September 2013

All pilots should visit the place where it all started.

I’ve been a pilot almost all of my adult life. I love machines that fly, the people who fly them fascinate me, and I am sort of an armchair historian of aviation. I’ve been to every major airshow on the planet, and visited most every significant aviation museum that is open to the public. But in all this time, I had never managed to get to the Wright Brothers memorial at Kill Devil Hills, N.C.

I’ve flown over it a hundred times—sometimes low enough to see people climbing the stairs to the monument. I’ve landed at Manteo a dozen times but never got off the airport.

I decided it was time for a visit to the place where it all started. I flew into Dare County Regional airport (KMQI) at Manteo, the nearest full-service General Aviation airport, and rented a car for the 15-minute drive to Wright Brothers National Memorial. This is a big seaside resort area and there are lots of hotels and restaurants if you decide to stay overnight. The memorial itself is a national park and your $4 entry fee is good for five days.

Inside the visitors center is a full-scale reproduction of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer and their earlier glider. Artifacts like the engine block from their first engine, their early wind tunnel and letters they wrote are all on display. On the field is their hangar and living quarters, faithfully preserved.

The original track that their first airplane used to launch is still in place and large granite markers sit atop the locations of the first, second and third flights. The centerpiece of the park is Kill Devil Hills, a large sand dune that the brothers used as a launching point for their early glider flights. Atop the hill is the memorial. Built in 1932, it bears this inscription:

In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Conceived by Genius. Achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.

If you are a pilot, you simply cannot stand there looking down on their field and not be awed by the achievement. We have all learned to fly, most of us in a modern training airplane. Now imagine teaching yourself to fly—no flight instructor—in an untested and unproven aircraft that you designed and built yourself using 1900s-vintage tools and technology.

There is an airport right on the property: First Flight Airport (KFFA). It parallels the field the Wright Brothers used and is less than 300 yards from where it all happened. There is no service or fuel available and you can’t park there for more than 24 hours, but it is beyond cool to land there.

AOPA has built a beautiful little facility for pilots that has computers, Internet and restrooms so you can brief and file your flight plans. At 3,000 feet long, KFFA is adequate for most light General Aviation aircraft.

On the day I was there, a Cessna 206 with a Swedish registration number was parked on the ramp. They came a long way in order to land here at aviation’s threshold.

There is lots of restricted airspace around First Flight, so plan your flight carefully! Approach from the west, and fly to RMACK intersection, which is on V 189. Stay on the airway and it will keep you out of restricted airspace.

If you haven’t visited Wright Brothers National Memorial, it is truly worth the effort. It is a shining example of a good use for your tax dollars—and might just be the best four bucks you’ll ever spend on aviation.


Michael Leighton is a 7,500-plus-hour, three-time Master CFII MEI-ATP, as well as an A&P mechanic and former FAA Accident Prevention Counselor. He operates an aircraft management, maintenance and Part 135 air charter company in South Florida. You can find him online at Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.


Wright Brothers National Memorial

1401 National Park Drive
Manteo, NC 27954

Phone (252) 473-2111