Saturday, August 31, 2013

In Commemoration of the Conquest of the Air (Part 3 of 5)

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
31 Aug 2013 N21481 PVG (Chesapeake, VA) - FFA (Kill Devil Hills, NC) - W95 (Ocracoke, NC) 1.8 1208.2


"I am afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.”
- Wilbur Wright in a letter to Octave Chanute, May 13, 1900

In 2011, I became obsessed - "afflicted" in Wilbur Wright's vernacular - with the idea of landing at First Flight Airport in Kill Devil Hills, NC. To visit where the Wright brothers first demonstrated conquest of the air in a powered, controllable, heavier than air machine. To settle my airplane onto a runway positioned mere dozens of feet from the very spot where those early landings occurred.

This obsession was inspired by the rapid approach of my one thousandth flight hour. I wanted to commemorate the moment with a pilgrimage to the place where, to the best of my understanding, the field of aeronautics achieved one of its most tangibly significant milestones. I succeeded, biding my time for adequate weather and a flight time window that would result in attaining 1,000 hours on my experiential Hobbs meter during the journey. Most of the stars aligned for this pilgrimage save for one critical item: First Flight Airport was closed that day. I settled for a landing at nearby Dare County Airport and completed the final leg of my quest by Dodge rather than by Piper.

Naturally, a return to the area was an absolute necessity.

The Bear Flies to Kill Devil Hills

Warrior 481 bore us from Chesapeake, Virgina toward the sea, powering smoothly through clear morning air over a layer of broken clouds. Kristy rode beside me and The Bear occupied the back seat, both about to make their first visits to the magnificent Outer Banks.

Approaching the Atlantic seaboard, our surroundings changed substantially.  Most of the clouds disappeared and the terrain became significantly wetter.

Crossing a small amount of open water, we made for the delicate filament of barrier islands offset from the mainland.  We turned south upon reaching them, navigating along a narrow strip of beach toward First Flight Airport.

The morning sun, low to the east, reflected brilliantly off the surface of the Atlantic and accentuated the delicate features of a fishing pier below.  Much of the Outer Banks are designated as National Wildlife Refuge Areas, necessitating flight 2,000 feet above ground level or higher.  We cruised at 2,500' to ensure that we met this requirement.

Photo by Kristy

We reached Kill Devil Hills and entered a right-handed pattern for runway 20.  On base leg, we could survey the entire site, from the 60 foot tall granite monument topping Kill Devil Hill to the markers showing each spot the Flyer came to rest after its four flights on December 17, 1903.  The approach end of runway 20 is quite close to these historic landing zones.

Photo by Kristy

The landing was quite satisfying, rolling the Warrior's wheels smoothly onto the runway.  I was pleased not to embarrass myself while landing on hallowed ground.


We, the aeronautical pilgrims, disembarked from Warrior 481 at First Flight Airport.  We posed for the mandatory photographs next to the airplane with the Wright Brothers Memorial looming in the distance.

Photo by Kristy

Junior Ranger Quest

Two years ago, we discovered the existence of Junior Ranger programs at the national parks. These provide a structured way for children (and their parents) to learn and explore each park. Successful completion of a program ends in a swearing-in ceremony and the awarding of a Junior Ranger badge that is a facsimile of those actually worn by park rangers (only in plastic).

Completing these programs gives The Bear a sense of purpose and she learns far more at each park than she would otherwise. Previously, she earned Junior Ranger badges in Rocky Mountain National Park, Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Several programs are offered in the Outer Banks, including one at the Wright Brothers Memorial (which, in some literature is termed a "Junior Flight Ranger" program, just to add a little aeronautical zest to the endeavor).

The first activity concerned kites. The Wright Brothers, learning from Otto Lilienthal's fatal lesson, tested their early glider designs as unmanned kites. To drive this point home, Junior Ranger applicants get to ply the Outer Banks winds with homemade kites, just as the Wrights did over one hundred years ago.

Much like the Wrights brothers before her, The Bear discovered that some amount of perseverance is necessary in order to master the art. The kite spent a lot of time on the ground during those first attempts.

But she eventually got there.

"The first successful flight of an airplane was
 made from this spot by Orville Wright 
December 17, 1903 in a machine designed 
and built by Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright.
This tablet was erected by the National
Aeronautic Association of the U.S.A. 
December 17, 1928 to commemorate the 
twenty-fifth anniversary of this event."

Next, we visited the launching point of the 1903 Flyer, complete with replica launching rail.

Caught up in the moment, The Bear simulated a launch of the "airplane with no wheels" (her name for the Flyer since age 2).

We timed The Bear running from the end of the launch rail to the marker at 120 feet showing where the first flight came to rest. Who was faster? The Bear ran the distance in 7.7 seconds versus Orville's 12 seconds as pilot in command of the Flyer. Of course, Orville had a 20+ knot headwind and The Bear actually had a near 20 knot tailwind.

We strolled to each of the markers in turn.

At the third one, I asked The Bear how excited we would be if Warrior 481 only managed to carry us 200 feet. "Not very excited," responded The Bear. I tried to parlay this into a lesson on how the first time we do something, it may not be impressive, but that we get much better with practice. I do not know if this made any sense to The Bear or was simply empty philosophizing.

A full scale replica of the 1903 Flyer as well as the damaged engine block from the 1903 Flyer can be found inside the Visitor Center. A park ranger presented a terrific program about how the Flyer actually worked. She demonstrated operation of the elevator, controlled by a lever held in the pilot's left hand (the right hand was used to hang on for dear life). She went on to demonstrate how the cradle in which the pilot lay was connected to the wing warping mechanism and the rudder, producing coordinated turns as the pilot shifted left or right to control the gossamer ship.

