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.
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 those directions.
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.
There 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.
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] assistance.
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.
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 Jimmy Swaggart 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.
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