Tracking the origins of aviation at Kitty Hawk in the USA's North Carolina, while having a shot at hang gliding and exploring the Outer Banks - an uplifting holiday
Once you have crashed an aircraft on the North Carolina Outer Banks, as I have done, you will have a shrewd idea of why Wilbur and Orville Wright chose this location to prove their conviction that powered flight was possible.
In my case, the craft in question was a mere hang glider. My maiden flight was from the top of Jockeys Ridge – a bare, golden sand dune that would look at home in the Sahara. Picking up the cross-bar, I ran for all I was worth down the slope, into the wind. My feet lifted off the ground with surprising ease as I pushed the bar forward, hungry for height.
Too hungry, it turned out. For although I soared to perhaps thirty feet off the ground, I had surrendered all stability in the process. The nose dipped, and I grated gracelessly into the soft sand.
“Just relax, Martin, take it easy. Next time let the wind do all the work”, advised Bill Wendell of Kitty Hawk Kites, my hang gliding instructor. I had been airborne for about 12 seconds – the same as Orville Wright when he first swooped skywards aboard the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk a few miles down the coast.
Kitty Hawk Kites is the largest hang gliding school in the world. Simply being in the birthplace of aviation is what moves many people to have a go at flying – in my case, a single three-hour lesson culminating in five short flights of fancy on Jockeys Ridge. However, the real connection is that the perfect conditions – a constant wind, long hours of sunshine and hills of fine sand for easy launches and soft landings – is what drew the Wright brothers here in the first place.
In 1899 the bicycle manufacturers from Dayton, Ohio, wrote to the National Weather Bureau in Washington, requesting recommendations for a suitable location for their "scientific kite flying", explaining that they needed "…a level plain free from trees and shrubbery…and with a prominent elevation such as a hill without trees".
The bureau put them in touch with the weather station at Kitty Hawk, whose chief confirmed to the Wrights the suitability of the Outer Banks. And so it was that Wilbur and Orville spent the next four autumns (the slack season for the cycle business) testing their theories of aeronautics – first with kites, then gliders, and finally with the petrol engine-powered Wright Flyer which inaugurated the era of aviation on December 17th 1903.
The Outer Banks, on North Carolina's Atlantic fringe, comprise a necklace of islands and elongated sand bars, swept by the wind into hills ever-changing in size and shape. Driving north along the coastal highway on a warm autumn day, I was reminded of the coast of Southwest France – a sea fretted with white, waves washing over an expanse of beach, and dunes tufted with marram grass.
A continuous string of low-rise wooden holiday apartments, restaurants and shops now make up the merging seaside resorts of Nag's Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. An enormous grey, granite monolith – the Wright Brothers National Memorial – crowns Big Kill Devil Hill, the highest elevation for miles around (the name, despite sounding like a southern bible-bashing epithet, is after a brand of rum, a consignment of which was once washed ashore here).
The first flight was achieved on a broad, flat expanse below Big Kill Devil Hill, a few hundred yards from the sea. A tent and wooden shack re-create the Wrights' accommodation and the hangar where they assembled their flying machines out of wood, canvas and piano wire. A visitor centre houses replicas of the Wright Flyer and memorabilia including various versions of the earlier kites and gliders. It also shows a video of the Wrights' life and times. Light aircraft, taking off and landing at an airstrip behind the Wright monument, provide an apt background.
The famous photo taken by local lifesaver John T. Daniels at 10.35am, the moment Orville lifted off for the first time, shows that in 1903 the area was sandy. Nowadays it is covered in rough grass and dotted with prickly pear cacti. A boulder rather like a Neolithic standing stone has been erected on the spot, at the end on an iron monorail runway, from which Orville first became airborne, while Wilbur ran alongside.
“They done it! Darn'd if they ain't flew,” long-time assistant Bill Tate, one of only five spectators at the historic event, is said to have exclaimed.
Taking turns at the controls, lying facedown on the lower wing of the biplane, the brothers made several more flights that morning. Stone bollards, between 120 and 200 feet from the lift-off point, mark the landing points of the first three flights. A fourth, 852 feet away, records the longest and last attempt, by Wilbur who remained airborne for 59 seconds. Soon after he landed, a powerful gust caught the flyer and rolled it over several times, wrecking it.
The place where the first flight happened can also claim to be the birthplace of the New World, since it was on nearby Roanoke Island that Sir Walter Raleigh founded the first colony of European settlers in the Americas in 1585. The Tranquil House Inn at Manteo on Roanoke Island, where I was based, looks out across a harbour to a replica of the Elizabeth, on which they arrived. Co-incidentally Wilbur and Orville also stopped over here in September 1903, before catching a ferry across Albemarle Sound. They had with them crates containing the unassembled Wright Flyer, which would triumph three months later.
I merely had to drive across an arching bridge which spans the waterway, leading to Nag's Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. On Jockeys Ridge, my hang glider and instructor were waiting for me. Not much of an accomplishment, then, to have done as I was told and stayed airborne for 12 seconds. But…Darn`d if I ain`t flew!