the first day. The machine would not leave the ground under these conditions in anything less than a twenty-five-mile-per-hour wind. Fortunately a lightweight volunteer was at hand. Young Tom Tate, Dan’s son, was more than willing to take an occasional ride on the kite. The ascents were not made for Tom’s amusement, however. While he weighed seventy pounds less than either of the brothers, he presented almost the same surface area to the resistance of the air as did an adult. It was one more bit of information to be recorded in the notebooks.
The Wrights were developing some firm notions about what their machine would and would not do. The result was a puzzling mix of satisfaction, disappointment, and confusion. The overwhelming disappointment was to be found in the fact that the machine simply did not generate the amount of lift predicted by Wilbur’s calculations.
The obvious explanation was that there was an error buried somewhere in the wing design data that they had inherited from earlier experimenters. They would have to unravel that puzzle once they returned to Dayton.
The real disappointment was their inability to test the control system. Will had hoped to spend hours aloft, mastering the controls while the machine was flying as a tethered kite. But much higher winds were required to lift the weight of man and machine than they had expected, and attempting to operate the controls from the ground while kiting the machine proved impossible.
Convinced that the mysteries of control would remain unsolved so long as they were restricted to kiting, the brothers had little choice but to try making free glides. The additional lift generated by a craft moving forward into the wind would be sufficient to support an adult in flight in a reasonable wind.
Early on the morning of October 18, they set out for the sand hills a mile or so south of camp, only to find that the wind had died before they arrived. Nothing daunted, the brothers began tossing their unmanned machine off the brow of a dune to see what would happen. “We were greatly pleased with the results,” Orv told Katharine, “excepting a few little accidents to the machine.
“It would glide out over the side [of the dune] at a height of 15 or twenty feet for about 30 feet, gaining, we think, in altitude all the while. After going about 30 feet out, it would sometimes turn up a little too much in front, when it would start back, increasing in speed as it came, and whack the side of the hill with terrific force. The result generally was a broken limb somewhere, but we hastily splint the breaks and go ahead.”
If nothing else, the experience of simply tossing the machine loose into the air and watching it fly after a fashion and return to earth without catastrophic damage gave them confidence in its strength, resilience, and basic airworthiness.
The next day was perfect for gliding. The technique was precisely the same that had been used to get Will aloft on the first day. With the pilot stretched out on the lower wings, his hands on the controls, Orv and Dan Tate, Bill Tate’s half-brother, each grasped a wingtip and started running downhill into the wind. When the machine outran the men at the tips, Wilbur, who made most, if not all, of the flights, landed.
They had originally planned for the pilot to pull himself back into a sitting position for landing. In actual practice it proved not to be necessary. The prone position looked dangerous but was perfectly safe, except for the occasional mouthful of sand. Wilbur could bring the craft back to earth with such precision that two light thin lines, the tracks of the skids, could be seen extending back twenty or thirty feet from the point where the machine finally came to rest after each landing.
By the end of the day, glides-of three to four hundred feet had become commonplace. The flights lasted no more than about fifteen seconds apiece. Wilbur finished the day with a grand total of perhaps two minutes of flying time.
What was really important, however, was the fact that the brothers had been able to extend their knowledge of the performance of the craft as a glider. Additional bits of information that would be of value in designing the next machine went down into the notebooks.
But the facts and figures on paper mask the excitement of the moment. The exhilaration was incredible. Racing down the slope, holding his machine within five feet of the surface, Wilbur was traveling twice as fast at the end of a flight as at the beginning. He was flying. He had experienced sensations known only to a tiny handful of human beings.
Light winds returned the following day. There would be no more manned glides before they broke camp for the return to Dayton on October 23. The 1900 Wright glider, the machine on which they had first taken to the air, was no longer of any use to them. The fifteen dollars spent on the materials that had gone into its construction had been a wise investment. Broken and repaired many times, the woodwork of the machine was now held together by a collection of splints and splices. The once-glistening French sateen fabric was patched and grimy.
Just before they boarded Perry’s boat for the trip back across the sound, the brothers carried the machine back down the trail going south out of town and gave it one last toss from the top of a dune. It came to rest in a sand hollow. Bill Tate’s wife salvaged the sateen, and after a good washing it provided the raw material for two new dresses for her young daughters. When the Wrights returned the next year, the skeletal remains of one wing could still be seen protruding from the sand, but it disappeared forever in a ninety-three-mile-per-hour gale that swept over the bank in July.
They were back on the Outer Banks with a new glider in 1901. This time they established a camp at the base of the Kill Devil Hills, four miles south of Kitty Hawk. The third, and much improved, glider flown here in 1902 finally demonstrated the effectiveness of their control system. The last step came when they returned with the world’s first airplane, a powered machine that they flew four times in a single day, December 17, 1903.
They did not fly very far, or very high, or very fast on that first day. On the best of the four flights, Wilbur covered 852 feet through the air in fifty-nine seconds. Moreover, it would be some years before the world recognized and appreciated what had occurred at Kitty Hawk.
The brothers continued their experiments in the relative privacy of a cow pasture near Dayton in 1904 and 1905, gradually transforming the marginal success of 1903 into the reality of a practical airplane capable of remaining aloft for extended periods of time under the complete control of the pilot. Then followed two more years during which the Wrights refused to fly while they waited for the approval of their patent application and sought to negotiate the sale of their invention.
They burst on the world with their first public flights in the high summer of 1908. All the doubts were swept aside. The Wright brothers were immediately elevated to membership in the pantheon of great American inventors. The enshrinement of Kitty Hawk as one of the nation’s great historic places would take a bit longer, but that, too, was inevitable.
