Thursday, August 11, 2011


The wind, as you stand at the base of the monument atop Kill Devil Hill, blows briskly and steadily. It was the wind, of course, that they came for. They used it to launch their kites, to struggle with the 1901 glider, to learn to fly in the 1902 glider and finally, to become pilots with the 1903 Flyer. And now, we come to feel the wind, to walk the ground, to marvel at what they did here. Kitty Hawk is our sacred ground and here we come for our pilgrimage. We know that we are each descended in a fraternal lineage from Wilbur and Orville and so we feel that when we finally come here – when we walk this ground – we have come home.

Last Sunday, Patricia and I took N631S down to the North Carolina Outer Banks and landed at First Flight Airport (KFFA). The little airfield is operated by the National Park Service as a part of the Wright Brothers National Memorial. It's a day VFR-only strip, but plenty of parking space is provided, free for 24 hours.

A few years ago, AOPA funded construction of a very nice pilot planning facility (with restrooms) immediately adjacent to the parking ramp. Access to the flight planning room, with its Internet-connected computer, is gained by entering "Squawk VFR + #-sign" into the electronic lock. There are picnic tables under shade trees for enjoyment of a pleasant lunch.

Our visit reminded me of a lesson learned years ago while visiting the Gettysburg battlefield. It's this: that you can study the events associated with an historic site all that you want, but a full understanding of what happened there will elude you until you walk the ground. The thing that had eluded me, despite having read many accounts of the Brothers' work at Kitty Hawk, was the great significance of the fourth flight of that December day in 1903.

We read all about the triumph and elation surrounding Orville's first flight, the culmination of those years of research and trial and error and cut and fit and test and adjust. We study that black-and-white image, captured at the perfect moment by Surfman J.T. Daniels – perhaps the most famous photograph in aviation history. Orville, in the Flyer, totally immersed in the immensely difficult task of controlling that balky steed. Wilbur, with the thing out of his hands, watching with time seeming almost suspended as history is made. And we, more than a century on, feel the thrill.

And oh, by the way, they made three more flights that day...before an errant gust of wind damaged the Flyer beyond quick repair. Three more flights from the launch rail in the sand, into the steady breeze. Those additional flights don't attract much interest...until you walk the ground.

The photograph at left is taken from the spot where Wilbur landed at the end of the fourth flight. Those small gray structures in the distance are replicas of the sheds that the Brothers built at Kitty Hawk...their "hangar" and the cabin they lived in. The launch rail was in the sand immediately adjacent to those structures. On it's fourth and final (ever!) flight, the Flyer took off from that distant point and flew all the way to where I stood to snap that image. The distance is more than four times that achieved on any of the first three flights. Farther than the first three flights added together. Far enough to be, arguably, the truly dominant success of that cold, windy Carolina morning.

852 feet. A sixth of a mile. 59 seconds. Nearly a minute of barely-controlled pitch-unstable 30 mph flight! This, then, was the confirmation. There could be no argument after the fourth flight, that this was any insignificant hop. The first flight made history, but the fourth showed that powered flight by heavier-than-air aircraft would thenceforth be part of the canon of human accomplishment. I walked back to the launch point, along the path that Orville and the other spectators hurried along 107 years and some months ago to congratulate Wilbur. I would never think about the First Flights in the same way again. In the end, that's what a pilgrimage is for, isn't it?


Gary said...

Great place to visit and explore. Goosebumps once again thinking of it all, what an experience.

I have enjoyed multiple visits and never get tired of looking at the monument even when we visit Nags Head.

Great post!

Frank Van Haste said...

Thanks! And, thanks for visiting, Gary.


Chris said...

Great post, thanks for sharing. I hope to get down there myself yet this year.

Frank Van Haste said...

Chris, thanks for visiting and commenting!

I like your blog and have added it to N631S's increasingly somewhat unwieldy blog list.

Fly safely,


Chris said...
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Chris said...

Thanks, Frank. I find all the good blogs through Gary, including yours! Looking forward to reading some of your older posts when I get the chance.