North Carolina: Kitty Hawk Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From 1900 to 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright traveled several times from their home in Dayton, Ohio, to the Outer Banks to experiment with gliders and finally a machine-powered aircraft. The National Park Service administers the site and has reconstructed the camp, which includes a hangar and workshop with living quarters. Also on display are replicas of the 1903 Wright flyer and a 1902 glider model.

Site Office

Wright Brothers National Historic Site

National Park Service

P.O. Box 2539

Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948

ph.: (252) 441-7430

Web site: www.nps.gov/wrbr/

In 1903, two young brothers from Dayton, Ohio, named Wilbur and Orville Wright, profoundly changed the course of human history. In September of that year Wilbur booked a train ride for what was one of several trips the brothers had made during a four-year period to the pristine tiny fishing village of Kitty Hawk on North Carolina’s picturesque Outer Banks. In preparation for the historic journey, Orville helped his brother load a biplane into the boxcar at the rear of a train. Despite many unsuccessful attempts during the previous three years, the two brothers remained determined to do something no one had done before: fly.

Early History of Manned Flight

If history was the gauge, the odds were long against the Wright brothers achieving their dream. Indeed, for more than a hundred years before the Wrights left for Kitty Hawk, man was earnestly trying to learn the secrets of flight. By the early twentieth century, however, a series of disasters had convinced many that there would never be such a thing as a flying machine. In 1894, for example, one noted inventor named Sir Hiram Maxim spent the princely sum of twenty thousand dollars on a four-ton machine equipped with several wings and a 360-horse power engine, but it never got off the ground. In the fall of 1903, the world watched as Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley, head of the Smithsonian Institution, built and tested a steam-powered, fixed-wing “aerodrome” that failed twice, the last nearly killing the pilot as the airplane plunged into the Potomac River.

The Wrights were aware of all of these abortive attempts at flight, but the fear of failure was not a part of their character. Wilbur Wright wrote, “I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.” Still there was nothing in the Wright brothers’ backgrounds to indicate they would be history-making pioneers. Their parents were simple, hard-working, God-fearing midwesterners. As historians Ronald Geibert and Patrick Nolan note, the brothers inherited some important traits from their father that would shape their lives: “intellectual openness and curiosity, a willingness to engage in scientific and human inquiry, a delight in intellectual speculation, a fondness for reading.”

The Wright Brothers

Wilbur Wright was born on a farm near Millsville, Indiana, on April 16, 1867; Orville on August 19, 1871, in Dayton, Ohio. From an early age the brothers were inseparable. According to legend, the two would often start humming or whistling the same song at exactly the same moment when working together in the bicycle shop they owned. The two lifelong bachelors, who neither smoked nor drank, shared a passion for flying machines.

Later, people were amazed to learn that neither of the Wright brothers had any special training in science or engineering; in fact, they had left high school before receiving a diploma. At an early age, however, their father bought the young boys a toy–a flying machine that looked like a helicopter and was powered by a rubber band. It would spark their lifelong interest in flight.

In 1892, the year bicycling became a national passion, the brothers opened the Wright Cycle Shop in Dayton, where they built, fixed, rented, and sold bicycles. It was a successful business, but the young men began to take notice of the sensational flights of the German Otto Lilienthal, history’s first true glider pilot. When Lilienthal died in a crash in 1896, the brothers took up the challenge and began studying what they described as “flying problems.”

The Wrights read everything they could find about flight. In spring 1899, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, asking for a selection of pamphlets and a list of available books on the subject. As they studied the infant science of aeronautics, they began to build their own glider. In the meantime, they wrote the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., for information about places that had steady winds and soft sands for landings. The bureau’s answer: Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Kitty Hawk

At the turn of the century, Kitty Hawk was an isolated settlement, a small fishing village containing a few weatherbeaten houses scattered around a bay. The coastal region in which Kitty Hawk was located could trace its history back to the first settlement in American history. Across the Bay from the village was Roanoke Island, the site of the first English colony in the New World.

The experimental aircraft Wilbur brought with him by train to Kitty Hawk was a biplane glider, based on a smaller prototype with a five-foot wingspan, which the Wrights had designed to be flown as a kite. Before Wilbur left for North Carolina, the brothers had tested this prototype in an open field and were satisfied with the results. When Orville joined Wilbur several weeks later, they launched their experiments, which began by flying gliders as kites and then as manned aircraft.

The Wrights pitched their tent about a half mile south of the Kitty Hawk village at a location known as Kill Devil Hills. In a letter to his sister dated October 18, 1900, Orville Wright graphically described the setting:

About two or three nights a week we have to crawl up at ten or eleven. We hold the tent down. . . . The wind shaking the roof and sides, the tent sounds exactly like thunder. When we crawl out of the tent to fix things outside, the sand blinds us. It blows across the ground in clouds. We certainly can’t complain of the place. We came down here for wind and sand, and we have got them.

It is not certain when the Wrights made their first trial run, but historians generally believe it happened on October 3, 1900, the day before they had set up their camp. A week later, they had just completed a test flight and were adjusting their control lines when a gust of wind caught the glider and smashed it to the ground twenty feet away. They spent the next three days repairing their craft and trying to keep their tent from blowing away. They made additional flight tests designed to provide a detailed record of the performance of the craft in a wide range of wind and land conditions.

