The Wright Brothers National Memorial on North Carolina’s Outer Banks ranks at or near the top of practically every aviator’s list of must-visit destinations. The Memorial is also recognized as one of the nation’s top educational experiences for visitors of all ages.
The Visitor Center, only a short distance north of the famed resort of Nags Head, is at the heart of any trip to the Memorial in Kill Devil Hills. There, exhibits and presentations tell the story of Dayton, Ohio, bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright who first came to the Outer Banks in 1900 in hopes of achieving their dream of powered flight.
During a presentation this past year, National Park Service Ranger Amanda Clark told a group of visitors about the hard work the Wrights put in from 1900 to 1903 perfecting their glider flying techniques before the first successful powered flight on Dec. 17, 1903.
“This is the 1903 Wright Flyer replica here,” Clark told a group that filled the Visitor Center seating around the replica. The original is in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Clark noted that the Wrights had done their own calculations, including the design and carving of the propellers.
“They flew with an engine built by their bicycle shop mechanic Charles Taylor,” she added, pointing out the 12-horsepower powerplant.
A model of the 1902 Wright glider is also on display in the Visitor Center plus an engine block from the original Flyer and a reproduction of the Wright’s first wind tunnel.
The presentations are usually a highlight for visitors. Clark’s fellow Ranger Darrell Collins has become nationally known for his performances in telling the story of the Wrights, who first came to the Outer Banks in search of the sustained winds that would enhance their glider experiments. The successful conclusion of those experiments took place just outside the center where the two brothers first achieved controlled, powered flight.
The Memorial and Visitor Center are open daily except Christmas Day and the presentation is only a small part of the experience.
The outdoor focal point of the Memorial is the 60-foot granite pylon atop Kill Devil Hill, four-tenths of a mile from the center.
On the pylon’s south side, almost any time of year, you will find visitors exploring the remarkable full size bronze and stainless steel exhibit showing the Wright’s first flight, complete with a statue of photographer John T. Daniels, the local man whose first photo ever was of that historic flight.
The fact that the Wright Brothers made that first powered flight in December, when winds were predictably high, emphasizes the fact that there is no one time of year to visit. If you come during cold weather months, the conditions remind you of the difficulties faced by the Wrights. And since the Memorial is adjacent to the resort beaches of Nags Head and other coastal locations on the Outer Banks, summer and spring are prime visiting times.
Limited driving is allowed on the grounds of the memorial, but the paved walkways are ideal for roaming the entire park. A reconstructed version of the original hangar and the sleeping quarters/workshop are within a short walk of the Visitor Center. A few steps away from the hangar, the First Flight Boulder shows the spot from which that initial 12 second, 120-foot flight into history began. Successive flights of 175 feet, 200 feet and finally 852 feet are marked for visitors to walk off.
First Flight Airport (KFFA), adjacent to the Memorial, offers a unique and appropriate way for pilots to visit the memorial. The 3,000- by 60-foot paved asphalt airfield (Runways 2-20) is owned by the National Park Service. Parking in the limited tie-down area is restricted to 24 consecutive hours or 48 total hours in any 30-day period. There is no maintenance or fuel service available. Dare County Regional Airport (KMQI) in Manteo is only six nautical miles south and offers full service.
Admittance to the Memorial is $4 per person. Those 15 and under get in free and the $10 lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for seniors allows everyone in the vehicle in free. Admittance information and full details of the park are available online at NPS.gov
There is another interesting modern-day aviation side to Kitty Hawk four miles down the coast at Jockey Ridge State Park. Kitty Hawk Kites offers traditional hang gliding lessons and also a special course called the 1902 Wright glider experience.
This four-hour lesson includes five solo flights over the dunes in a Wright Experience reproduction of the glider that the Wrights flew the year before powered flight. The session is $349 per person but the cost is lowered to $299 if three or more people participate. A three-hour standard hang gliding lesson is $109. Kids classes designed for anyone under 75 pounds are limited and based on the availability of instructors.
There are two additional airports in the area you might enjoy flying into if you’re taking your plane to the Outer Banks. Billy Mitchell Airport (KHSE) is 47 nautical miles south. The 3,000- by 75-foot asphalt field (Runways 7-25) is tucked behind the sand dunes in the settlement of Frisco, four miles east of Hatteras. A historical marker along Coastal Highway 12 reminds visitors of the achievements of Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ greatest advocate for air power in the decade after World War I.
Ocracoke Island Airport (W95) is 19 nautical miles southwest of Billy Mitchell. The 2,999 by 60-foot field (Runways 6-24) is a favorite for first-time flying visitors coming up from the south. The quaint island port town of Ocracoke is a major tourist attraction. The airport is nearly two miles from the center of the harbor town.
Billy Mitchell and Ocracoke airports are owned by the National Park Service and managed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Both airports are behind the first row of dunes almost directly on the ocean.
Expect a crosswind everywhere you fly along and near the Outer Banks. Also, be alert for sea gulls, particularly at Billy Mitchell and Ocracoke. Additional remarks for W95 and KHSE remind aviators that the airports are within Cape Hatteras National Seashore and that 2,000 foot vertical and horizontal distance from seashore beaches is required. Neither airport has fuel or maintenance services but tiedowns are allowed.
When you look at the sectional there is restricted airspace in the area near First Flight Airport. But from the west you can plot a course between the restricted areas directly to Dare County or to First Flight itself. Northeastern Regional at Edenton (KEDE) and Plymouth Municipal Airport (KPMZ) are good launching points for the short flight out to the coast. Pay close attention also to airspace restrictions if you are flying from the Virginia Beach area or the Wilmington area in the South.
Once over the Outer Banks, the view is magnificent with mile after mile of beach and dunes along the barrier island landscape. On good weather days, be aware that a lot of flyers will have the same idea of cruising the coast, so stay alert for traffic.
The 70-mile-long Cape Hatteras National Seashore extends from south of Nags Head down the coast to Ocracoke Inlet and just about every kind of water recreation activity is available along the shore.
The most famous attraction along the National Seashore is Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. This 210-foot brick structure still provides a beacon to maritime travelers trying to avoid the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the shifting sands off the Outer Banks. The Lighthouse area is also run by the National Park Service and there is an $8 fee ($4 for seniors) to climb the 248 steps of the iron spiral stairway to the upper catwalk. The lighthouse is open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day in early October.