In 1903, the Wright Brothers’ breakthrough heralded the beginning of modern flight. Their fearless, pioneering spirit is still alive today. A visit with hang gliders, surfboarders and a biplane pilot on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina.
Perched on a dune near the town of Kitty Hawk, there’s a dinosaur skeleton. At least, that’s what it looks like from a distance. Trudging closer, I realize that it’s really an extraordinary aircraft. Please excuse the mistake, but the wind on the coast of the U.S. state of North Carolina is blowing at nearly 15 miles an hour today, so it’s easy to get sand in your eye.
The object in front of me, a kind of giant glider, is an aviation legend: 21 feet and 1 inch long, 9 feet tall with a wingspan of 40 feet and 4 inches, the Wright Flyer is the world’s first motorized aircraft that actually flew, and American schoolchildren are expected to know its measurements by heart. On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright took off from a sandy field four miles north of here. The autodidact from Ohio had developed the glider along with his brother Wilbur. Orville stayed in the air for 12 seconds, flying 16 miles an hour, and crashed after only 120 feet, but his achievement made history.
“This is a full-scale replica of the original,” says Billy Vaughn, 55, an instructor at the Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School. Its delicate struts, front rudder and rear rudder – all hand-carved spruce. The fabric skin? Hand-sewn from the finest muslin. “Only the ropes, which, when tightened, give the construction its shape and hold it together, have been replaced with steel wires,” explains Billy. His calloused hands stroke the upper of the two wings: “Whenever I see this baby, I feel like a pioneer myself.”
Built in 2003 to mark the 100th anniversary of Orville’s flight, the veteran replica has been living in a shed beside Billy’s school for about the last ten years. When paying customers come along, Billy’s team hauls it out and displays it on the dune, but only very, very carefully. “Five years ago, the British BBC came by to make a documentary. There was hardly any wind, so we parked the glider and forgot about if for a moment.” A disastrous decision. “All of a sudden, a thermal came up and whipped the plane around. Cables tore and the glider collapsed like a pancake,” recalls Billy. “The Wright Brothers must have turned over in their graves.” Since then, the entire team always follows the “BBC rule”: Never take your hand off the glider.
The winds around Kitty Hawk are capricious. As are all the elements on the Outer Banks, the narrow chain of islands off the coast of North Carolina, where the Atlantic is deep blue, wild and rough. Shallows and currents make navigation difficult. More than 1000 shipwrecks litter the ocean floor, giving the area the hauntingly beautiful name Graveyard of the Atlantic. Pirates used to hide in the many small bays and inlets, the most notorious being the Englishman Edward Teach or Thatch, better known as Blackbeard. The buccaneer met his end in November 1718, when he was outnumbered by the Royal Navy. His ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was only discovered off the town of Beaufort in 1996.
Today, the Outer Banks are a tourist paradise of remote sandy beaches, lighthouses, piers and small towns with timber houses painted in pastel colors. Visitors go fishing, hang-gliding, kiteboarding and canoeing. Europeans are relatively unfamiliar with the area, unless they know it from Nicholas Sparks’ novels, which all take place here. The bestselling romance writer lives in New Bern, 150 miles southwest of Kitty Hawk.
“Hey guys, I’m your pilot!” says Luke Williams, 22, pushing his Ray Bans into his crew cut. The photographer throws me a skeptical glance: Luke looks 15. Can he really fly? Does he even have a license? The answer is yes. Luke has racked up 200 flight hours in the six years he’s been flying the red biplane we’re about to step into. He’ll soon have enough to apply for a job with one of the big airlines. “My dream is to fly a passenger jet,” he tells us.
Luke hails from Virginia Beach. What’s so special about the Outer Banks? “Man, this place is legendary. It’s the cradle of modern aviation. I have so much respect for the Wright Brothers, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.” Amateur pilots from around the world come to Kitty Hawk to take off from the airport there, he tells us. It’s a piece of sacred earth for plane spotters and aviation buffs, consecrated by two odd fellows who kept their flight attempts a secret until they were good and ready to actually fly.
