Saturday, August 31, 2013

In Blackbeard's Wake (Part 4 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) - PVG
3.2 1209.6


In the early 1700s, what are now idyllic vacation spots in North Carolina's Outer Banks were havens for pirates. Notorious corsair Edward Teach, best known by the fearsome nickname "Blackbeard", was fond of mooring his ships in the deep inlets off the southern tip of Ocracoke Island. It was here that he eventually met his demise, permanently intertwining his story with that of Ocracoke.

Ocracoke Island was our next destination. Sadly, we did not bring any puffy shirts with us; our ordinary non-buccaneer garb would have to suffice.

Trivial Pilotage

Kristy, The Bear, and I navigated from First Flight Airport to remote Ocracoke Island using a chart unlike anything ever employed by Blackbeard or his ilk. On first inspection, it is a bewildering superposition of restricted airspace annotated with arcane incantations like "request status of R-5313 A, B, C, D from GIANT KILLER on 118.125." The wildlife refuge areas around the islands necessitate flight above 2,000 feet and the Pamlico MOA overlies the islands at 8,000 feet. Provided that one stays over the islands and within the aforementioned altitude bounds, navigating the region is a non-event.

On departure, Warrior 481 bore us steadfastly through mechanical turbulence generated from gusty winds sweeping through trees around First Flight Airport. Once above the treeline, the air calmed significantly. We stayed over the western shore of the islands, proceeding south with Kitty Hawk and Nags Head passing beneath our port wing.

The massive fishing piers of the Outer Banks make the pier back in Webster, NY look ridiculously inadequate.

The black and white lighthouses of the Outer Banks are iconic. We flew past this one, the Bodie Island Lighthouse, on our way to Ocracoke.

Bodie and Pea Islands are connected by the Oregon Inlet Bridge, which I recognized from my first sojourn into the Outer Banks.

When following such a narrow strip of earth surrounded on both sides by seawater, navigation is easy-peasey. The Outer Banks are unlike any other place we have visited by airplane.

The distinctive tip of Cape Hatteras was easy to recognize. We turned southwest to continue along the barrier islands toward Ocracoke.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and stands vigil over a particularly hazardous region of sea known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic". In 1999, an eroding beach forced a move of the entire lighthouse complex 2,900 feet inland.

There is an airport on Hatteras Island named for General Billy Mitchell who is widely regarded as the father of the United States Air Force. How this remote landing facility came to be named for a Brigadier General is unclear. I could find no connection between Hatteras Island and Mitchell. I was tempted to land there just for the sake of landing there, but decided against it and proceeded to Ocracoke.


Ocracroke Island is one of the more remote places in the Outer Banks. It lies approximately 16 nautical miles off the mainland and, unlike many of the islands, is not connected by any bridges. The island can only be reached by boat or airplane. Pictured above is the northern tip of Ocracoke Island where two ferries that connect Ocracoke to Hatteras are crossing paths.

Ocracoke Island Airport lies directly - conveniently - off the beach. Our plan was to get a ride to Howard's Pub, whose website advertises that they actively monitor the airport's Unicom frequency and will pick up customers after landing.

We overflew the airport and entered a descending turn over the Atlantic to position us for a 45° entry to the traffic pattern for runway 24.


Though remote, the Ocracoke Island Airport featured an air-conditioned flight planning office. Residing so close to the beach, however, even the computer keyboard was littered with fine sand. From the office, we called Howard's Pub to verify that someone could pick us up for a late lunch. Our chariot arrived within minutes: a street-legal six seat electric car similar to the Red Bugs of Jekyll Island. The driver delivered us to the pub by pulling into a narrow car port bearing the sign "Limo Parking".

Reading the menu, we learned that the Howard family had deep roots in Ocracoke. William Howard was Blackbeard's quartermaster.

Lunch / dinner was good, though we realized that we were all a bit dehydrated when we each drained several glasses of lemonade in short order. Getting a Junior Flight Ranger badge is obviously hot work for the entire family! The Bear was provided with crayons, an activity book, and food served upon a Howard's Pub Frisbee (above).

