Beyond the Guidebook: The Wright Brothers’ First Flight

Everyone says you have to stop at the site of the Wright brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk when you’re visiting the Outer Banks. But being a “must see” doesn’t mean it can’t surprise you. Learn more about this classically North Carolina destination, and then go beyond the guidebook with our insider tips.

Must-See Merits

Man’s first flight: It doesn’t get much more epic than that. 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, and in 1903, the Wright flyer lifted into the air and soared into history.

Plan Your Visit

Today, when you follow in the Wright brothers’ footsteps and travel to the Outer Banks, you can visit a national memorial in their honor. Admission is $10 for those aged 16 and up, and it includes entrance to the memorial for seven consecutive days after purchase. Admission is free to children 15 years old and younger. Check the calendar before heading here; the entrance fee is waived numerous times per year in honor of various anniversaries and holidays.

Your visit comes to life with the history of Wilbur and Orville’s efforts to take flight, which weren’t immediately successful. In 1900, the brothers came down from Dayton, Ohio, 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. 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 officially destined North Carolina to be the “first in flight” state.

At the visitors center in Kitty Hawk, you’ll see 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. Plus, newer artifacts on display include original air foils used in the wind tunnel and a 5-foot section of cloth from the wing, which has been kept in archives and never displayed before.

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.

Go Beyond the Guidebook

Looking to take your appreciation for the Wright Brothers’ page in history to new heights? Try flying a reproduction of the brothers’ 1902 glider at Jockey's Ridge State Park with Kitty Hawk Kites. The only one of its kind available to fly for the public, this glider is a historic reproduction that allows visitors to experience flight exactly as Wilbur and Orville did by the time they made their first successful ascent more than 100 years ago.

Visitors who book a flight on the glider will receive a flying lesson before ascending 5 to 15 feet off the ground and soaring over the very dunes the Wright brothers did in 1903. Your best bet if you go, though, is to be flexible – optimal wind conditions are a must, so make sure you’re not short on time in case you need to wait for high winds to die down. 

Updated July 8, 2024
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