First Flight

A visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial is a must for aviation enthusiasts.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Wright Brothers National Memorial

This Memorial Day weekend was my most special one to date. While I didn't celebrate it the way it was intended – in remembrance of the members of our Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect our freedom – I had a chance to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

A couple of my dear aviation friends – Teresa Vinson and Kirby Ortega – had selected the site for their wedding ceremony. Nobody could have dreamed up a better location for a wedding between two passionate pilots. The ceremony was held on the beach, no more than a mile from the site where the Wright brothers developed the Wright Flyer and successfully completed the first sustained powered flight. Instead of rice being thrown at the couple for good luck, miniature airplanes graced the blue skies at the completion of the ceremony.

Not only did this weekend include a fabulous wedding and a fun occasion to get together with some great flying pals, I also had a chance to fly into the First Flight Airport (KFFA). I airlined out to Atlanta where I met up with my friend Dan Gryder, who is a very experienced multi-engine instructor, and on Saturday afternoon we jumped in one of his Piper Geronimos and dodged some early summer clouds on our way up toward the beautiful beaches of the Outer Banks.

The First Flight airport has a very small parking area, so there is a 24-hour maximum time limit for airplanes. Most of my friends had to park at the Dare County Regional Airport (KMQI) nearby, where Dan and I also stopped to fill up our fuel tanks. But since we were only staying for one night, First Flight’s time limit suited us fine and we were able to leave the Geronimo within eyesight of the memorial monument, which sits atop the hill where the Wright brothers launched the gliders that preceded their historic 12-horsepower, single-engine, wood and fabric airplane.

To our delight, the skies were more or less clear along the coast and it was easy to find the airport, which is carved out of a forested area adjacent to the memorial park. Having not flown a twin for a while, the crosswind, tall trees and power lines made the 3,000-foot runway seem shorter than it was, but I landed the Geronimo with plenty of runway to spare. It was a fun challenge and I felt safe with Gryder by my side.

To me, visiting the memorial park was a spiritual experience. Standing on the very spot where it all happened more than 100 years ago I could clearly sense the dedication required of the two brothers to build and rebuild their airplanes in a tiny wooden “hangar,” while living next door in a house so small the beds were elevated on platforms near the ceiling (both buildings have been replicated as a part of the memorial park). I could watch in my mind’s eye how they repeatedly crashed their gliders and early Wright Flyer models from the hill that is now graced by a huge monument. I could feel their passion for flight and their elation as their seemingly impossible mission became an incredible success.

In addition to the replicated buildings, the rail that held the Flyer’s wooden crossbeam “landing gear” off what was then flat sand can still be seen on the ground and several stones mark the takeoff point and landings sites for the first few flights. The very first flight lasted 12 seconds and the Flyer traveled a distance of 120 feet. That translates to less than 7 mph and, while that figure is naturally ground speed, it confirms, in my mind, that the only reason the Wright Flyer took off on December 17, 1903 is because there were good winds on that day.

Regardless of the flaws of that first flying machine it was an incredible achievement that jumpstarted the exponential development of aviation. If you haven’t had a chance to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial, I highly recommend it. Anyone who has an interest in aviation should pay tribute to the men who launched the wonderful adventure of powered flight.

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