This was a good $100 hamburger spot and they even had Bell's beer (brewed in my beloved Kalamazoo, MI!) on tap. Unfortunately, my designated driver does not hold a private pilot certificate and The Bear can't reach the pedals, so I had to abstain.

"Ok, you're at the beach!"
(with a tip of the hat to Phil Collins)

Back at Ocracoke Island Airport, we learned that a Piper Cherokee can serve as an adequate cabana for changing into your swimsuit provided that you are six years old. Otherwise, it is perhaps not the best choice (a little too small and a little too public). Once The Bear was changed, we strolled off airport property and directly onto the beach.


The Bear enjoyed finding sea shells along the pristine beach.

But mostly, I think she delighted in playing in the surf. Kristy and I waded out with her for much of the time. At one point, a large wave soaked my shorts, so I retired above the tide line to dry off and watch The Bear frolic in the sea.

As I admired the waves crashing on the beach, my mind still focused on pilot stuff like, "gee, that looks like a nasty thunderstorm over there." But it was far out over the ocean and no such cumulo-anvils were visible in the direction of home.

Return to Hampton Roads

As the sun crept closer to the western edge of the world, it was time to take flight from Ocracoke Island. Convincing The Bear to leave the water and return to the air took a bit of effort.

While I briefed weather and NOTAMs for the flight back, Kristy struck up a conversation with another experienced "airplane wife" waiting for her husband to arrive in their RV-9A. Once Warrior 481 was fired up and ready to go, we taxied to the hold line on the edge of the ramp nearest the runway to perform a run up.

Before advancing the throttle, I was startled by a loud knocking sound. Whirling around, I saw the RV pilot standing behind our port wing and knocking on the window next to The Bear.

"LOSE YOUR PURSE?" he yelled.

Kristy looked around for her purse and, not finding it, nodded to me and I killed the engine. But no, the purse the man and his wife found was someone else's and Kristy's was in the Warrior's baggage compartment. Better safe than sorry, though.

We departed Ocracoke after a second engine start. Climbing parallel to the shore, we noticed that the beach had emptied out significantly.

I marveled at the tree-like pattern created where people drove their cars onto the beach.

We turned back over the barrier islands to retrace our course to First Flight, then fly direct to Hampton Roads Executive in Chespeake, Virginia.

Northeast bound, we flew over the small, crowded ramp at Ocracoke Island Airport.

We flew past the town of Hatteras, this time staying east of the beach.

The Cape Hatteras Fishing Pier, also known as the Frisco Pier, has been beset by natural disasters and remained closed since 2008. It reached out from the shoreline in a broken line, isolated portions of the once contiguous structure now man made islands standing above the waves. "I would NOT want to go out on that!" remarked The Bear as we flew past.

Oblique lighting from the late day sun accentuated haze in the air over the narrow islands.


I have always liked the way a saturated camera CCD often brings out high contrast details while infusing the image with a golden luster.

I first noticed that conditions were right for this as we flew past Pea Island.

Details in Oregon Inlet stood out in stark contrast against early the evening sun.

The mainland can be see in the distance, connected to Roanoke Island by the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge. The Washington Baum Bridge connects Roanoke Island to Nags Head, just south of Kill Devil Hills. This was the very route I drove from Manteo to Kill Devil Hills two years before.

As we flew over the Wright Brothers Memorial, two things happened almost simultaneously. The most obvious one was that my camera ran out of battery charge and shut itself off. The second thing was not evident to me until a later review of my logbook. I crossed the 100 hour mark for 2013 somewhere in the vicinity of First Flight Airport.

Thus ended our day-long adventure in the former haunts of pirates and pioneering airmen. We turned inland and flew an additional half hour back to our home away from home, landing shortly after sunset. This time, The Bear abstained from assisting with the fuel hose and that struck me as a fine decision.

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.