Kitty Hawk, NC

First Flight
Dec. 17, 1903 The Wright Brothers First Flight. Captured by John T. Daniels

Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is a small town in the outer banks that has gained world-wide recognition as the birthplace of flight. Interestingly enough, although the first flight took place on the beach shore in this small town, Kitty Hawk was not the original home of the minds behind flight, or even the place where such ideas were formulated. Orville and Wilbur Wright grew up and discovered many of their future altering ideas, in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. It was only by chance that the Wright Brothers picked the small town of Kitty Hawk to do their experiments. When Orville and Wilbur chose Kitty Hawk as the location they wished to test their aircrafts they forever changed the landscape of the city.

The men that would forever alter Kitty Hawk grew up in a Dayton home with their three siblings, children by the names of Katherine, Lorin and Reuchlin. They were raised with Christian values, their father being a Bishop, and were instilled with the idea that they could achieve anything that they put their mind to. Their parent’s faith gave thier children the confidence and values that ended up giving flight to one of the greatest inventions in human history (Crouch).

Growing up both boys were incredibly smart and not surprisingly, did extremely well in both math and science. Ironically however neither received high school diplomas. Despite the fact neither brother graduated they both received honorary degrees from prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Yale after their invention of the airplane (Crouch).

Before the fame that resulted from the invention of the airplane Orville and Wilbur Wright ran a bike shop in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Neither boy married (both lived in the family home until their deaths) so they spent most of their time together, drawing up sketches and coming up with ideas for their airplane. The business, which they founded in 1892, funded their project and allowed them plenty of time to learn about flight. They read books, played with kites, and watched birds fly to try to figure out the complexities of this act that they were so curious about (Crouch).

Not only did they need to do research in to how to create this flying vessel but they needed the perfect place to test its powers. They found their ideal location and “…it was the Outer Banks that met their criteria for privacy, steady winds and wide-open, non-vegetated spaces” (Wright Brothers National Memorial). Unlike today, they could not do an online search to find an area to find an area to meet their criteria and moving within the US was still a fairly difficult thing to do at that time so they had to rely on information from the United States Weather Bureau to a location that would fit their needs. They came across Kitty Hawk and after wrote to the commissioner of the city. The reply they received from Capt. William Tate read as follows: “You could, for instance get a stretch of sandy land one mile by five with a bare hill in the center eighty feet high not a tree or bush anywhere to break the evenness of the wind current… I assure you, you will find a hospitable person when you come among us” (Wright). And so they found the place that would forever change the course of their life and the place that they, in turn, would forever change the landscape of.

The brothers first traveled to Kitty Hawk in 1900 to experiment with the seventeen foot craft that they had constructed after tireless researching and building. The result was less than they had hoped for but they felt like they gained lateral and longitudinal control of the craft. In May of that same year Wilbur Wright wrote to Octave Chanute, who was considered to be an expert on flight saying “For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field” (Crouch, 183). This disease he talks about is his on going obsession with flying. Little did he know that he would soon achieve his goal and in turn give back to the place that would end up giving him the perfect recipe for success: Kitty Hawk.

This goal would not be realized for a few more years. In 1901 they returned to Kitty Hawk with a twenty two foot long craft and a new camber. A camber refers to the curve of the planes wing. This particular camber caused more problems than it did good so by the end of the trip the brothers had returned to the previous camber. This failure prompted Orville and Wilbur to build their own wind chamber so they could produce further data about flight and how to produce a craft that could fly and be easily navigated (Crouch).

This research paid off and in 1902 they returned to Kitty Hawk with what they, by the end of the trip, believed to be the first working airplane. This airplane, the first of its kind, had thirty two foot wings and vertical tales. The brothers flew this craft upwards of 1000 times in 1902 and had them ready for success upon their return to Kitty Hawk in 1903 (Crouch).

On December 17, 1903 the brothers changed travel forever. It was then, on the hills of Kitty Hawk that Orville, with his brother running alongside him, took off in to the sky to achieve the first ever documented human flight (Wright Brothers National Memorial). The flight was a mere twelve seconds “But for the first time, a manned, heavier-than air machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started” (The Road to the First Flight). Orville and Wilbur not only changed transportation forever they changed Kitty Hawk, forever it would be known as the home of one of the greatest inventions of man.

Wright Brothers Memorial

Picture of the Wright Brothers Memorial. Taken by Ken Davis.

Since that fateful day in December of 1903 the identity of this small town in the Outer Banks has revolved around the great invention that took flight on their shores. The town logo is “First in Flight” and features an emblem of the brothers flying their first aircraft. Not only is there a logo, but Kitty Hawk is home to a massive monument forever commemorating the brothers and what they did December of 1903. It was funded by government dollars, proposed by the Committee on Appropriations, and erected in 1932 (US House). This, along with a visitor center serves as the main tourist attraction in the city which is visited by a half million people every year. This town, which has largely been centered around tourism and the benefits of it can credit its development to the Wright Brothers and their decision for location. Not only does the town make money from tourism it is a city that is known by almost all boys and girls through out America. Growing up you learn about the historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, a town which by any other means is the same as any other quiet beach town.

Wilbur and Orville have defined Kitty Hawk and forever etched it into history books completely changing it’s future.  They did this by choosing it over all other towns as the location for their experiments. If it was not for their decision, North Carolina, more specifically Kitty Hawk, would have been forced to take on a whole other identity. What would the license plate be? What would it be like to grow up in Kitty Hawk if the monument did not sit on that hill? The Wright brothers not only changed the future of transportation but they shaped the future of a city, and in some ways, even a state.


Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop’s Boys: a Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. Print.

United States. Cong. House. Committe on Appropriations. Monument on Kevin Devil Hill. H. Bill. Washington, 1930. Print.

“Wright Brothers National Memorial – History & Culture (U.S. National Park Service).” U.S. National Park Service – Experience Your America.Mar. 2011. Web.

About the Author

Tia Gaffen is a sophmore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She plans to major in Journalism with an emphasis in Public Relations.

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