Wright Brothers National Memorial

Location: Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

Webpage: National Park

General Description: Wilbur and Orville Wright faced many challenges in designing a powered aircraft to be the first manned flight in history.  After experimenting with kites at their bike shop in Dayton, Ohio they needed a location to test their design.  They were looking for a remote location, far from reporters, a steady wind of at least 20 mph, and a height from which they could launch their gliders with sandy area for a “soft” landing.  They found all these conditions at Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The major challenges they faced were how to control the craft, through all three dimensions.  First is lift which is created by a cambered or curved upper wing surface that forced the air to travel further on the upper surface.  The greater the angle the greater the lift up to the point the plane stalls and plummets to the ground. Second is control since the plane’s orientation pivots around the wing so when the nose is up, the tail is down neutralizing the lift from the wing.  Therefore, a rear stabilizer is used with an inverted wing surface to keep the tail down.  Finally is the direction left to right controlled by a rudder in the back.  The major advancement made by the Wright brothers was to include controls the would actually warp the wings at their tips to control the roll of the plane at the same time as moving the rudder to control yaw.  In 1900 and 1901, they took their designs to Kitty Hawk only to be disappointed since it did not provide sufficient lift and the glider was uncontrollable.  Discouraged they returned to Dayton to work on their design.  Over the winter and summer they tested a large number of shapes and materials in a home made wind tunnel that could measure the lift generated in scale models.  They returned to Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1902 to test their new designs with great success.  They made over 1000 flights improving their design and had a successful glider.  The next step was to add an engine and propellers to the glider which they worked on over the summer in 1903.  Once again they returned to Kitty Hawk to try for manned powered flight.  Numerous problems with the engine and broken propellers delayed the attempt until December.  The brothers tossed a coin and Wilbur won the first attempt on December 14, 1903.  However, he oversteered with the elevator and stalled the aircraft immediately after leaving the rails and crashed the plane.  It took three days to make repairs so it was not until December 17 that they got their next attempt.  The 27 mph wind was stronger then they wanted since they expected an airspeed of only 30-35 mph and it was bitterly cold.  However, Christmas was fast approaching and they knew they would have to make the attempt or wait another year.  It was now Orville’s turn at the controls. He released the restraining wire at 10:35 and started down the rails with Wilbur stabilizing the right wing.  As the plane left the rails, John Daniels, who had never used a camera before, snapped the historical photograph of the first manned flight with Wilbur running along side.  With the wind the plane traveled at only 6.8 mph a few feet off the ground.  The flight lasted only 19 seconds and went 120 feet, but it was the moment that changed human history.  The brothers took turns piloting the airplane for 3 more flights, each longer than the last.  The final flight by Wilbur set the record lasting 59 seconds and traveling 852 feet.  They took a break to celebrate their accomplishment leaving the plane on the rails for more attempts.  However, a wind gust flipped the plane over and damaged the wing thus ending their attempts.  The brothers packed up their things and returned to Dayton for Christmas without making any more flights.  The Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates their accomplishments with a small museum that includes the wind tunnel and one of the original propellers.  A full sized reproduction of the plane is also on display along with paintings of other noteworthy aviation “firsts” and aviation pioneers.  Outside are stone monuments of the launch point and landings of these historic four flights and a memorial atop Kill Devil Hill from which they tested their gliders during the falls of 1900-1902.



1) I did not know what to expect at the Memorial other than a stone memorial commemorating the event.  While small, the museum gives a complete historical account of their accomplishments over the five year period and a little about the further development in the years following their history making event.  The full scale reproduction is great, especially if you can attend the ranger talk when they demonstrate the controls.  Certainly worthwhile.


2) Outside they have reproductions of the living quarters and small hanger they used to work on the plane.  Talk about living in spartan conditions! They slept in hammocks above the floor, which did not look very warm for late fall and early winter conditions.


3) I don’t know how often the wind blows, but we sure got a taste of it in September out of the northeast.  There was a stiff breeze all day.

4) The huge memorial on top of Kill Devil Hill is impressive by itself and you can certainly understand the advantage of launching a glider from its heights.  I am not sure how “soft” a landing they would have on the beach sand, but it is certainly better than rocky ground you might find elsewhere.  It seemed to me they could not have chosen a better site with the wind and height provided by this sandy hill.

Monument ViewFromKillDevilHill

5) The bronze statue that duplicates the famous photograph of the first flight in three dimensions.  A great idea and well done.


5) If you are a fan of history, this is a must see when you are near the Outer Banks.  It took only a couple of hours to tour the whole facility, including the ranger talk.

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