While just about every American, young and old, knows that the Wright brothers achieved the first successful airplane flight, many are likely unaware that this flight took place in the Outer Banks. Considering the brothers lived in Ohio, why did they select Kitty Hawk, NC for their flying experiments? To answer this, we must go back in history to when Wilbur and Orville were young.
The Influence of Family
The brothers were born into a family of abolitionists, temperance movement supporters, and active members of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Their parents were firm believers in intellectual pursuits and encouraged their children to become well educated.
Wilbur and Orville’s mother Susan was especially unusual for a woman in that time period. She studied literature at Hartville College in Indiana, where she met her husband Milton, and also had considerable mechanical knowledge learned from working closely with her father in his carriage shop. She built toys for her children and even her own household appliances. It was Susan who Orville and Wilbur turned to when they needed advice on their flying machines.
The brothers had a variety of individual talents, skills, and personality traits that complemented one another. Wilbur was intellectually motivated, excelled in school, had an extraordinary memory. His young adult life was especially shaped by an accident when he was 13 years old that left him with lingering heart and digestive complications. A former athlete, his health problems resulted in depression and he isolated himself until he and his brother began working on their aeronautical research.
Like his brother, Orville was incredibly intelligent and inquisitive. He was energetic, mischievous, and a practical joker, despite being painfully shy. He enjoyed conducting experiments, building new inventions, and dismantling things to see how they worked. Of the two, Orville more closely fit the stereotype of the innovator and scientist. But Wilbur became the more public figure as he was a gifted speaker and not shy like Orville.
According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, relying on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses was crucial to the brother’s invention of the airplane. Neither probably could have achieved alone what they did together. They also were influenced by their only sister Katharine. Like their mother, Katharine pursued her educational and career goals, graduating from Oberlin College and becoming a high school teacher. Katharine, Orville, and Wilbur had a very strong bond and were more interested in their intellectual pursuits than finding partners and settling down. None of them ever married.
Dayton, Ohio and Bicycles
The Wright brothers credited growing up in Dayton, OH as stimulating their interest in aeronautical engineering. In the 1890s, Dayton was a hub for manufacturing and industry, making it a place humming with technological innovation. This environment, along with their parents’ support, encouraged the boys to tinker and explore. The brothers’ first experience with flight occurred in 1878, when their father gave them a small rubber band–powered toy helicopter designed by French aviation pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Intrigued by the toy, Orville and Wilbur made several copies of it in varying sizes. Their fascination with mechanics continued as they grew and as young men, they established a printing press followed by a bicycle repair shop and factory. These enterprises funded their aeronautical experiments.
While many factors contributed to the Wrights’ success with flight, their familiarity with bicycles played an influential role. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, understanding the importance of balance, the need for strong but lightweight materials, the role of aerodynamic shape to combat wind resistance, and the chain-and-sprocket system for propulsion are a few of the lessons they learned from bicycles that would prove essential to their flying experiments.
The Brothers Arrive in Kitty Hawk
The Wright brothers concentrated their early research on simple hang gliders, following the path set by earlier inventors. They were especially influenced by the German flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who made nearly 2000 brief flights in 16 different gliders between 1891 and 1896. The brothers built upon Lilienthal’s research and between 1899 and 1905, they built and tested many airplane prototypes. The 1900 glider was the first piloted aircraft and was also the first to be tested in Kitty Hawk, NC.
The Wrights needed a number of specific conditions in order to test their glider. First, they needed steady winds. Second, they needed a wide-open space with limited obstructions. Third, they needed something from which to launch their glider, such as high sand dunes. Lastly, they wanted a place to experiment in peace without a lot of onlookers. Kitty Hawk fit these requirements perfectly.
At the time, Kitty Hawk was a tiny coastal fishing village of approximately 300 people with ideal average wind speed at 15 to 20 mph. The Kill Devil Hills, located four miles south of town, provided massive dunes from which to glide, and an abundance of sand to cushion crash landings. While Kitty Hawk was ideally suited for their experiments, it was not without challenges. The weather was often unpredictable with sudden squalls and constantly shifting sands. But the brothers persevered.
Before making piloted glides, the Wrights always tested their gliders by flying them as kites. “Kiting” provided valuable data on lift and drag, and enabled them to get a feel for the controls. Unfortunately, their 1900 glider only produced about half the lift they predicted, so it was back to the drawing board in Dayton, OH.
The brothers returned to Kitty Hawk year after year, each time with an improved aircraft. After collecting massive amounts of data, building a wind tunnel to test models, and over 200 wing designs, the brothers designed the successful 1902 glider. Orville and Wilbur made between 700 and 1000 glides, some reaching 600 feet in the air. This success invigorated them and they immediately started working on a powered airplane.
In 1903, they again returned to Kitty Hawk ready to test their aircraft, which they called “The Flyer.” The first attempt was unsuccessful but the second attempt resulted in a 12-second flight — the very first piloted airplane flight. The brothers alternated as pilots, and by the end of the day, their airplane had made an impressive 852-foot trip in 59 seconds. The brothers filed for a patent in March 1903 and it was finally granted on May 22, 1906.
The Wright Brothers’ Legacy
While Orville and Wilbur had achieved flight, their airplane was not exactly practical. To successfully market their creation, they had to demonstrate it could turn, fly for longer periods, and fly over more varied terrain than Kitty Hawk’s sand dunes. By the fall of 1905, the Wrights had built their third powered airplane and on October 5, Wilbur circled a field 30 times in 39 minutes. The brothers had finally proven that flight could be stable and practical.
Interestingly, Orville and Wilbur did not initially do much to popularize their success. They didn’t fly publicly until 1908, when they started a European tour. This caused them to become overnight celebrities. They met with English royalty, were honored with parades, received the Legion of Honor award, and were caricatured by the media. Both men disliked the attention, but if they were going to sell their airplane, they had to endure it.
The Wright Company secured numerous contracts with the U.S. military, selling The Flyer to the Army in 1909 and the Wright Model B to the Navy in 1911. They produced a variety of designs until Orville sold the firm and retired in 1915, three years after Wilbur’s premature death.
The Wright brothers’ impact on the 20th century is beyond measure. All successful airplanes have incorporated the basic design elements of the 1903 Wright Flyer. Their inventions had an immense impact not simply on the military but on the entire culture, including technology, art, and literature. They also became an integral part of the Outer Banks’ long history. In commemoration of their accomplishments, a 60-foot granite memorial was erected in Kitty Hawk in 1932, which you can visit today.
Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company