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Wright Brothers

National Memorial

North Carolina

cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
photo of the kitty hawk plane
Wright Brothers National Memorial, North Carolina

Swept by wind-driven rains of a nor'easter, the Wright Brothers Monument was dedicated on November 19, 1932. The foul weather caused the cancellation of the ceremonial military flyover and reduced the anticipated attendance from 2,000 to a mere one-thousand participants. For the past 65 years, the monument weathered the Outer Banks hurricanes, northeastern storms, and the constant salt spray from the ocean. The area's wind-blown sand flats and hills were the Wright brother's chosen practice field, and in 1903, the site of the first human flight.

The Wrights of Dayton
They had seemingly settled into respectability as proprietors of a small business. But the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio nurtured a barely respectable dream: the possibility of flight.

  • Wilbur, four years older, was quiet and intense, a dreamer who could lose himself in books.

  • Orville was out-going, talkative, and an immaculate dresser.
Both combined intuitive mechanical ability with analytical intelligence.

In 1892 they opened a bicycle shop and prospered, but they were restless, especially Wilbur. Their energies were focused by two events of 1896:

  1. the death in a flying accident of Otto Lilienthal, the celebrated experimenter with gliders, and
  2. the successful launching of powered models by Samuel Langley.
The Wrights' serious work in aeronautics began in 1899 when Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian for literature. Dismayed that so many great minds had made so little progress, the brothers were also exhilarated by the realization that they had as much chance as anyone of succeeding. Wilbur took the lead in the early stages of their work, but Orville was soon drawn in as an equal collaborator. They quickly developed their own theories, and for the next four years devoted themselves to the goal of human flight.

Kill Devil Hills: We Take to the Air
The brothers were dressed in coats and ties that December morning—a touch of private ceremony for an event that would alter the world. The pools around their camp were icing up, and the break in the weather might be their last chance of the season. Words were impossible over the engine's roar, so they shook hands and Orville positioned himself in the flyer. Then, on this remote, sandy beach, in the year 1903, he broke our bond to the earth. He flew. It lasted only 12 seconds, and the distance of the flight was less than the length of an airliner. But for the first time, a manned, heavier-than-air machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started.

Within two generations we had

  • taken to the air for routine travel,

  • seen an aircraft break the sound barrier, and

  • watched a man walk on the moon.

The Wrights labored in relative obscurity, while the experiments of Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian were followed in the press and underwritten by the War Department. Yet Langley and others before him had achieved only uncontrolled hops. They relied on brute power to keep their theoretically stable machines aloft, sending along a hapless passenger and hoping for the best. It was the Wrights' genius to see that humans would have to fly their machines, that the problems of flight could not be solved from the ground.

In Wilbur's words,"It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill"

Making over a thousand glides from the top of Big Kill Devil Hill, the Wrights made themselves the first true pilots. They were a crucial component of their invention. Before they ever attempted powered flight, the Wright Brothers were masters of the air.

Showing the World
"They have done it! Damned if they ain't flew!" said a witness to the first human flight. But so often had this claim proven hollow that the public was skeptical of yet another, especially after the spectacular failure of Langley's flying machine nine days earlier. Undismayed, the Wrights built an improved flyer and refined their flying skills over a field in Ohio, making 105 flights in 1904. In the 1905 flyer— the first practical airplane —circling flights of up to 38 minutes became routine. But when the Wrights offered the flyer to the U.S. Army, that institution, dubious of their achievement, refused to meet with them. Unwilling to show their control system without a contract in hand, the Wrights did not fly for another 3 years.

Despite the break in their progress, the gap between the Wrights and European aviators remained substantial. After 1903, the French built flyers based on the Wright gliders. But by 1906, none had remained aloft for more than a few seconds of ragged flight. Not until 1907 did a European plane stay in the air as long as the Wrights had in 1903.

But the Wrights' refusal to fly caused even early believers to doubt their success. By 1908, a French pilot had flown for over 20 minutes. The Wrights finally signed a contract with the U.S. Army that year and showed the world what they could do—Wilbur in France, Orville in America. After Wilbur flew a circle under good lateral control and landed gently, no one questioned that the Wrights had truly mastered flight. The French attempts were still shaky, on the edge of control. What Wilbur had done was effortless, graceful, decisive. In other flights he flew over 2 hours and reached an altitude of 360 feet, demonstrating the Flyer's reliability and endurance. "We are as children compared with the Wrights", said one French pilot.

By 1910 the rest of the world had caught up. The French rapidly introduced refinements to the Wright design:

  • mono-plane wings,
  • closed body front propeller,
  • rear elevator,
  • single stick control,
  • wheels, and
  • ailerons.
But the principle behind the Wrights' control system was unchanged. A 1911 Wright Model B reflecting some of these changes is the prototype for every plane in the air today.

park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

geologic research subheading

Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/wrbr/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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