Wright Brothers National Memorial: First Flight Sculpture
It only took 57 years, but I finally visited
the site of Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flights from Kill Devil Hill on the shore
of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - now commemorated by the
Wright Brothers National Memorial.
I must admit that the place looked nothing like I expected based on photographs made
at the turn of the last century. Wilbur's words to his father, "I chose Kitty Hawk because
it seemed the place which most clearly met the required conditions. At Kitty Hawk, which
is on the narrow bar separating the Sound from the Ocean, there are neither hills nor
trees, so that it offers a safe place for practice," in no way describes the surroundings
of 2016. The last time I was as surprised to witness such a startling difference between
'then' and 'now' settings was when getting off the tour bus in front of The Alamo, in
San Antonio, Texas, and not recognizing it.
That's not to say I was disappointed; more than a century of progress has changed
most landscapes the world around. Barren sand dunes have been replaced with a forest
of trees and grassy knolls, and the coastline that used to provide those steady winds
so necessary for the Wright Brothers' experiments. Those same kinds of tests could scarcely
be carried out today. As can be seen in the panoramic photo below, the entire Atlantic
coastline is populated with homes and businesses.
Looking east toward Atlantic Ocean from Wright Brothers Memorial
One of the most surprising things I leaned there
was that the flights were not made heading east, toward the ocean. I assumed the prevailing
winds would be coming from the ocean, but in fact the record-setting flights were made
heading almost due north. A screen capture of the Google Earth map (right) shows where
the powered flights were made relative to the location of Kill Devil Hill - it was north
of the dune and ran north-south. According to photos from the era, the ground sloped
gently from the peak in all directions so takeoff in any direction could be accommodated,
but now there is a steep drop-off to the south and southeast that would prevent use in
Rebuilt living quarters
Wright Brothers First Flight Monument
Although the original workshop and living quarters structures are long gone, replicas
have been built and equipped with artifacts from the Wrights' activities. Sparseness
of living and working conditions is apparent, but then at the turn of the last century,
most households were no more eloquently equipped.
Marker for launching point of Wright Brothers' powered flights, adjacent
to workshop and living quarters.
Memorial plaques with photos of early flights.
is a fairly large amount of information and many photographs of the area around the Wright
Brothers National Museum building, so I will not bother posting many of the photos I
took; however, there is not much available about the displays inside the building. Therefore,
figuring there must be many more souls like me who have always wanted to visit but have
never taken - or had - the time to do so, I was sure to get a lot of photos of all the
exhibits contained within. I am fairly certain that everything available while we were
there is included below. My camera was not very high quality and the lighting is really
awful in the display area - maybe to help preserve the artifacts. I attempted to keep
as much text legible as possible.
Wilbur and Orville Wright's Path to Success
These plaques provide background information about the process leading up to both
unpowered and powered flights. Back in the day, research and development was carried
out mostly by private concerns working independently and on their own dime, as opposed
to university and government facility efforts. The personal income tax was not created
until 1913 in the U.S., so there was no unlimited pot of money - particularly in this
era of massive deficits - to redistribute like there is today. Thomas Edison, George
Westinghouse, Nicola Tesla, and others did their work largely without any gub'ment[sic]
Evidence of Accomplishment
The exhibits below show tools and test equipment used by Orville and Wilbur Wright
while developing their flying machines. Almost everything, from the aircraft structural
components and covering to the entire engine and propeller, were researched and tested
from scratch simply because there was no previous work to reference. Note the work documented
on calculating lift coefficients based on angle of attack. From what I have found, neither
brother had a college degree, yet were astute dabblers in mechanics and physics, and
were reportedly excellent students in school. Deriving the equations and constructing
tables of values such as those presented here is clearly the work of highly self-educated
people. Design, construction, and use of the wind tunnel for testing airfoils was nothing
short of ingenious. Their engineering notebooks and texts are impressive.
December 17, 1903: The Day Man First Flew
Telegraph to father Bishop W. Wright to tell of successful
flights. Diorama of the 1903 flight.
Full-Scale Replicas of the Wright Flyers - A Walk-Around During the Presentation
1903 Wright Flyer replica
The National Park Service young lady who gave the presentation to visitors did
so with a nearly evangelistic fervor. She had the audience in rapt attention and elicited
more cooperation from a group of strangers than I've seen since a
crusade meeting. I'm sure I heard a couple 'amens' uttered weepingly by members of the
audience during the time she had them closing their eyes to imagine being there at Kitty
Hawk with Orville and Wilbur, while she painted a word picture of the events that ensued.
The Souvenir Shop
You might help defray operating costs through buying something at the souvenir shop.
If hope you manage to visit some day.
Posted June 18, 2016