From Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral

Eighth in a series

It’s the village of Kill Devil Hills now, but once upon a time, this open field and grass-covered sand dune had been part of Kitty Hawk—a place made famous when Orville and Wilbur Wright first took to the air. Hundreds of people mill about, walking the trail to the monument, visiting the exhibition hall and visitor center, peering into the reconstructed hangar and workshop.

It’s hard to feel the history here, maybe because the summer sun makes everything hyperbright and hot, so different from the grainy black-and-white photo taken on that December day in 1903 that captured the Wright’s airplane as it wobbled up into the air. Or maybe it’s because of the rows of cars parked in the lot and the masses of people decked out in full beach-tourist regalia.

The air somehow carries a shared sense of pride, like everyone’s proud of Orville and Wilbur, proud of the brothers’ achievement, proud of the inventive spirit that allowed humanity to rise up above itself and above the earth itself.

Everyone seems glad to be here.

The Wright Brothers certainly found it welcoming. “I assure you,” wrote the post master of Kitty Hawk, as he tried to lure the brothers to the Outer Banks, “you will find a hospitable people when you come among us.”

The assurances must’ve been welcome news to Orville and Wilbur. As legend has it, residents of their own hometown, Dayton, Ohio, weren’t especially supportive. While the Wrights’ bicycle shop did a good business, residents looked askance at their aeronautic experiments. The thought of powered flight seemed ludicrous–you might as well think about sending a man to the moon or a shuttle into space.

The Wrights themselves had serious doubts about flight. Following up on the work of other aeronautic pioneers, they found much of the work undependable. Rival researchers were having spectacular public failures; some were even killed in the course of their work.

In 1900, searching for a place to conduct their next round of experiments, the Wrights took the postmaster up on his offer and temporarily relocated to the North Carolina village–not only for the promise of supportive neighbors but because the barrier island offered strong winds for flying and soft sand for landing.

After three more years of work, on December 17, 1903, the brothers finally took flight.

The spot is marked by a large granite boulder, set in 1928 by the National Aeronautics Association to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first flight. An iron rail, set on thin planks, sits at the spot where the Wrights had originally placed their own rail, used as a launch platform because the soft sand inhibited takeoff. The field beyond, once a sandy plain, now brims with cellphone-sized prickly pears and four more markers, which stand at intervals corresponding to the distances etched on them:

End of 1st Flight.
Time: 12 Seconds
Distance: 120 ft
Dec. 17, 1903
Pilot: Orville

End of 2nd Flight
Time: About 12 seconds
Distance: About 175 ft
Dec. 17, 1903
Pilot: Wilbur

End of 3rd Flight
Time: 15 seconds
Distance: About 200 ft
Dec. 17, 1903
Pilot: Orville

End of 4th Flight
Time: 59 seconds
Distance: 852 ft.
Dec. 17, 1903
Pilot: Wilbur

Orville made the first flight; Wilbur made the longest. Wilbur actually had the chance to be first, winning the coin toss a few days earlier, but his maiden attempt ended prematurely when he crashed the plane and snapped a propeller.

I walk the path to the first marker slowly, taking twelve seconds to cover the 120 feet, my arms actually outstretched as I try to envision the plane struggling against the 26-mph wind that morning. Orville hit a cruising speed of just under 35 mph, and the unruly plane bucked and pitched and Orville struggled with the control stick.

John Daniels, who worked at a local lifesaving station, captured the moment on film with Wilbur’s camera. A handful of other witnesses stood by, but a pair of boys who’d been there took tail and ran in fear when the plane’s engine started up, missing the event.

Stephen Smith, in 2003, captured the moment in bronze with a life-sized sculpture. Visitors can walk among the pieces of the sculpture, which include Orville piloting the plane, Daniels taking the picture, and Wilbur, running alongside, releasing his steadying hand from the right wing.

The statue sits on the far side of Kill Devil Hill, a 90-foot sand dune that lords over the entire park. The hill, once a sand dune like its neighbor to the south, Jockey’s Ridge, had been intentionally seeded with grass to stabilize it so that, in 1932, a 60-foot-tall monument to the Wright Brothers, shaped like the tail fin of a plane, could be erected there. At night, a white light, like a lighthouse beacon, shines from the very tip.

Specks of people trundle up and down the path that spirals up to the monument from the field. It’s too hot for me, so I duck instead into the exhibition center.

Inside, a NASA display talks about the agency’s role in improving flight technology, including wing de-icing, grooved runways, and the little upturn tips on the far ends of airplane wings. The display also heralds a new age of flight, which boasts of “safer, more fuel-efficient, quieter, and environmentally responsible” aircraft and more choices for personalized travel. NASA, it appears, is going places, and the sky is not the limit.

But start-of-an-era/end-of-an-era comparisons hang in the air like cut-out stars. Some 240 miles above me, the last space shuttle mission orbits the earth. I stand where it all began; high above, something’s coming to an end.

As an elementary school student, I watched the Columbia launch into space for the first time. As a high school junior, I saw the Challenger on the launch pad, then watched, dumbstruck, as it exploded just two weeks later. As an adult, I relieved the experience when I heard National Public Radio broadcast news of the Columbia disaster. By then, shuttle launches seemed so routine, so non-newsworthy. How quickly, it seems, we had lost our wonder.

“The end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA, or even of NASA sending humans into space,” the space agency’s website says. “NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development and scientific research that will last for years to come.”

There’s a Star Trek ring to that, boldly going where no man has gone before and that sort of stuff, but it’s hard to belief considering the elegiac orbit the Atlantis now flies, let alone the budget apocalypse facing Congress these days.

But in 1903, the Outer Banks represented the Outer Limits, and Orville and Wilbur did go where no one had gone before. It’s easy here to still get excited about it, to see their achievement as big news, as world changing. It’s possible to still feel pride in what they did.

The road that started on the plains of Kitty Hawk went to Cape Canaveral and around the world and to the moon. People like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong, have followed that road. Shuttle astronauts are only the latest travelers, but I’m sure there’ll be more.

“It is not really necessary to look too far into the future,” Wilbur Wright once said. “We see enough already to be certain it will be magnificent. Only let us hurry and open the roads.”

Pretty great words from a man whose road took him to the skies.