Over Thanksgiving break, I visited North Carolina’s Outer Banks, home of sprawling vacation homes, wild horses, and the site of the humankind’s first flight on December 17, 1903. On that day, Orville and Wilbur Wright (respectively) piloted a self-powered aircraft, achieving four separate flights of increasing distance and duration. A monument to the brothers was erected in 1932 on the top of Kill Devil Hill, overlooking the field where they conducted their flight experiments. The National Park Service took over the site’s administration in 1933 and built a visitors center in 1960.
I accompanied my father, an ex-Air Force Pilot and aviation history enthusiast, to the Wright Brothers National Memorial on November 21, 2012 and was impressed by how NPS uses several different types of material culture to interpret the first flight and commemorate the men who achieved it.
The Visitor Center
Resembling a mid-century airport, the Visitor Center contained an exhibit, mostly in panel format, detailing the Wright Brothers’ early years and the mechanical experimentations that led up to their history-making flight. While certainly informative, the exhibit was dimly colored and poorly lit, rendering it rather underwhelming. Personally, I was much more excited about the life-size models of the brothers’ 1902 glider and the 1903 Wright Flyer I.
Housed in a large room and amply lit by huge windows overlooking a field and Kill Devil Hill, the two models provide visitors with the opportunity to view these flying machines up-close and from all angles. This also gives them a familiarity with the objects and the moving parts the flying machines contained. The models, presented against a backdrop of where the flights actually took place, allow visitors to imagine what it might be like to be strapped face-down onto a canvas wing, supported merely by a wooden frame, and flung up into the air. During our visit, a uniformed park service worker was giving a talk about the events of and leading up to December 17, 1903. His colorful narrative gave life to the Wright Flyer I model, as he used it to demonstrate how the machine was steered and how it pitched in the wind. Nice job using material culture, NPS. I approve.
Literally a giant, windy field, this is where it all went down in 1903…although I suppose “up” would be a more appropriate word choice in this case. The field has a walkway running down its middle with a series of engraved stones marking the locations where the Wright Flyer I originally took off, and the distances of the four flights that occurred on December 17,, 1903.
I found this to be an especially appropriate use and interpretation of space. Standing at the “takeoff” marker, visitors can look across the field and not only see, but fully sense the comparative distances that the brothers flew that day. One can see how they improved their flying skills over the course of the day, practically doubling their distance with each flight.
The constant (and chilly in November) headwind out of the northeast—a landscape feature that made the field an ideal site for flight experiments—also contributes to visitors’ sense of what the Wright Brothers experienced during their race to flight. The most notable feature of the field, however, is the original wood and metal track the Wrights used to launch their flyer. Nearly overgrown but still visible, this understated artifact remains a poignant monument to the exact place that flight occurred.
You can’t have a memorial without a monument, right? Well kind readers, let me assure you: The Wright Brothers Monument is one of the most monolithic monuments that has ever monumentalized a momentous moment in history. Overlooking the field, the Visitor Center, the Atlantic Ocean, and most of the southern half of the Outer Banks, the monument towers atop Kill Devil Hill, from whence the Wrights conducted some of their early experiments.
The monument is a vertical wing-like wedge that faces into the wind, carved from granite in a colossal Art Deco style. I must say, the monument really has a Fountainhead-y feel to it. This is inscribed around the wedge: “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by genius achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.” The word “genius” is carved alone on the front of the wing, facing directly into the wind. A set of iron doors on the back of the monument depict the “conquest of the air.”
The striking monument captures the essence of flight in form and in location, glorifying the Wright Brothers’ contribution to humankind and mirroring the idea of forward progress. The view from the top of the hill gives visitors an idea of the heights that the brothers reached in their flight experiments and the monument asserts them as colossal figures in American History.
The only shortcoming of the Wright Brothers National Memorial is that it is very Wright Brothers-centric. Now, of course I understand that is the whole point of a memorial, but as a visitor I would have appreciated more context about the race to flight and other engineering advances that contributed to the Wrights’ understanding of aerodynamics. In 2001, NPS and NASA built the Centennial of Flight Pavilion on the premises, tracing the legacy of flight in the twentieth century since their pioneering experiments. Unfortunately we did not have time to go inside so I cannot comment on how that tied in with the rest of the memorial.
The site provides an interesting play between the commemoration and interpretation of the actual first flights, and a glorification of the men responsible. The field is an understated (albeit wide-open) space with some shabby buildings, representing the reality of December 17, 1903. But the whole site is presided over by a monolithic wing symbolizing an almost godly stature of the brothers themselves.
Overall, I found the site informative and enjoyable. If you plan to go, however, I recommend waiting until the warmer months because the November winds atop Kill Devil Hill were nasty, kind readers. Nasty!
 “Wright Brothers National Monument,” Wikipedia article.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_Brothers_National_Memorial