Kitty Hawk, historic flights, and preserving a shifting landscape

The site at Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers made history’s first flight in a powered aircraft doesn't look at all like it does in the pictures that captured the event, more than a century later. And it’s not just the presence of a museum and visitor center that makes it different. The site is lush and green, surrounded by high trees that are absent in the century-old images. The once sandy Kill Devil Hill has been sodded to support the obelisk monument celebrating the place where flight was born. The history of how the site at Kill Devil Hill was preserved and stabilized to honor the Wright Brothers is an interesting one in itself, quite apart from the history that was made there.

Before the First Flights

For Orville and Wilbur Wright, aviation was a pet project. Both avid cyclists and occasional racers, they made their living as owners of a bicycle shop in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. The Wright Cycle Exchange opened in 1892, selling different brands of bicycles, along with parts and accessories.

Natural tinkerers, the brothers began manufacturing their own bicycles in 1895. Their first model, the "Van Cleve," debuted in 1896. It was followed shortly by another model called the "St. Clair." Both featured the brothers’ own inventions, such as a self-oiling hub as a defense against the dusty dirt roads in Dayton, and pedals that screwed themselves tighter as the rider pedaled.

The Wrights did well with the shop. They turned a substantial profit and managed to set aside savings before the excitement over bicycles flooded the market with shops just like theirs. By the end of the century, they'd managed to put aside enough money to finance their shared hobby of exploring flight.

At that time, in the late 1890s, aviation pioneers sought inspiration from nature, birds in particular. Many inventors, notably Otto Lillienthal and Samuel Langley, developed flying machines that used bird-like wings to generate lift. The Wrights brought a different background to their own flight experiments: their experience building bicycles. They knew from cycling that a responsive control system could turn a glider into a controllable aircraft.

As for the shape of their aircraft, the story goes that Wilbur was twisting the ends of a long rectangular box when inspiration struck. He saw the box’s long sides as wings, and saw that twisting or warping the wings would be the ideal way to control a glider. The brothers tested the idea flying small scale gliders like kites in 1899 and it worked. Their full-sized version large enough to carry a man also worked well.

The Wright's 1902 glider in flight at Kitty Hawk

First Flights at Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hill

What didn't work in the Wright’s early foray into controllable flight was the environment around Dayton. The inland city was a poor place for test flights. They needed a wide open space somewhere with steady winds, preferably away from prying eyes lest someone steal their idea. To find the perfect test site, the brothers turned to the United States Weather Bureau. The bureau came back with a list of possible sites, among them Kitty Hawk, an undeveloped sandy region on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that was entirely open and flat save one tall hill called Kill Devil Hill. The seasonal nature of the bicycle business gave the Wrights time off between September and January. With months of free time ahead of them and a welcoming invitation from the city commissioner of Kitty Hawk, the Wrights set out for the east coast in the fall of 1900 with a full-scale glider in tow. They built modest lodgings and a workshop for their flyer on the sandy site near Kill Devil Hill.

Their first winter in North Carolina brought mixed results. The glider produced less lift than they’d hoped it would, even from the top of Kill Devil Hill, but at least it was controllable. The Wrights honed their designed during the summer of 1901, and returned to Kitty Hawk that winter with a revised glider. It was a step backwards: this glider produced no more lift than the first and was less controllable.

Discouraged but undaunted, the brothers returned to Dayton and set up a small wind tunnel in the back room of their bicycle shop. In this homemade research laboratory they tested more than 200 different wing shapes, looking at how much lift each generated and which was most controllable. They applied their results and findings to their 1902 glider, which they transported back at Kitty Hawk that fall. Their meticulous research paid off. This glider generated significantly more lift and flew, under pilot control, for more than 600 feet.

When they arrived at Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1903, the Wrights had a powered airplane with them. The design built off of the success of their 1902 glider, and its powerhouse was an engine the brothers had designed and built themselves. But the lead up to tests was rocky. Persistent problems forced a trip back to Dayton for repairs, delaying the first test flight. The flyer didn’t make the return trip back to Kitty Hawk until November.

