Kitty Hawk: The Wright Brothers National Memorial
Alternately known as Killy Hauk, Kitty Hock, and Killy Honk before its current name came into general use, Kitty Hawk to most people means one thing: the Wright brothers’ first powered airplane flight more than a century ago, on December 17, 1903. Lured by the steady winds that blow in from the Atlantic and by the high sand dunes that cover the shore, Wilbur and Orville Wright first came to the Outer Banks in 1900 and returned every year thereafter with prototype kites and gliders built out of bicycle parts, which they fine-tuned to create the world’s first airplane. Their tale is truly one of the great adventure and success stories of the modern age, and the site of their experiments has been preserved as the Wright Brothers National Memorial. First stop is the visitors center (252/473-2111, daily, $4), which includes a number of exhibits tracing the history of human efforts to fly. Every hour, rangers give engaging talks alongside a full-sized replica of the Wright brothers’ first plane.
The most affecting aspect of the memorial is the unchanged site where the brothers first flew. Each of the first four flights is marked by stones set on the grassy field. The first flight, with Orville at the controls flying into a 25-mph headwind, lasted 12 seconds and covered just 120 feet—barely more than a brisk walking pace. The 90-foot-high sand dune where Wilbur and Orville first took to the air has been planted over with grasses to keep it from blowing away. Paths climb to the top of the dune, where a 60-foot, wing-shaped granite pylon is inscribed with these words:
In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Conceived by genius, achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.
The park is off US-158, on the inland side of the highway, two miles south of the Wright Memorial Bridge from the mainland. Though the memorial is definitely worth an extended visit, the towns around it are a bit disappointing—both Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills are little more than narrow strips of commercial development.