North Carolina: Those magnificent men and their flying machines

Chris Leadbeater flies backwards through time to North Carolina

At first glance, it seems to be on an incline. Running my eye over it, sparsely grassed and gentle of curve, it strikes me as the sort of slope on which –given a coating of snow – children might spend a happy few hours on sledges.

The heat of the morning is the first clue that this is not Dickensian Kent on a frosted December day. The second indicator stands tall atop this 90ft hillock – a granite monument. Around its base, sculpted words give the game away entirely. "In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright," reads the inscription. "Conceived by genius, achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith."

As places that changed the world go, the Wright Brothers National Memorial is understated. A quiet, undulating field, it sits in the small town of Kill Devil Hills, halfway down the Outer Banks – the 200-mile chain of interlinked sandbars and islets that shapes the shoreline of Virginia and (in this case) North Carolina.

Pull up a satellite image of this narrow landmass, and you'll be amazed that water has not yet engulfed it – barely a mile wide in parts, hemmed on one side by the open mouths of Currituck and Albemarle Sounds, on the other by the fury of the Atlantic.

And yet, it was precisely its exposed setting that made the North Carolina coast the ideal venue for the Wright Brothers' aviation experiments – home to high winds, but also the sort of soft, slanted terrain that assists take-offs and cushions crash-landings. The brothers first came here in 1900, travelling south from their native home of Ohio, and conducting tests with rudimentary gliders. But by 1903 they had advanced to the Wright Flyer, an aircraft made of very light but durable spruce, and fitted with an aluminium engine.

On 17 December, they completed four short forays (two per brother), the longest lasting for just 59 seconds and 800ft, that are now recognised as the first controlled powered airplane flights .

Their revolutionary trail is still visible. A boulder marks the exact location of that initial glorious uplift (with Orville at the controls) that slipped Earth's clutches and floated, however unsteadily, above terra firma.

Ebbing away from it, across the grass, the "Flight Line" maps those first four successes – further boulders at each touch-down point – that punched a hole in the fabric of the present, and dragged mankind into the future. It takes me four minutes to walk the path, but I can almost feel the centuries shifting as I do so.

Adjacent, a cluster of buildings supplies some context. Twin wooden structures – replicas of the brothers' living quarters, and what was the first hangar – are as basic as they would have appeared 109 years ago.

The Visitor Center deals in echoes, playing host to a reproduction of the wind tunnel used in the siblings' calculations, a life-sized model of the Wright Flyer (the real thing is preserved by the Smithsonian Institution at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC), and the doughty plane's actual engine block.

On the walls, grainy photographs – the Flyer tottering nervously into the blue; the two men well-groomed and proud, Orville fulsome of moustache – fatten out the story.

But the most pertinent reminder of what happened here lies outside. As I retreat into the blustery conditions beyond the museum, a tiny biplane spears up into the sky from the First Flight Airstrip that runs behind the complex.

As it turns towards the ocean, it dips a wing, as if saluting the Memorial – and the visionary men who altered all our tomorrows.

Travel Essentials

Visiting there

Wright Brothers National Memorial, 1401 National Park Drive, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (001 252 473 2111; nps.gov/wrbr). Daily, 9am-5pm; $4 (£2.50), under 16s free.

More information

DiscoverAmerica.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album