North Carolinians have staked out two claims in recent years on license plates, first in freedom and first in flight. Both are matters of state pride. On April 12, 1776, almost two months before the Declaration of Independence, North Carolina approved the Halifax Resolves, formally endorsing the concept of independence from British rule, the first colony to do so. More than a century later, over the sand-blown dunes of the Outer Banks, two fatigued inventors achieved a different kind of independence. On the morning of December 17, 1903, brothers Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) Wright threw aside the shackles of gravity, achieving man’s first powered flight in a heavier-than-air craft.
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The story of the Wright brothers began in Dayton, Ohio, where they owned and operated a bicycle store. Routinely tinkering on bicycles, they developed a natural curiosity about all things mechanical, one that would later prove beneficial. Seasonal slumps in the sales industry forced the brothers to expand and, after contemplating entry into automobile sales, Orville and Wilbur decided to brainstorm ways to design a self-propelled aircraft, utilizing the mechanical and engineering skills gained from the bicycle trade. After six years of studying the principles of flight, the Wright brothers developed several prototypes, some gliders and others self-propelled, and began looking for proving grounds along the east coast.
Their search ultimately led them to an area on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, near where R. A. Fessenden had successfully transmitted musical notes through radio waves in 1902. They chose a location known as Kill Devil Hills, where strong winds provided lift and sandy grounds increased chances of a safe landing. After months of setbacks and unsuccessful attempts, at 10:53 on the morning of December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer, under its own power, defied gravity for twelve seconds, clearing a distance of one hundred feet within that time. Long years of preparation validated within seconds, the Wright Brothers continued testing, and upon their return to Dayton, manufactured more powerful Wright models.
Locally, men from the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, located approximately one mile from the Wrights’ camp, assisted the aviators by ferrying visitors, delivering packages and time-sensitive news, and moving aircraft and equipment. Four of the crewmen witnessed the first flight. Crewman John T. Daniels volunteered to act as photographer and captured the first images of the Wrights’ success.
Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912, and his brother Orville suffered a fatal heart attack in 1948. In November 1932 the State of North Carolina, due in part from the advocacy of natives W. O. Saunders and Bill Tate, erected a monument at Kill Devil Hills, where the historic flight took place. Orville Wright was the guest of honor at the ceremony.
Tom Crouch, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Orville and Wilbur Wright (1989)
Thomas C. Parramore, Triumph at Kitty Hawk: The Wright Brothers and Powered Flight (1993)
Thomas C. Parramore, First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation (2002)
National Park Service, Wright Brothers Memorial website: http://www.nps.gov/wrbr/
North Carolina State Archives website:
First flight, 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 a.m. at Kitty Hawk (Library of Congress)