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Moments and Milestones: Finding the Wright Spot

Moments and Milestones: Finding the Wright Spot

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WHEN THE TIME CAME TO DETERMINE FOR POSTERITY the exact spot where Orville Wright lifted off in 1903 in the first successful powered flying machine, there were two problems: time and terrain.

In 1912, William Tate, in whose home Wilbur stayed when he first visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, suggested that a suitable monument be erected at the site in question at Kill Devil Hill, which is actually about four miles south of Kitty Hawk. Eventually, in 1926, Representative Lindsay Warren of North Carolina introduced legislation to provide a proper memorial. After two years of haggling, Congress appropriated $277,688 for a 59-foot-high granite pylon to sit atop Kill Devil Hill, one of several mounds overlooking the flat stretch of sand where the flight took place.

But if Kill Devil Hill was still evident in 1928, not much else looked the same as it had 25 years earlier, thanks to the ever-shifting dunes, and planners couldn't build a monument without knowing exactly where the Flyer first rose into the wind on the morning of December 17, 1903. To resolve that issue, Tate once again stepped forward, this time representing the National Aeronautic Association, which wanted to mark the exact point of liftoff for the upcoming 25th anniversary.

On November 4, 1928, Tate got together at Kill Devil Hill with three of the four men who had witnessed the flight and were still alive: Adam Etheridge, William Dough, and John Moore (the fourth, John Daniels, couldn't come that day, and neither could Orville Wright). In 1903, both Etheridge and Dough were working at the nearby Kill Devil Life Saving Station, and had been summoned (along with Daniels, another member of the station) to help the Wrights move their machine from the small wood building where they stored it to a nearby expanse of sand.

The men remembered that the Wrights had laid down a 60-foot wooden track on the sand from which to launch the Flyer. In Orville's account of the first flight, he wrote, "We laid the track on a smooth stretch of ground about 100 feet north of the...building."

By 1928, the storage building was long gone, but the men were able to identify the location of its corners. Working from that position, they used a compass to estimate the path of the track, and finally agreed on where the track neared its end and the Flyer became airborne. They marked the spot with copper pipe and signed a statement: "We individually and collectively state without the least mental reservation that the spot we located is near correct as it is humanly possible to be with the data in hand...after a lapse of twenty-five years."

On December 17, 1928, NAA marked the spot with a six-foot-high stone and a bronze tablet. It's one of the markers you see today when you visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

—Stuart Nixon


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