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A Tourist Guide to North Carolina’s Outer Banks

1. Introduction

Remote and removed, the thin band of interconnected barrier islands that stretch some 130 miles along the coast of North Carolina and form the Outer Banks seem more a part of the Atlantic than the continent to which they are appendaged by causeways, bridges, and ferries. Islands in and of sand, whose dunes ebb and flow with the sometimes wicked winds like bobbing boats, they serve as the threshold to North America-or the end of it-depending upon the direction of travel.

Defined by land, or the lack of it, a trip here can entail sailing, fishing, kayaking, water skiing, parasailing, hang gliding, kite surfing, dune climbing, dolphin watching, and sand surfing. More than anything, however, it is about firsts-the first English colonists to leave footprints in the sand, the first aviators to leave tracks in the sand as they conquered flight, and the sea and dunes and wind which made both possible.

2. From Mountains to Shores

Although these flat, marshy islands and splotches of the Outer Banks could not be more opposed to the towering Appalachian Mountains that rise in the west, it is from these peaks that they emanated, becoming the third rendition of them.

Rivers, which are collections of rainwater, flowed eastward from them, sharply dropping from the edge of the second, or lower, topographical feature, the Piedmont. Off shore currents, then acting upon and molding, like clay, their sediment, itself carried from this mountainous origin 25,000 years ago, having created the barrier islands and their water thresholding beaches.

Because currents are anything but static, their never-resting forces continue to reshape and reposition these island masterpieces, as they are subjected to the constantly remolding hands of the wind and the water. This dynamic phenomenon is the very key to their protective nature as they shield the more permanent mainland and, like shock absorbers, they often field the first brunt of hurricanes and other severe weather systems.

Both created and defined by nature’s forces, these sounds form the second largest estaurine system in the US after the Chesapeake Bay, covering almost 3,000 square miles and draining 30,000 square miles of water.

“A thin, broken strand of islands,” according to the National Park Service, “curves out into the Atlantic Ocean and back again in a sheltering embrace of North Carolina’s mainland coast and offshore islands.”

3. Access and Orientation

The Outer Banks consist of Northern Beaches, with towns such as Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head; Roanoke Island; and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, itself comprised of Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke islands.

Scheduled airline service is provided to Norfolk and Raleigh-Durham International airports located, respectively, in Virginia and North Carolina, while charter fights operate to Dare County Regional Airport on Roanoke Island. Private aircraft serve First Flight Airstrip in Kill Devil Hills and Billy Mitchell Airport on Hatteras Island.

By road, the Outer Banks are served by US 158 and the Wright Memorial Bridge from the north and US 64 via the 5.2-mile-long Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, Roanoke Island, the Nags Head-Manteo Causeway, and the Washington Baum Bridge from the west. As from the north, the route leads to the four-lane US 158 artery and traverses the 16.5-mile island, accessing shops, outlets, restaurants, and attractions. The narrower, two-lane NC 12-which is also known as the “Beach Road”-serves residential communities, hotels, and restaurants, often with views of the Atlantic. The same road threads its way down Hatteras Island and, after a complementary ferry ride, Ocracoke Island.

4. Kitty Hawk

Despite consensus belief and aviation history books to the contrary, Kitty Hawk did not serve as the site of the world’s first successful flight, although the Wright Brothers stayed in the village. Instead, that historic event occurred about four miles south of it, in Kill Devil Hills. Nevertheless, there is still an aeronautics-related attraction next to the Aycock Brown Welcome Center, which itself offers brochures and trip planning information about area sights, restaurants, entertainment, shops, and hotels.

Designated Monument to a Century of Flight, it was created by Icarus International and dedicated on November 8, 2003 on the centennial of powered flight to celebrate the history, beauty, and mysteries of flight and soaring of the human spirit. Set against the open sky of Kitty Hawk to create a contemplative environment, the monument itself consists of 14 wing-shaped, stainless steel pylons rising from ten to 20 feet in a 120-foot orbit to reflect the distance of the Wright Brothers’ first flight on December 17, 1903 and to represent man’s climb to the sky and space.

“Humankind is a continuum of pioneers,” according to the monument, “sharing timeless dreams and the boundless possibilities of vast unexplored worlds.”

Black granite panels are engraved with 100 of the most significant aviation achievements of the past century and a center, six-foot-diameter dome depicts earth’s continents and is inscribed with the words, “When Orville Wright lifted from the sands of Kitty Hawk at 10:35 a.m. on the morning of December 17, 1903, we were on our way to the moon and beyond.”