With the flyer back, the Wrights turned to the problem of launching the airplane: the sand was a hard surface to take off from. Again, bicycles proved to be the inspiration. They laid four 15-foot two-by-fours in the sand and covered them with a thin metal strip. Wooden crosspieces held the rail upright in the sand and, using modified bicycle hubs to make rollers, they built a small wooden truck that could move along the metal rail. The flyer’s skids sat on a 60-foot plank that lay across the rail. A third hub was in place to stop the flyer from nosing over as it moved along the rail. With this launch system, one man could assume a plank position at the flyer’s controls while another ran along side holding the wing to keep the aircraft steady.

Orville lay at the controls and Wilbur held the right wing on December 17, 1903. The flyer moved along the rail traveling 30 miles per hour into a 20 mile per hour headwind and lifted between 10 and 15 feet off the ground. Orville flew 120 feet in 12 seconds of sustained flight, landing with the flyer's skids on the soft sand. It wasn’t far, high, or fast, but it was the first time that a man had flown a powered vehicle, sustained flight without losing speed, and landed at a point the same altitude as that from which he’d lifted off.

Switching positions each time, the Wrights made a total of four flights that day. They were forced to stop when the flyer was damaged after a gust of wind caught the machine and flipped it over. The brothers left Kitty Hawk two days later and were back in Dayton for Christmas.

The first flight in 1903. Note the rail sticking out of the sand.

Preserving a Shifting Historic Landscape

Orville sent news of the first flights to his father by telegram, asking that he inform the press of the feat. The news spread, but the world didn’t change immediately. Widespread skepticism left the brothers struggling to prove their flights had really happened. Only a handful of local observers had witnessed the flight, and attempts to fly again the following year failed to duplicate their initial success.

They also stopped traveling to North Carolina. Tests in 1904 and 1905 were done in a field outside Dayton. The brothers returned to Kitty Hawk in 1908, the year in which they signed a contract granting the U.S. Army and a French builder partial rights to their design, and again in 1911. In 1912, Wilbur died of typhoid fever. Orville lived until 1948, enjoying the eventual recognition he and his brother received for their contribution to aviation.

With international recognition came a push to preserve the site at Kitty Hawk. In 1928, Congress voted to build a monument on the summit of the roughly 90-foot tall Kill Devil Hill, the site from which the brothers launched their gliders.

This was far easier said than done. The sandy landscape of the Outer Banks moves with the wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean. Hills regularly change size, shape, and even location. Between 1905 and 1930, Kill Devil Hill moved 500 feet southwest from where it was when the Wright brothers launched their glider flights. Plans to erect a monument on the site were forcibly shelved until engineers could figure out a way to stabilize the sand.

The War Department began stabilizing Kill Devil Hill in 1927 following a recommendation from an advisory committee to the Quartermaster General. $25,000 was set aside for the project. Beyond stabilizing the hill, the goal was to preserve the whole site, seeding it with grass and vegetation so it wouldn’t migrate in the winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean.

The boulder marking the launch site of the Wright brothers' first flight.

Replicated History

In 1928, a rough-cut granite stone was placed at the site where the Wright Flyer lifted off the ground on its maiden flight in December of 1903. It sits flush against the metal rail along which the flyer rode to gain speed before lifting off the Earth. The same year, a long rectangular stretch of land between Kill Devil Hill and this marker was cleared and established as a mall. It has been expertly tended ever since.

By 1931, Kill Devil Hill was stabilized and work began on the monument. It took a year to erect the obelisk on top of the once sandy hill. Designed by the New York architectural firm Rodgers and Poor, it’s a 61-foot-high, Art Deco-inspired structure sitting on base, both of which are made of concrete with a granite veneer. The base is a five-pointed star base, the points indicating north, west, southeast, southwest, and east. Around the base is an inscription that reads, "in commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by genius and achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith." Flanking the obelisk are two busts of Wilbur and Orville. The ones currently on the site are replicas; the originals were moved into storage after being stolen.

Reconstructions of the Wrights' living quarters and the hangar in which they kept their flyers while on site at Kitty Hawk have also been built, as has a visitors' centre with a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer (the original is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington).

There may be some lingering questions over whether the Wrights really were the first to fly in a powered aircraft, but there's no doubt that the site at Kitty Hawk is an historic one. It doesn't look a thing like the pictures taken on that December day in 1903, but changing the landscape entirely was the only way to preserve it in honor of the Wright brothers.

Sources:; National Parks Service (1) (2) (3); Hidden History of the Outer Banks By Sarah Downing; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.