At the same time, they conducted an exhaustive study of birds in flight. According to historian Aycock Brown, “there were times when the natives . . . stared in amazement at Wilbur and Orville as they walked along the beach, observing gulls in flight and imitating them with a wing-like motion of their arms.” During that first trip to Kitty Hawk, Wilbur’s time aloft in free flight totaled only ten seconds; the Wrights returned to Dayton discouraged. “It will be a thousand years before man learns to fly,” Wilbur told his brother on the train ride home.

The Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk during the late summers of 1901 and 1902 and continued to develop their aircraft control system while increasing their knowledge of gliding and wing construction. They undertook precise, systemmatic experiments and built a wind tunnel, an eight-foot-long structure in which they tested the efficiency of hundreds of different wing shapes.

The new data they collected with their wind tunnel experiments added to their understanding of airfoils. As their knowledge grew, so did their confidence, and in 1902 they perfected their design with their biggest glider yet: one with a thirty-two foot wingspan and two six-foot-high vertical fins, designed to stabilize the machine during turns.

The First Controlled Flight

That summer at Kitty Hawk, they achieved the first controlled flight in history. The brothers went on to complete one thousand successful glides from Big Kill Devil Hill before deciding they were ready to build a powered flying machine.

The 1903 Wright Flyer was a two-wing biplane design with a wingspan of almost 40 feet. There was no suitable lightweight commercial engine available, so the brothers built their own–a four-cylinder, twelve-horse power, two hundred-pound gasoline engine. The biplane’s two propellers–the result of their earlier wind tunnel experiments–were the first true aerial propellers ever built. The combined weight of the aircraft and pilot was almost 750 pounds.

When the Wrights arrived in Kitty Hawk on September 25, 1903, after the two-day trip from Dayton, they learned that a severe hurricane had damaged their camp. Nature had delayed what would have been the beginning of their powered flight experiments. It took almost a month for the Wrights to assemble the flyer, and even after it was finished more problems dogged their efforts. Chain sprockets continued to come loose; then the freezing cold cracked a tubular shaft and Orville had to return to Dayton to repair it. He did not return to Kitty Hawk until December 11.

Three days later, the Wrights were ready for their first trial flight. Wilbur won a coin toss to fly the machine, but he oversteered on elevating from the launching rail and the flyer climbed too steeply, stalled, and then crashed into the sand. More repairs were necessary. Finally, on December 17, the Wrights were ready for another attempt. It was a bitterly cold day with near-freezing temperatures and strong winds blowing at about twenty-seven miles per hour. The Wrights waited for two hours for the wind to drop and the temperature to rise. Weather conditions were not going to improve, the Wrights realized, and so they decided to make another attempt immediately.

The Wrights’ chances of making history did not look good, for the strong headwinds threatened to slow their groundspeed to a crawl. Using a sheet they signaled the volunteers of a nearby lifesaving station that they were ready to try to go airborne. Since Wilbur had made the first attempt on December 14, the two brothers agreed that Orville should now have his turn. At 10:35 a.m. Orville steered the machine into the strong wind. It scudded down the rail as Wilbur steadied the wings, then rose about six feet in the air. The flyer pitched up and down, as Orville overcompensated with the controls, and then swooped down to earth about 120 feet from the takeoff point. Later, Wilbur Wright commented, “Though the flight took only twelve seconds, nevertheless, it was the first time in history that a piloted machine rose into the air under its own power, moved forward in the air without losing speed, and finally landed at a point as big as that from which it took off.”

That historic morning, the Wrights made three additional flights. The last one–Wilbur’s second–extended an impressive 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds. A strong gust of wind, however, caught the plane after its last flight, flipping it over and damaging it beyond easy repair. It never flew again.

That was merely postcript, for the two brothers had achieved their dream. In less than ten years, without spending more than five thousand dollars they accomplished what eminent scientists had failed to do in a lifetime of work with unlimited funds. The Wrights had ushered in the era of humanity’s conquest of the skies.

Early History

Today, Kill Devil Hills is the site of the Wright Brothers National Memorial. A granite boulder marks the spot of the first takeoff, and numbered markers measure the distances of each of the Wrights’ four powered flights in 1903. Also at the monument are replicas of the 1902 glider and 1903 flyer, a replica of the brothers’ campsite, a public airstrip to accommodate visitors arriving in small planes, and a sixty-foot granite pylon memorial to Wilbur and Orville Wright.

For Further Information
  • Brown, Aycock. The Birth of Aviation. Salem, N.C.: Collins, 1953. An excellent source.
  • Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. One of many books about the Wrights and their remarkable achievement at Kitty Hawk. A thorough, scholarly biography that puts the Wrights in the context of the times.
  • Freedman, Russell. The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane. New York: Holiday House, 1991. Will appeal primarily to older children, although it is sophisticated enough that adults can enjoy it too.
  • Geibert, Ronald R., and Patrick B. Nolan. Kitty Hawk and Beyond: The Wright Brothers and the Early Years of Aviation. Dayton, Ohio: Wright State University, 1990. A handsomely illustrated volume with over one hundred fascinating photographs of the Wrights at Kitty Hawk.
  • Howard, Fred. Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1998. Another thorough, scholarly biography.
  • Wescott, Lynanne. Wind and Sand: The Story of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983. A lavishly illustrated text that has depth and insight.
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