5. Kill Devil Hills

Kill Devil Hills is, of course, the site of the world’s first powered, controlled, and sustained flight and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, visible from US 158, pays tribute to it.

Although the Wrights were raised in Dayton, Ohio, they conducted all their early unpowered (glider) and powered (airplane) flight experiments in North Carolina because it offered lofty dunes for foot launches, high winds to generate lift with minimal ground speed, soft sand for wheelless, minimal-damage landings, and isolation from press and spectators.

According to the Visitor Center’s museum-which sports exhibits, 1902 glider and 1903 Wright Flyer reproductions, National Park Service talks and programs, and a book/gift shop-the brothers were inspired by and based their designs upon aerodynamic principles laid down by four earlier pioneers: Sir George Cayley (1773-1857), who established the very foundation of aerodynamics; Alphonse Penaud (1850-1880), who built a rubber band-powered planophone model and flew it 131 feet; Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), who conducted extensive glider experiments; and Octave Chanute (1832-1910), who became a virtual clearing house for all aviation-related developments and published them in a book entitled “Progress in Flying Machines.” The Wright Brothers’ biplane glider, in fact, was a virtual copy of his own.

According to the museum, the memorial is the birthplace of aviation. “Here, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first successful, power-driven flight in world history,” it claims. “The Wrights believed that flight by man was possible and could be achieved through systematic study.”

That systematic approach, coupled with their intuitive mechanical ability and analytical intelligence, enabled them to understand that lift opposed weight and that thrust opposed drag, but, more importantly, that flight could only be conquered by controlling its three lateral, longitudinal, and vertical axes. This lack of understanding had caused all previous experimenters to fail.

Devising control surfaces to tame them and thus maintain an aircraft’s stability, they were able to morph their unpowered gliders, subjected to hundreds of foot launches from nearby Kill Devil Hill, into the successful Wright Flyer.

Two reconstructed buildings represent the Wright Brothers’ 1903 camp, that to the left a hangar and that to the right their workshop and living quarters with a stove, a crude kitchen, a pantry, a table, and a ladder to access the burlap slings hung from the rafters that served as their bunks.

The commemorative granite boulder marks the take off point of the four successful flights on December 17, 1903 and the markers positioned on the field indicate each one’s distance and the amount of aerial time required to reach them.

Taking control of the Wright Flyer while Wilbur served as his “ground crew” and stabilized its wings, Orville divorced himself from the take off track at 10:35 a.m. that historic day, covering 120 feet in 12 seconds, while Wilbur himself, piloting the next attempt, covered 175 feet in the same amount of time. The penultimate fight flew 200 feet in 15 seconds and the final, and longest, one traversed 852 feet in 59 seconds, after which damage to the aircraft, along with end-of-the-season weather severities, precluded further testing and the brothers returned to Ohio.

According to the boulder erected by the National Aeronautics Association of the USA on December 17, 1928 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the event, “The first successful flight of an airplane was made from this spot by Orville Wright, December 17, 1903, in a machine designed and built by Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright.”

The former sea of sands and dunes stretching out from the first flight boulder, still acted upon by the wind as much as the Wright’s gliders and powered designs had been, was now replaced with a sloping green field, but the aerodynamic forces invisibly brushing the delicate tips of its grass still caused them to sway, in memory, perhaps, of this event more than a century later.

The distance from the take off point, marked by the launching track, to the fourth and furthest marker, requires a brisk walk using the feet with which man has been endowed, but in 1903, it was covered with the wings with which birds had been endowed. The Wrights thus successfully crossbred the human and animal species, manifested as a machine.

The 60-foot monument, mounted on top of the 90-foot, now grass-covered Kill Devil Hill sand dune across from First Flight Airport with its 3,000-foot runway, marks the starting point of the Wright’s hundreds of unpowered glider flights.

“… the sand fairly blinds us,” they wrote at the time. “It blows across the ground in clouds. We certainly can’t complain of the place. We came down here for wind and sand, and we got them.”

A full-size stainless steel sculpture of the Wright Flyer, located on the far side of the hill at its base and weighing far more than the original airplane at 10,000 pounds, depicts the historic first flight with photographer John Daniels, from the local lifesaving station, about to snap the only picture ever taken of it.

The Centennial Pavilion, across the parking lot from the combined Visitor Center, museum, and flight room, offers films and aviation and Outer Banks exhibits.