The modern visitor to the Outer Banks no longer faces the hazards of a voyage with Israel Perry. You cross Currituck Sound on the Wright Memorial Bridge and turn south toward the neon-bedecked communities of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head—places that the Wrights once knew but would no longer recognize.
In fact, most of the tourists and summer people never see the Kitty Hawk that Wilbur and Orville knew. There is a strip of shopping centers, real estate offices, and fast-food places bearing that name out on the main road, but to find the old village, you have to turn off to the right and drive a mile or so back toward the sound.
The place has not changed much. The houses, a few of them dating back to the time when the Wrights were here, are scattered along narrow roads that snake through the stunted trees and marshy growth along the edge of the sound. The first American monument to the Wrights, a simple five-foot marble obelisk, stands in the front yard of what was once the local Methodist parsonage. Before that it was the site of the Tate house, where Will and Orv had first lodged.
In 1927, when the federal government announced plans for a great Wright Brothers National Memorial to be constructed at the Kill Devil Hills, where the Wrights flew from 1901 to 1903, the citizens of Kitty Hawk, led by Capt. William Tate, still a leading light of the community, raised $210 to mark this spot where the 1900 glider had been assembled and flown. This, they argued, was the “bona fide cradle of aviation.” There are no road markers leading you to this little shaft. Ask a local citizen for directions to the Wright brothers monument and they will send you four miles north of Kitty Hawk, to Kill Devil Hills, where the grandest of all memorials to the brothers was finally dedicated in 1932.
It is a lovely thing, a great pylon of Mount Airy granite with wings sculpted into the sides. The memorial was conceived in 1926 by Rep. Lindsay Warren as a means of attracting the tourist dollars that would boost the Outer Banks into the twentieth century. At the time, the Banks remained much as the Wrights had left them. The only access to the mainland was by ferry. The only roads were wooden “corduroy” affairs that could move in response to the shifting sands.
North Carolina legislators and the local members of the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association agreed that Warren’s proposal for a great memorial was a fine idea. The citizens of Dayton were not so sure. A Dayton editor did his best to scuttle the project, pointing out that the Outer Banks remained as remote and inaccessible as they had been in 1903. “Who,” he asked, “will ever visit this monument if it is built in the wind swept dunes at Kitty Hawk?”
That fellow was whistling in the wind. A fifty-thousand-dollar appropriation bill introduced by Warren’s ally, Sen. Hiram Bingham of Connecticut, breezed through committee, passed both houses, and was signed into law by President Coolidge on March 2, 1927. Architects Robert Perry Rogers and Alfred Eastman Poor won the five-thousand-dollar prize for the design of the monument. Warren, Bingham, Orville Wright, and Amelia Earhart dedicated the cornerstone on December 17, 1928, in the presence of two hundred “pilgrims” who had braved a series of difficult bus, automobile, and boat rides to reach the site.
With the preliminaries out of the way, the Army Quartermaster Corps got on with the job of building the structure. The first problem facing Capt. John A. Gilman, who had recently completed work on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery, was the Kill Devil Hill itself. It was not a hill at all, but a ninety-foot sand dune that was moving across the narrow Outer Banks, slowly but surely, at a speed of twenty feet a year. During the quarter of a century since 1903, it had traveled some 450 feet southwest toward the waters of Roanoke Sound. If the dune was to serve as the foundation for a monument, it would have to be permanently stabilized.
Beginning work early in 1929, Gilman spent $27,500 to do that. The area was fenced to keep the hogs and cattle out, then covered with a two-inch-thick layer of straw, leaves and wood mold extending three-hundred feet up the slope. Tough imported grasses—bitter tannic, hairy vetch, and marram—were planted in the artificial topsoil. Once this band of vegetation had taken root, Gilman extended the planting up to the summit on the northeast side, where the prevailing wind struck the dune, then over the rest of the slope.
By the summer of 1930 the once-majestic moving dune had been transformed into an ordinary hill, carpeted with green weeds and shrubs. A few watermelon vines had even found a foothold near the top. Gilman and his crew started work on the monument itself in February 1931. Finished the next spring, the granite shaft stands sixty feet from the five-pointed star at the base to the tip of the beacon. The hill raises the height of the structure to 151 feet above sea level.
On November 19, 1932, another party of distinguished guests made their way to the site. They drove over the new Wright Memorial Bridge and down a concrete highway. Warren’s plan to use the monument to lure tourists to the Outer Banks was an enormous success. Development followed on a scale beyond his wildest dreams.
Today the National Park Service operates the Wright Brothers National Monument. Park Service archeologists conducted a dig on the site in the early fifties, but they failed to locate the precise spot where the Wright camp had been established during the years 1901–03. The old camp had apparently been stripped clean by tourists over the years. The reconstructed hangar and living quarters that you see here today were positioned with reference to a stone that Bill Tate had helped set in place to mark the spot where the world’s first powered airplane left the ground in 1903.
Also on the site is a small museum complete with replicas of the 1902 glider and the 1903 airplane. A team of rangers does a marvelous job of introducing visitors to the story of the Wright brothers. Still, the memorial cannot give you a real feel for the place that Will and Orv knew.
After you have seen the museum, peeked into the reconstructed sheds, and hiked up to the monument on the hill, drive a few miles farther south to a place called Jockey’s Ridge. In 1900 this was the next great sand mountain south of the Kill Devil Hills. It remains one of the largest dunes on the East Coast. Trudging up the long, steep side of the great dune will give you some sense of what it was like tor the Wrights, who made this climb carrying a glider back up the hill for the next launch.
Once on top, you can hike a few hundred feet toward the sound. Out of sight of the highway and the hotels, you are now in an environment that would be very familiar to the Wrights, a place, Orville said, that looks like the Sahara, “or the Sahara as I imagine it to be.”