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Wright Brothers National Memorial atop Kill Devil Hill

Photo from National Park Service digital archive

The Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates the site of the first successful powered air flight and the many achievements of Wilbur and Orville Wright in the Kill Devil Hills area of North Carolina. The Wrights, who had been experimenting with glider designs, required a wide, open area with steady winds in order to conduct their research. The closest, most practical site to the brothers' Dayton, Ohio, home was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1900 Wilbur and Orville Wright set up a tent camp at Kitty Hawk to test their first large glider, performing their first manned glides here. The following year, the Wrights returned to the area, building a more permanent camp including a combined workshop and storage building. The experimental flights of early August 1901 largely succeeded, resulting in glides of up to 389 feet; however, difficulties still existed and frustrated both brothers. Toward the end of August, the Wrights returned to Dayton for further work. In August 1902, the Wrights returned once again to Kitty Hawk to test improvements made on their glider where they gained increased control over their craft and logged a considerable number of hours of actual flight time, contributing to their later success as pilots.

[photo] The beginning of the first flight, December 17, 1903
Photo by John Daniels, courtesy of Library of Congress

By the end of the 1902 season, the Wrights had made great progress on the way to successful flight. These accomplishments did not go unnoticed. The scientific community began to hear of the Wright brothers' work and the military of several countries took an interest in the gliders. Wilbur and Orville, understanding the significance of their discoveries, applied for a patent in 1903. At the same time, the brothers began developing an engine for their flying machine in order to attain their goal of powered flight. On Monday, December 14, 1903, the brothers decided to test their machine-powered aircraft called the Flyer. The brothers tossed a coin to decide who would take the first turn. Wilbur, winner of the coin toss, experienced difficulties and stayed in the air for three and a half seconds. Although considered an unsuccessful attempt, the Wrights were optimistic about the Flyer's ability. At 10:00 am on December 17, despite high winds, the brothers set out to test the aircraft again. Orville flew approximately 100 feet in 12 seconds and at noon Wilbur made the fourth and longest flight of the day, covering 852 feet.

Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center, a National Historic Landmark, is a showcase of the National Park Service's Mission 66 program

Photo from National Park Service digital archive
In 1932 a 60-foot granite monument perched atop 90-foot tall Kill Devil Hill was dedicated to commemorating the achievement of these two visionaries. One of the most significant changes to the site came in 1960 when the park added a new Visitor Center, one of several Mission 66 projects sponsored by the National Park Service to upgrade park buildings in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Service. Designed by the Philadelphia firm of Mitchell/Giurgola, later designers of the Liberty Bell Pavilion near Independence Hall, the new concrete visitor center suggested the form of an airport terminal and conveyed a sense of transportation, forming a connection between the achievements of the Wright brothers and the world of modern aviation.

The Wright Brothers National Memorial, administered by the National Park Service, is located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the town of Kill Devil Hills. About 15 miles northeast of Manteo, NC on US-158, the Visitor Center, which is itself a National Historic Landmark, is open daily during the summer from 9:00am to 6:00pm, and the rest of the year from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Please call 252-441-7430, or visit the park's website for further information. You can also download (in pdf) the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center National Historic Landmark nomination.

Wright Brothers National Memorial is the subject of an online-lesson plan produced by Teaching with Historic Places, a National Register program that offers classroom-ready lesson plans on properties listed in the National Register. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page.

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