The wind was howling outside the shack as Wilbur slowly stirred. In the pre-dawn darkness, he groped his way towards the oil lamp. Lighting it, he then turned his attention to the makeshift wood stove in the middle of the room.
Kneeling down, he stirred the embers from last night and had a roaring fire going in short order. His brother, Orville, lay asleep on his cot just a few feet away. Wilbur was glad that he had drawn the short straw and that it would be Orville’s turn today to pilot the flying machine.
Wilbur had been in the plane three days before when it wrecked resulting in significant, but repairable, damage. He was still sore as he walked around the shack, sipping his coffee as he tried to work out the soreness. The wood stove started to warm up the interior as Orville opened his eyes and stared at his brother.
One hundred seven years and three days later, I had the chance to stand on that same piece of ground that the Wright brothers flew from that day. By chance, I found myself at Kitty Hawk at the same time that the flying machine first left the ground. 10:35 in the morning. The wind was blowing at almost the same speed and the thermometer showed that it was just about the same temperature as it was the morning of that historic flight.
Bracing against the wind and the cold, I couldn’t help but think about the determination that these two brothers from Ohio must have had. They were not only battling the elements, but they were also battling time. December 17th, was to be their last attempt at heavier than air flight for the year. If they failed today, they would have to return to Ohio, wait out the winter there frustrated and return to the Outer Banks next spring. A trip they had grown weary of making as they had to make it since 1900.
While not much of Kitty Hawk appears today like it did that day in 1903, it’s still easy to visualize the events that unfolded around that first flight.
Markers indicate the end of the “monorail” from which the machine flew. Four additional markers show where each of the four flights touched down – each flight longer in distance and duration that the previous one.
Two buildings that are reproductions of the only two structures to stand on the sand during the Wright brothers flights are close to the beginning of the “flight path”. A make shift hanger of sorts with a garage type door, and a cabin that served as repair shop, kitchen, living room and bedroom is the other.
The Visitor’s Center in the park houses a replica of the Wright brothers’ glider which they used to make hundreds of test flights from the top of the nearby mound that they called “Big Hill”. Also in the center is a flyable replica of the “aero plane” that carried them to fame.
On two of the walls facing the replicas are a couple hundred portraits of famous aviators and astronauts. Virtually a who’s who of aviation pioneers.
Across the parking lot from the Visitor’s Center is the First Flight Centennial Pavilion. Erected in 2003 for the centennial of the flight, these two buildings, joined by an enclosed breezeway, house other displays that look deeper into man’s fascination with flight as well as items associated with the history of the Outer Banks.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial is located on Highway 158 between mileposts 7 and 8 and is open every day except Christmas.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist living in Asheville, North Carolina. He has traveled the world documenting the tears, joys, laughter and lives of people everywhere. He currently focuses his attention and his camera on people, places and things in the United States. A portion of the proceeds from each photo shoot is donated to organizations that help the homeless in the communities in which he works. You can see more of his photography by clicking here.