first flight WrightsKill Devil Hills, First Flight

We were cruising south over the eastern coastline, leaving bouncy fair weather in New England, merging with a system of low ceilings over Virginia and North Carolina. Massively wonderful tailwinds scooted us rapidly over the huge distance of the barrier beaches. Well, in our Cessna 182 the push was massive. It’s not a very swift plane. We were flying a window in the bad weather forecast, eyes on passing airports – just in case.

Each year on Dec 17th, the anniversary of First Flight, the day in 1903 that the Wright Brothers made their historic virgin flight on that desolate beach, the First Flight Society puts together a superb event. The tongue-in-cheek “Man Will Never Fly” Society holds a dinner of comedy speeches and great joviality, the night before. The motto embroidered on their badge says “Birds Fly, Men Drink,” a rousingly funny apothegm… the first time you hear it. Well – we still like it, even if it’s a little tired.

Manteo is the preferred arrival airport, a short hop over to Kill Devil Hills – we had tracked the ADF for surest guidance since we were getting into snockely mist, doing the IFR approach.  But no dramas – the airport materialized through decent visibility. Some of our Aero Club group had scrapped the trip, sure that the weather wouldn’t work. Our morning research forecasted better. We patted ourselves on the back, pleased that all the plan B airstrips had disappeared behind us. A cheerful line guy greeted us and helped with parking. He was having a busy day, but we got a slot.

Nearby beach motels perch on dunes, peering at the Atlantic over a large protective ridge of sand. The sea would encroach if it could – sometimes it does.  In the hot Carolina summer the warm sands are crawling with kids and distracted parents.  Being December now, it was off-season with lovely empty beaches.


But that night it poured chilly rain, making for lively puddle-hopping in and out of our banquet building. An event where the main speaker was from Australia, touting the aerodynamics of the boomerang, with balsa handouts for the crowd to hurl. Stand-up humor had us wiping tears of laughter – a comedienne popular on dinner circuits and wife of one of the pilots. The farthest distance fly-in (Alaska) got a rousing cheer from the room, and a plaque. (Our trek from Massachusetts didn’t even make the finals.) People flew in from Canada, Mexico – everywhere.
The buffet food was… ho-hum blah. Who cared?
The next day dawned clear and bright. Good thing, because a kettle of us hawks intended to circle the Landing Place in our planes, before landing and going through the history museum of information and displays. Did you know that for the small population who lived along that coast, that gangly contraption of the Wright’s was the first ever motor vehicle they had ever even seen? No cars, down there. They saw an airplane before a car.

The festivities continued, a gathering of aviation aficionados filling bleachers, waiting to see, and possibly meet, modern icons of aviation. They came to make a few short speeches, take a bow, and mix with the crowd. And show off new inventions.

It’s such an American thing – not exotic or foreign, not hot-spice show biz. But it’s wonderful. Oh – they drive in, too. It’s a pilgrimage, a worthy trek of the faithful, the devotees of aviation. Or just the admirers. If it’s not on your to-do list, it could be.

You would never regret it.