She further pointed out how much of the flyer contained bicycle parts including spoke wires, chains and sprockets, bicycle frame tubing as chain guards, and a very recognizable bicycle wheel hub used to keep the flyer straight on the launching rail.

After her impassioned presentation on the Wrights, the ranger concluded by pointing out that we went "sixty-six years from the dust of Kill Devil Hill to the dust of the moon." It was an excellent presentation and I am not embarrassed to admit that the coda gave me goosebumps.

For the trek to the monument, Kristy gave our weary prospective Junior Ranger a piggy back ride.

Overhead, a Cessna buzzed the park grounds, towing a banner advertising a nearby business.  I could not help but wonder what the Wrights would have made of using airplanes for such base purposes as advertising.

A Life Sized Tableau

On the south side of Kill Devil Hill, we posed for a family picture with Stephen Smith's outstanding, life sized bronze sculpture of the First Flight.

I wonder if Orville Wright uttered some variant on "Shepard's Prayer" before trundling down that launch rail? Regardless of whether Alan Shepard actually uttered that famous (if contested) phrase, the veracity of the sentiment certainly rings true.

The Bear melded herself into the sculpture, sharing the moment of triumph with Wilbur.

In the sculpture, Wilbur Wright seems to follow through as though hurling the Flyer skyward; not with physical might, but through sheer force of will.

One of my favorite parts of the sculpture is the illusion of blurred motion from the Flyer's props.

John Daniels, a member of the United States Life-Saving Service, was pressed into service as amateur photographer. He had never seen a camera before, but managed to capture the iconic photograph of the Flyer lumbering into the air. He was so stunned by the event that he not only almost forget to click the shutter on Orville Wright's camera, but he also failed to notice The Bear sneaking up on him.

"Wilbur Would Have Liked This"

The Wright Brothers Memorial, a sixty foot high granite pylon, awaited us at the top of Kill Devil Hill.

"In commemoration of the conquest of the air
by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright
conceived by genius achieved by dauntless
resolution and unconquerable faith."

At the monument, we chatted with a ranger who described the monument's dedication in November of 1932. It was a rare instance of such a monument being dedicated to a living honoree; though Wilbur Wright passed away in 1912, Orville was present for the ceremony.  When asked to give a speech, the famously laconic Orville is said to have simply noted, "Wilbur would have liked this."

The Art Deco wing sculpted into the side of the pylon is magnificent.

It is, I think, a very fitting tribute. I thought so the first time I visited and was struck by it on this visit as well. The monument simply has a presence about it.

As for The Bear, she was having a rough time staying upright in the brisk wind sweeping across the hill.

Don't Call Me "Junior"

We learned much and traversed the historic site from end to end. We returned to the Visitor Center where The Bear presented her completed booklet (though she just turned six, she did the activities for 7-9 year olds because she is a high-achieving Bear), and recited her pledge.

"As a Flight Ranger, I promise to help preserve and
 protect Wright Brothers National Memorial, as well
as all other National Park Service areas."

Our happy Junior Ranger posed with her badge in front of John Daniel's First Flight photo.

With the mission accomplished, our newly appointed Junior Flight Ranger mounted her winged steed and departed that magical place for her next adventure.


For any pilot, a visit to the Wright Memorial inevitably evokes contemplation. As I stood on what the Wrights referred to as the "Big Hill", I thought of the airspace we traversed in order to reach our goal. The DC Special Flight Rules Area came immediately to mind because my first experience flying through it was so fresh.

Humanity struggled for centuries to seize the sky. Once that technological feat was accomplished, mankind moved on to the next goal: legislating the sky. Escalating levels of control over denser regions of air traffic make sense to me as worthwhile safety endeavors. But the SFRA was not truly legislated for safety (except, perhaps, in name); it was a knee-jerk reaction to terror that resulted from a perceived need to "do something".

What would the Wrights, with their keenly practical minds, have to say about the security theater surrounding Washington DC? How would these men, who risked life and limb in an effort to claw their way skyward, feel about an aviation cost structure ridiculously inflated by certification and liability? Would they be stunned? Or were they sufficient students of human nature to foresee that these things were likely outcomes of the events set in motion by themselves and other early aviation pioneers?

I think that the dream of flight...the affliction...lives on in most pilots in some form. I think it is essential for all pilots to relive the dream as the Wrights and other early aviation pioneers first beheld it. Sometimes, remembrance of our origins is the best way to reassess our course into the future.


  1. Great post. FFA is certainly on my must-fly list. Though I don't know if I'll ever get there before we're airplane owners ourselves, it's always in the back of my mind.

    On a NPS-related note, if you and the family ever make it down this way, many of the Wright sites in the Dayton area are collected as a single National Park - complete with many junior activities. Beyond that, Aviation Trail is an even bigger collection of local sites. And, if you visit enough, you get your own Wilbear!

    1. Hey Steve - I'm glad I was able to make the trip in my airplane rather than a rental. It was more meaningful to me that way.

      Thanks for the tip on the stuff in the Dayton area. I/we need to get down there at some point. It's a shame that it's not a bit closer, an hour would make a huge difference.

    2. Yup, I've made the drive (and flight!) enough times to know it's smack-dab in the middle of not-close-yet-not-super-far range. Tons of things for any self-respecting aviation nerd, kid or adult. And, as always, free Cub rides! :)

    3. My only question is this: Do prospective Cub passengers need to provide their own roll of TP? :-)

    4. Only if it's not for hire...?

    5. It seems to me that the FARs are awfully quiet on the specific subject of TP. Too quiet...