In 1903 two brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, tested their flying invention on a patch of isolated sand just outside Kitty Hawk. For 12 seconds, they achieved what no human had achieved before - they made a "heavier-than-air" machine fly.
The Wright Brothers selected Kill Devil Hills - an area just outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - as the site for the historic breakthrough. Having searched for the right location, they felt that the area's consistent winds and high dunes would be perfect for their first flight - and they were right.
Continue reading to learn more about why the Wright Brothers chose Kill Devil Hills as the location for their first flight and what you'll find if you visit the area today.
Where Did The Wright Brothers Perform The World's First Flight?
After four years of research, planning, and development, the Wright brothers succeeded in flying the first powered airplane just outside of a town called Kitty Hawk on 17th December 1903.
Kitty Hawk sits in an area known as the "Outer Banks" in North Carolina. The town rose to worldwide fame after the Wright Brothers successfully completed the first powered flight at Kill Devil Hills, just four miles south of the main town.
Today, Kill Devil Hills represents the exact location of the Wright brother's first flight, but at the time of this historical event, the town did not yet exist, and Kitty Hawk was the closest settlement. It would be some 50 years later that Kill Devils Hills was established as its own town settlement.
Kitty Hawk is a small town with a population of 3.689 people (at the 2020 census). In the same census, Kill Devil Hills had over twice the population, recording 7.656 inhabitants.
Why Did The Wright Brothers Choose This Location?
In the 1900s, Kitty Hawk was a fishing ground with large, open spaces and steady winds. Housed on the mid-Atlantic coast, this isolated strip of beach was a great location for the Wright Brothers to conduct flight tests.
The Wright brothers chose Kill Devil Hills thanks to its soft sandy surfaces and frequent winds, which provided the optimum conditions for glider experiments.
They chose this location to perform their first controlled flight as it provided them with high sand dunes, minimal obstructions, and steady wind. Kill Devil Hills was also an isolated location at the time, perfect for a test flight.
In addition, Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the Kitty Hawk's local weather station outlining his intent, which was warmly received by Joseph Dosher, who endorsed the flight and offered to help in any way he could. This local enthusiasm cemented Kitty Hawk as the best location for the brothers.
But it was not all plain sailing. Years later, Orville Wright commented that the area was "like the Sahara, or what I imagine the Sahara to be." He and his brother had experienced some genuinely arduous battles to make their way onto location, from unpredictable weather to shifting sands and pesky mosquitoes.
In addition, food was scarce in the area, so the brothers had to carry their own provisions. At the time, the brothers did not choose the location for its comfort and luxury but for its isolation and sandy surroundings.
What Is At The Location Today?
If you travel to Kill Devil Hills today, you will find the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a monument to the achievement of these brothers, which was first dedicated in 1932. The 60-foot memorial is unmissable and towers over the local landscape, providing a reminder of the incredible feat of engineering that these two brothers achieved.
Over time, more monuments and museums have opened in the area, including the Wright Brothers Visitor Centre, Wright Brothers Garage Monument, and the Monument to a Century of Flight.
There are many parks and outdoor regions to explore in the area, such as the Sandy Park Run - an area of boardwalk through marshy woodlands where you can see an array of indigenous trees and plants - or the Kitty Hawk Woods Reserve, teeming with birds such as wood ducks, woodpeckers, and warblers.
The area caters to tourists with several restaurants, eateries, and gift shops. Plus, you can take a walk along the Kitty Hawk pier, soaking up the spectacular views of the Atlantic that the Wright Brothers would have enjoyed. And the Avalon pier hosts a popular spot for tourists with some of the best fishing spots in the area.
In addition, the Outer Banks Visitor Bureau is the perfect place to stop if you would like any additional information on the area.
Why Was This Event Significant?
A 12-second flight may seem insignificant in today's civilization, where air travel is the norm and passenger planes transport millions of people to worldwide locations every day.
But those first 12 seconds proved human flight possible, paving the way to every significant advancement that makes air travel possible today. These two brothers stood resilient in the face of adversity and allowed their curiosity and passion to push them further than any human had before.
The Wright brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a "heavier than air" aircraft, which led the way for other engineers and inventors to design flying machines.
In the 19th century, people wouldn't have thought that air travel could ever be realistic for humans, but thanks to the dedication of the Wright brothers, they proved it otherwise. Thanks to their design and resilience, we have the luxury of traveling wherever and whenever we want.
If you ask where the Wright Brothers made their first flight, many people will tell you it was Kitty Hawk. Back in the day, this was the closest civilization to the isolated beach where these two men achieved the first-ever 12 seconds of powered flight.
Today though, this historic area is known as Kill Devil Hills, and the population has long since outgrown its sister town, Kitty Hawk. If you visit, you'll find an array of museums, monuments, and viewing areas where you can truly appreciate this historic event.