Back in June/July, George and I drove out to Colorado and listened to David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers during part of the drive. As we left Virginia Beach and planned our route southward, we thought that it would be interesting to swing by the Outer Banks in North Carolina and drive through Kitty Hawk to see the area where the Wright Brothers’ historic flight took place.
We stopped at the tourism bureau and learned that there was a memorial there titled “Monument to a Century of Flight” and that not far away in Kill Devil Hills was the Wright Brothers National Memorial. We also took a park map for Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which we planned to explore with the dogs after taking a look at the monuments.
We were able to use our “America the Beautiful” national parks pass to gain access to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Once we parked, we could see that the monument stood on top of a hill at the far end of a flat, grassy field. We stopped in to the visitor’s center at the other end of the field and looked through the exhibits. Images and information about the Wright family accompanied interactive features about the principles of flight, really bringing to life what we had learned in the biography.
Turning a corner, we entered a room with a full-scale reproduction of the original flyer. Artifacts lay underneath plexiglass windows encircling the flyer, and those that were broken or missing pieces were displayed with clear molded plastic simulating the parts that were absent to help you visualize what the item would look like whole.
Windows arching around this exhibit room looked out onto the flight field, with markers showing the distances of each of the first 4 flights. Sidewalks led to the markers and across the field to the hill with the monument, so we decided to go out and walk the dogs around to get a better look.
Outside were also reproductions of the shelter and hanger that the Wright brothers used while they worked on their gliding and flying experiments here. I was amused to see that they looked exactly as I imagined they did when I listened to the book.
We decided to walk toward the monument, which was located on top of Big Kill Devil Hill, where the Wright Brothers conducted glider flights before moving on to mechanized flight. It was a very blustery day, and as we walked along the path toward the monument, it wasn’t hard to imagine how useful those kinds of conditions had been for flying over a century ago.
The monument perched on top of the hill looked simple but impressive. As we climbed up the paths encircling the hill, we got some glimpses of art-deco features on the sides that gave the impression of wings.
A kiosk informed us that the hill had to be stabilized with vegetation in order to build the monument. It would have been more authentic to see the hill just as sand as it once had been, but seeing the monument was surprisingly rewarding. From the base of the monument itself we had views of the flight field and far beyond toward forests on one side and the ocean on the other. Around the other side of the monument were the names Wilber and Orville Wright, and their busts were displayed on pedestals on either side – or at least, they usually are. Only Wilbur’s was present while we were there. Orville’s had been stolen by vandals about two months before. (Why do people have to be terrible?) In the center were metal doors decorated with art deco panels featuring images of flight. We could also see that on the side of the hill opposite the flight field was a life-sized statue installation depicting the first flight.
We went to see this piece, erected as a centennial memorial in 2003. It contains seven bronze figures and a stainless steel reproduction of the flyer. Loki was concerned about the bronze figures, especially that guy Orville, who was not supposed to be climbing on the plane!
Being able to stand where the photographer stood for the famous photo of the first flight and get different points of view was another unexpectedly engaging element of this visit.
After walking back around the monument, we were ready to get out of the blustery weather and back to the truck. We hadn’t expected to spend so much time there, but there was so much to see! The dogs were sufficiently well exercised after walking around the monument and fields, so we set off toward our next campsite about 3 hours away. When we drove by Jockey’s Ridge State Park, with its towering white sand dunes, I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to see it, but the Wright Brothers National Memorial was well-worth the time. I’ll just have to add Jockey’s Ridge to our to-see list for the next time we’re in the area…