There’s a real gem just ahead of us on the airfield: a Waco Classic YMF, 275 HP, seven cylinders – an American-built biplane sporting a 400 000 dollar price tag. The photographer and I climb into the front cockpit, where we sit squeezed together like sardines – at least we won’t fall out if Luke loops the loop. We pull on cloth helmets reminiscent of bathing caps. Luke sits behind us; we see his thumbs-up sign in the mirror. The engine starts, the wooden propeller begins to turn and we taxi down the runway. The Waco’s nose pushes downward, which feels strange because we want to go up, but soon we’re in the air, gaining altitude quickly. The wings of the biplane glisten in the morning sun, just as they must have done for The Red Baron, except that all is peaceful up here.
The sea is below us, sprinkled with islands that look like heaps of sand in a pond; they are all connected by North Carolina Highway Number 12. Luke flies parallel to the coast and the photographer points his camera between the biplane’s struts. Sitting in the open cockpit, I catch flies with my teeth. Then we cross Bodie Island back toward the mainland. The grassy area below us is the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
We see the sheds where the brothers hid their gliders and also slept at night; the modern visitor’s center where half a million people come each year for a dose of aviation history; and the 60-foot granite monument that rises into the sky atop Kill Devil Hill. It was from this hill that the brothers launched themselves on their flying machines time and time again, with courage in their hearts and a firm belief in progress.
After landing again safely we say good-bye to Luke, climb into our Jeep and continue southward. Our destination: the sleepy little town of Waves, a kiteboarding mecca on Hatteras Island. Jeremy Jones, 23, plows through the water in front of the Real Watersports Center, heading for the pier at high speed. At the very last moment, he rises into a jump, grabbing the end of his board and bending his body theatrically in the air. After an impressive hang time he lands again, soft as butter, and shoots away across the water. The crowd cheers. “I’m from Minnesota, where I learned to kitesurf on the frozen lakes – with my old skateboard,” Jeremy tells us later. Small town life and cold weather drove him away. “The wind blew me here. The Outer Banks have the best kiteboarding conditions in the whole of the U.S.” He’s an instructor at Real Watersports, introducing newcomers to the booming trend sport. He also takes part in competitions as a sponsored amateur. Has he heard of the Wright Brothers? “You kidding me?” He visited the memorial the first summer he was here. “It’s a killer story. Climb the dune and make it down alive? Crazy!”
Back with Billy Vaughn and his hang glider: The wind has died down and it’s time to go up. The Wright Brothers used a 12 HP gasoline engine but the replica relies only on thermals. “If the wind were a little stronger and more constant, you could take a turn as well,” Billy says. Really? At more than six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, I’m more than skeptical. But Billy has been hang gliding since 1984 and knows what’s he doing.
Then things happen very fast: Billy and his helpers sprint down the dune, holding the ropes. As they tighten, the glider shudders, then leaves the ground to sail majestically through the air – much like an enormous paper plane thrown by an invisible giant. The traffic on the nearby highway slows; this isn’t something people usually see through their pickup truck windows. After about 50 meters, the men pull the glider back to earth.
The Wright Brothers dressed in tailcoats and bowler hats; today’s biplane, hang-glider and kiteboard pilots wear boardshorts and trucker hats. But what they have in common is their enthusiasm for completing a successful flight. There’s no lack of successors in the cradle of aviation. Of this, the Wright Brothers can be proud.
Listen to fishermen’s stories and watch pelicans glide across the water on the pier beside the Hilton Garden Inn.
Learn the ropes from the expert kitesurfers at Real Watersports. Half a day of private lessons costs about 500 dollars.
Despite the name, the Rundown Cafe has great shrimp tacos, poke bowls and grilled mahi mahi. Sea view included!
Kitty Hawk Kites has been in business since 1974. Learn to hang glide for 499 dollars for four hours in the air.
Go for a ride with OBX Airplanes to see the beauty of the Outer Banks from the air. Forty minutes for 299 dollars.