Centennial Pilgrimage: A Flight To Kill Devil Hills

The soul of aviation probably has no greater Mecca than the dunes of Kill Devil Hills, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Above these once shifting and untamed sands, now resting beneath 425 manicured acres of grass, stands a hallowed shaft of granite, over ninety feet high and crowning one central dune, also stabilized under a carpet of green. The striking memorial, a 60-foot high triangular pylon ornamented with outspread wings in bas-relief, stands like some colossal gnomon, presiding over both its own circular hill and the open spaces beyond. These grounds embrace the Wright Brothers’ first four successful powered flights, as well as most of their earlier glider experiments. Since it was established by Congress in 1927 to commemorate their achievement, generations have flocked to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Now, it was my turn.

They say the third time is the charm. Twice previously, my attempts to make the two-hour pilgrimage had been aborted, first by foul weather, then for mechanical reasons. But on September 28, with digital camera and a picnic lunch, I flew happily southward to First Flight Airport (KFFA). Here is what I saw.

Arriving shortly after noon on a breezy but mostly sunny Sunday, my first view was eagle-high. The winds whipped almost directly across the runway, but at a manageable 10 knots. If you land towards the South on runway 20, you won’t have to taxi more than perhaps two hundred yards further to the ramp and the new AOPA Pilot Facility. There was a slight northerly component when I arrived though, and after clearing the runway and awaiting a departure, I back-taxied and joined three other aircraft, early pilgrims like myself. The runway, 3000 x 60 feet, is plenty for almost any small airplane.

The view of the monument is striking. The pilot facility is perfectly suited to the area, solidly built, and though I found no instructions for using any of the ten preset buttons on the wall phone in the spacious and otherwise well equipped planning room, I knew one or more of them would reach someone with whom I could cancel my IFR flight plan. (If you want to sign the visitor’s register there incidentally, bring a pen; I hadn’t, so I couldn’t. But the facility does have well-appointed restrooms, and a briefing room offering computerized weather and flight planning,) Here are close-up images from each of the two computer monitors.

After closing my flight plan, and enjoying a quick lunch at one of the adjacent picnic tables, it was time to partake of the view from the monument (which was actually completed over 70 years ago). Perhaps a sign of our times, the door at its base is now chained shut. Still, the top of Kill Devil Hill itself allowed a panoramic vista of the National Memorial grounds below, the surrounding dunes, the Atlantic Ocean, and Albemarle Sound. Perhaps during the Centennial festivities, the spiral staircase leading to the top of the shaft will again be opened. (One can always hope.)

Walking a half-mile or so northward along the sidewalks leading away from the monument, I approached the First Flight site and markers. From the vicinity of this 10-ton granite boulder (put in place by the National Aeronautic Association in 1928, on the 25th anniversary of the first flight) Orville and Wilbur began their famous first four take-offs on December 17, 1903, along a track (now marked by a reconstructed railing). Four smaller granite markers are arranged in line where each of those flights ended, the first one a scant 120 feet away. (I snapped this picture of a Park Service employee recounting that story for fellow visitors, near this First Flight site.) Seen from a distance, these small leaps certainly don’t seem very far at all, do they?

Just about 100 feet to the East are two reconstructed wooden buildings (erected by the National Park Service for the 50th anniversary, now as many years ago). They show (based upon the best research efforts) what the Wright Brothers’ 1903 camp (living quarters and hangar) looked like.

A few hundred feet further, to the northeast, is the Visitor Center. (If one drives to the site, this is one of the first things you will encounter.) Of course, here is where one finds an information desk, literature, and other interpretive resources. (During my visit, and not counting the time I spent inside the Visitor Center, I passed Park Service guides out on the grounds no less than four times. So you needn’t worry about being left lost and wandering.) A reproduction of the Flyer is the centerpiece of its main hall with a backdrop of two facing walls graced with portraits of the men and women who hold places of honor in aviation. Looking out in the other direction, I was struck by the memorial atop Kill Devil Hill, framed inside the airplane’s structure. The Center houses comprehensive exhibits that tell the story, as well as a gift shop with the usual ubiquitous offerings, memorabilia, and souvenirs.

Continuing in my clockwise traversal of the grounds, I came next upon the centennial event buildings. These are not mere tents, although they bear a strong resemblance to them. The first building (in the foreground of this photo) houses additional exhibits, while the second building will be used for presentations to large groups, and doesn’t offer much right now, except space for a few hundred chairs. Walking through the entrance, there is a space that looks much bigger inside than you’d guess by looking at the structure from the outside. As I walked in, I first noticed ample stacks of AOPA’s “Be A Pilot cards, resting on the stylish scaffolding of one exhibit, which also featured an on-demand video display on this program. As I stood back, I realized that the entire exhibit was dedicated to and publicized general aviation.

True, I may have arrived too early to enjoy the teeming throngs, festivities, hoopla, and the grand moments of glory hoped (if all environmental and human factors conspire) for the precise instant beginning aviation’s second hundred years. Still, on that quiet afternoon in late September, I certainly did enjoy the opportunity for reflection and relative solitude. If you get to fly in as I did, do remember that aircraft parking is limited to 24 consecutive hours, or a total of 48 hours during any 30-day period — I should be so lucky to have that concern, as I had but three hours on site. (There are other airports quite nearby however.) If you’re driving, it’s about midway between the towns of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head on U.S. 158, between mileposts seven and eight.) But if a visit isn’t in the cards for you, I hope this vicarious and somewhat haphazard collection has helped to round things out a bit.

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