The Wright Brothers’ First Flight

The Wright Brothers’ First Flight

Wright Brothers National Memorial on the Outer Banks

Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright began their flight research and experimentation in the late 1890s. By early 1900 they were looking for a place to try out their ideas, somewhere with constant wind, soft sand and privacy. They found it in a town now called Kitty Hawk on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Wilbur and Orville came down from Dayton, Ohio, in September and October of that year and tested their first man-carrying flying device – a glider. Locals gladly provided food and assistance, and the men of the nearby Life Saving Service Stations became their ground crew. They returned to the Outer Banks in 1901 and 1902 with improved designs that gradually solved the problems of lift and lateral control. 1903 was to be their year. In Dayton, they designed and built propellers, a lightweight gasoline engine, a drive mechanism, and a launching apparatus. Even after their arrival in North Carolina, the brothers continued to redesign key elements of the drive train. On Dec. 14, Wilbur won the coin toss to make the first try, but he overcorrected on takeoff and damaged the aircraft.

On Dec. 17, they were ready to try again. At 10:35 a.m. with Orville at the controls, the Wright flyer lifted into the air. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. To prove the first flight was no fluke, Wilbur took the controls at 11:20, flew 195 feet and soared into the history books.

Today, when you follow in the Wright brothers’ footsteps and travel to the Outer Banks, you can visit a National Memorial in their honor. At the Visitors Center, you’ll see a full-scale reproduction of the 1902 glider, a full-scale reproduction of the 1903 flying machine, an engine block from the original 1903 flyer, and a reproduction of the Wrights’ first wind tunnel.

You can also climb Big Kill Devil Hill for a breathtaking view of the area from sound to sea. The 60-foot pylon stands atop the hill, right on the site where Wilbur and Orville conducted their glider experiments.

More North Carolina Frequent Fliers

Tom Tate, an 11-year-old Outer Banks child who was a lot lighter than Orville or Wilbur, became the Wrights’ test pilot in early trials of their tethered glider-kite.

James Henry Gatling, an inventor and a noted wine and apple brandy maker whose brother invented the Gatling gun, designed and constructed the first full-sized American airplane. In his one-and-only flight, he took off from the top of his gin mill in the 18-foot-long contraption, and reportedly traveled 100 feet before crashing.

Some consider Carteret County’s Luther Paul the first to build and fly a helicopter. In 1907, he raised his unmanned craft, the “Bumble Bee,” about five feet off the floor of his barn.

With Wilbur Wright at the stick, Charles Furnas, a mechanic who worked for the Wright brothers, took the first-ever passenger flight on May 14, 1908.

William Wallace Whitney Christmas of Warrentown is credited with the invention of the hinged aileron for lateral control. He applied for the patent in 1910.

Greensboro’s W.F. Johnson was the first African-American documented to design an airplane. Johnson worked for Judge James E. Boyd, the man who carried Robert E. Lee’s Civil War surrender to General U.S. Grant.

May 18, 1916, Asheville’s Kiffin Rockwell became the first U.S. pilot to down an enemy plane in combat.

Wilmington’s Harmon Rorison, who entered the Polish Air Force after World War I, on March 5, 1920, became the first American ever to engage communist troops in combat.

Tiny Broadwick, an 80-pound woman from the North Carolina town of Oxford, was the first female to parachute from an airplane, from a seaplane into water, and the first person to perform a free-fall jump.

Belvin Womble Maynard from Harrell’s Store was ordained Baptist minister who became the test pilot for every new plane the Army received after he enlisted in 1917.

Captain Robert K. Morgan of Asheville piloted the “Memphis Belle” in World War II. Named for Morgan’s wartime sweetheart, it was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions successfully with no serious injuries to the crew. Staff Sgt. Cecil H. Scott, the Memphis Belle’s ball turret gunner, was from Arapahoe.

Request your Travel Guide

Download or order FREE guides and maps

Discover Project Project 543

Explore unique spots across North Carolina

See all of our videos »

Close X