Each Dec. 17, as temperatures drop and winter fast approaches, the aviation world waves a wing at a small strip of land in Kill Devil Hills where men first achieved powered flight.
This year marks the 114th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s momentous achievement. The National Park Service and First Flight Society again will commemorate the occasion with a ceremony at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, long a featured attraction for visitors.
“If it wasn’t for the Wright Brothers and the fact that they chose this little strip of land to have such a historical experience, we would be just another beach,” says Geneva Perry, co-chair of this year’s ceremony and a member of the board of directors of the First Flight Society.
“We could be just a beach like they have in Delaware or a beach they have in South Carolina or somewhere else. But because of the Wright Brothers and what they did, and the fact that they did it here, it makes us very special, and it gives us recognition worldwide. Without that, we might just be another beach.”
Indeed, the Wright Brothers Memorial attracted more than 458,000 visitors in 2016 and more than 10,000 visitors in each of the past three Decembers, fueled in part by the annual celebration of the brothers’ first flight.
“The memorial is almost a place of pilgrimage for people,” says Sarah Merrill, management analyst for the National Park Service, Outer Banks Group. “We know, in general, that Outer Banks visitors, a lot of them come here year after year because they love this place so much. We don’t have data on this, but we sense that people make the Wright Bros. (memorial) part of their annual visit to the beach. They come here year after year.”
The visitors’ center is undergoing a $7 million renovation, with a grand re-opening tentatively scheduled for next National Aviation Day, Aug. 19 — Orville Wright’s birthday. This year’s ceremony will take place behind the temporary visitors’ center, but otherwise will be similar to previous events.
The biggest difference is the absence of the reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer, presently on loan to the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh until renovations to its past and future home are complete.
The program begins at 8:30 a.m., with a concert by the Northeastern High band, followed at 8:45 a.m. by the official opening ceremonies. Speakers include Arthur Lamothe, president of the First Flight Society, Dr. Tom Crouch, the senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum and Wright brothers book author, Brig. Gen. James Cluff, vice commander of the 25th Air Force, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and former park service historian and Outer Banks native Darrell Collins, one of the foremost experts on the Wright brothers and their accomplishments.
“It’s kind of amazing,” Collins says, “that a small place that wasn’t even on a map at that time played a role in determining future events of the 20th century.”
The ceremony also includes a commemorative wreath presentation to descendants of witnesses to the Wrights’ first flight, and honoring a leading figure in aviation. This year’s honoree, Elroy Jeppesen, is known as the father of aeronautical charts. He turned a little black book with hand-written flight charts into a must for pilots, beginning in the 1930s, and eventually into a multi-million dollar company that’s now a subsidiary of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Jeppesen died in 1996, and program officials are working to have a family member attend. The Jeppesen company’s senior communications manager, Mike Pound, is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the First Flight Society’s luncheon following the morning ceremony.
The annual memorial flyover will take place at 10:35 a.m., coinciding with the time of the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. In recent years, a combination of Coast Guard, aviation industry and civilian airplanes have participated in the flyover, but with Gen. Cluff’s appearance amid the 70th anniversary of the official founding of the U.S. Air Force, military aircraft are expected to appear, as well.
“Pilots refer to it as the Mecca of aviation,” Perry says. “We always hear about pilots who feel that they have to come to the Wright Brothers (memorial) and they have to fly around that monument, because they have visited Mecca. That always gives me chills when they say things like that.”
Perry, an 87-year-old Kitty Hawk native, is deeply tied to the Wright legacy. Her grandfather, Elijah Baum, was playing near the marsh as a young boy when Wilbur Wright first came ashore in Sept. 1900 to scout the area’s suitability for the Dayton, Ohio brothers’ flight experiments. \The Wrights were invited by local postmaster William Tate, who boasted of the conditions, the hospitality and the privacy under which they could work. Wright asked Baum if he could take him to see Tate, which the boy did.
Later, Perry’s grandmother, Hettie, was the local postmaster in the 1930s and ‘40s, in the early days of air mail. Hand-canceled envelopes with a Dec. 17 date and Kitty Hawk postmark were prized by aviation enthusiasts and people in general, so she would enlist neighbors to help her stamp hundreds of envelopes for weeks prior to the event. Part of the Dec. 17 ceremony in those days included presenting the envelopes to a park service pilot, who then flew them to various distribution points.
“I’ve been going to the top of the hill for a long, long time,” Perry says, referring to the site of the memorial itself, “but I’ve been more involved with the (First Flight Society) since the 1980s.”
Collins, 62, went to work at the Park Service after graduating from Elizabeth City State with a degree in geology. He gradually immersed himself in the Wright brothers’ story and became an expert. After retiring last January, he started a company called A Legacy of Greatness, dedicated to spreading their story and the lessons they imparted.
He has spoken at events in Chicago, Iowa, Wisconsin, and has future dates scheduled at the state history museum in Raleigh and at next year’s U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida.
“There’s something in the story of the Wright brothers for people of all ages,” Collins says. “Especially young children, I want to encourage them to do better in school and you can use the Wright brothers as examples. You may not become as famous as they were, but through hard work, dedication, perseverance, you can still accomplish remarkable things.”
The Wright Brothers Memorial also grips those with no connection to the area or to aviation. Merrill, 35, is a Knoxville, Tennessee, native who has worked with the Outer Banks parks group for approximately 18 months. She was previously in Philadelphia, at the northeast regional office, but wanted to be closer to home and to interact more directly with park visitors.
She was attracted by the Wright brothers’ story and by the nature of the park group’s “firsts” — Fort Raleigh as site of the first permanent English settlement, Cape Hatteras National Seashore as the first designated seaside park and the Wrights’ first powered flight.
“I think it’s with good reason that we come back to this place and that people are so drawn in by their story,” Merrill says, “because they were sort of ordinary, but really hard-working people, who achieved something extraordinary. I think it’s easy to be inspired by them and imagine that if we work hard and dedicate ourselves, that we can achieve the kind of things that they achieved.”