The Outer Banks played a key role in yet another historical milestone, as the birthplace of aviation. The Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, a towering granite monument, pays homage to this history changing event, which occurred on the tall sand dunes of the Outer Banks just over a century ago.
In the late 1800s mankind had access to hot air balloons and small gliders, but there were no "airplanes," or man-powered gliders that could be controlled to move up, right, left, and down despite wind conditions. Enter the Wright Brothers.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were two brothers in Dayton, Ohio that ran a bicycle shop when they became fascinated with flying in the late 1800s. For years, the brothers poured over research, graphs and books, and began to experiment with making their own kites and planes. As their interest developed, they created a wind tunnel in Ohio to measure lift and drag on their two-winged structures. After adding a rudder, the Wright brothers discovered that the combination of two wings and a tail might allow a plane to be controlled mid-air, but this theory needed to be tested.
The Wright brothers decided to conduct their testing in Kill Devil Hills, and spent several years on the then desolate barrier island launching and revising a series of gliders off the tall sand dunes that speckled the landscape. The Wright Brothers built several unsuccessful test gliders, ranging from 50 to 100 pounds, and finally, they constructed a 700 pound glider with a 32 ft. wingspan that could be controlled by a man on board. They believed this aircraft, called The Flyer, was strong enough to carry a propeller and motor that the pilot could use to power off the ground, and then conduct turns.
On December 17th, 1903, the Wright Brothers launched off a downhill track in Kill Devil Hills, and their airplane flew for a full 12 seconds. These 12 second would prove to be revolutionary, and the first airplane had successfully taken flight. Just 11 months and several modifications later, the same plane was able to sustain flight for nearly a full five minutes.
Aviation has clearly grown by leaps and bounds since that historic 12 second flight, but the Outer Banks never forgets where it started. In 2003, the Outer Banks held a Centennial of Flight Celebration at the Wright Memorial in Kitty Hawk. Attended by movie stars, celebrities and important American figures, including President George W. Bush and aviation enthusiast John Travolta, the festival was a huge celebration of live music, NASA exhibits, miles of visitors, and tons of homegrown pride of the Outer Banks role in aviation.