First Flight Airport, NC — Where It All Began

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Every aviator is obligated to make a pilgrimage to Kill Devil Hill, where in December of 1903 two well-dressed bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, quietly accomplished the miracle of powered and controlled aerodynamic flight for the first time, and changed our world forever.


   by telegram

The four hills of Kill Devil are dunes near the village of Kitty Hawk, on that long thin spit of yellow sand known as the Outer Banks of North Carolina, separating the Albermarle Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. No airman can visit this hallowed ground without feeling a shiver, a choke, and a tear while contemplating what happened here on December 17, 1903.

Fifty years afterwards, in 1953, Congress at last acquired 425 acres surrounding the historic site, and created Wright Brothers National Memorial. It is operated (and maintained meticulously) by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

There is much here that every aviator must see and savor. The Wright Memorial Shaft, a graceful and majestic 60-foot gray granite monument in the form of a triangular pylon, crowns the 90-foot dune known as Big Kill Devil Hill, the site of more than a thousand glider flights by the Wrights that preceded the first powered flight.

The Visitors Center is a compact but most impressive museum that houses a full-sized reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer as well as their 1902 manned glider. Display cases house numerous Wright artifacts, including parts from the original Wright 12-hp powerplant. The First Flight Shrine in the Visitors Center features walls lined with large portraits of dozens of aviation pioneers ranging from Orville and Wilbur to Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. Every year on December 17th at 10:35 am, the First Flight Society holds a ceremony in the Shrine to commemorate the first powered flight, during which portraits of new honorees are unveiled.

A short distance from the Visitors Center, a large granite boulder and a wooden launching rail mark the spot where the first four powered flights left the ground on December 17, 1903. Four numbered markers indicate the distance of each of the four flights. The first flight (with Orville at the controls) was airborne for 120 feet; the fourth (piloted by Wilbur) traversed an impressive 852 feet in 59 seconds. The 1903 Flyer would never fly again — after the fourth flight, it was caught by a gust of wind, rolled over, and was damaged beyond practical repair.

Near to the launch site are two reconstructed 1903 camp buildings. One duplicates the one used by the Wright brothers as a hangar for the Flyer, while the other replicates their workshop and living quarters and is furnished with authentic items of the period, much like those the Wrights used. The buildings are a stark reminder of the harsh and primitive conditions in which the brothers lived and worked during their yearly trips to the Outer Banks.

Flying into First Flight

First Flight Airstrip was added to the park in 1963. It is immediately adjacent to the Wright Memorial Shaft site atop Big Kill Devil Hill, and a short walk from the Visitors Center, camp buildings, and launch site. It features a meticulously manicured 3,000' x 60' paved runway 02-20 with clear approaches. Use right traffic for runway 20. The runway is unlighted, and night operations are absolutely forbidden.

The strip comfortably accomodated my Cessna 310, and is a piece of cake for any single. But be alert for the possibility of stiff crosswinds, and associated low-level windshear caused by the trees that line both sides of the airstrip. And since FFA can be quite busy, be sure to self-announce on CTAF 122.9.

A small parking apron is at the south end of the field, with firm grass areas available for parking if the apron is full (as it often is). No fuel or services are available, and parking is strictly limited to 24 consecutive hours and a total of 48 hours in any 30-day period. (Violators risk a nasty fine.) A public telephone is available at the parking apron if you need to call for a taxi, rental car, or hotel...all of which are available nearby.

 For fuel, repairs, or to stay longer than 24 hours, fly into Dare County Regional Airport at Manteo (MQI), a few miles south of FFA. Runways are 04-22 (3,849' x 75') and 16-34 (3,303' x 75'), both lighted. UNICOM/CTAF is 122.8 MHz. The airport is operated by the Dare County Airport Authority, (919) 473-2600, and features a 24-hour self-service fueling station with both 100LL and autogas (Jet A also available), courtesy car, rental cars, and excellent restaurants nearby. MQI has an AWOS that broadcasts on frequency 128.275 MHz, and is also available by telephone at (919) 473-2826.

The Outer Banks are separated from the mainland by the Albermarle, Croatan, and Pamlico Sounds. These are blanketed with a thicket of large Restricted Areas and MOAs used by the Air Force and Navy as training areas. Careful chart reading and preflight planning are required to avoid any incursion into these areas. Washington Center on 124.725 MHz can tell you if any of the areas are "cold" as they sometimes are on weekends.

 If time permits, it would be a shame to visit FFA or MQI without making a sightseeing flight south along the Outer Banks and stopping at some of the other airports. Billy Mitchell Airport at Cape Hatteras is about 40 miles south of MQI, and features spectacular views and historic lighthouses. 20 more miles to the southwest is picturesque Ocracoke Island. Both Mitchell and Ocracoke have 3,000' paved runways.

Proceed yet another 40 miles southwest to the southern terminus of the Outer Banks and land at Beaufort/Morehead City Airport. Within walking distance is Beaufort NC, a lovely little seaport town of lovely homes, quaint shops, the North Carolina Maratime Museum, and the historic Cape Lookout lighthouse. Beaufort also rewards the fly-in visitor with a truly exceptional restaurant that has a most unlikely name: The Beaufort Grocery Company. Be sure to call for reservations at (919) 728-3899.

Late each September, the North Carolina Department of Transportation sponsors a wonderful "Carolina Coastal Air Tour" which takes a large convoy of airplanes from Manteo, NC, to Wilmington, SC, with numerous scenic stops in between. For specific dates and details, call the NCDOT Division of Aviation at (919) 840-0112.