The elements are everything in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. These narrow sandy barrier islands which stretch for over 100 miles (160 kilometres) off the coastline south of Virginia are embraced on one side by the capricious Atlantic and its storm-spawning Gulf Stream and on the other by a series of magnificent sounds that connect to the Intracoastal Waterway. A geological eccentricity, this remote playground of tranquil beaches, shifting sand dunes, and natural preserves has been buffeted, caressed, and unceasingly sculpted throughout time by monumental winds and waves. The Outer Banks are a laid back destination but nonetheless they have a quiet passion inherent in them – an enthusiasm fired by history, an intrepid spirit, and imagination. It is a passion moderated but not disowned by the genial locals and their casual lifestyle. This is a place where the senses are fully engaged and where the spirit can soar.
On a gusty, cool morning – not unlike the morning a hundred years ago when Orville and Wilbur Wright crossed a threshold in human history – I am standing in an open field looking down a flight path to this history. Several hundred yards behind me rises Kill Devil Hill, a 90-foot sand dune that has been stabilized by grass. From this hill the Wright brothers experimented with gliders, first testing their potential and the winds. To my left a granite boulder marks the exact spot where human flight truly began; where Orville Wright and the world’s first powered flying machine lifted gently off the ground while his brother Wilbur ran alongside. The amateur photograph of the moment is a study in motion; as the fragile craft rises a few crucial feet above the sandy terrain, Wilbur is seen moving in solidarity with his brother. As he too pushes against the 27-mile-an-hour wind his body language conveys the breathlessness of the moment, the instant fulfilment of the brothers’ aspirations, and the timelessness of the event.
Ranger at Monument
Beyond this first marker on the flight path are four more, each a visual measurement of distances flown; of the first and succeeding flights, and of subsequent moments in time. The first flight was a short 12 seconds and less than the length of a modern airliner. The succeeding three flights on December 17, 1903 were incremental in distance and in meaning. These were the moments imagined by humans throughout time – in dreams, poetry, and myths. These were moments that precipitated a new world view, the breaking of the sound barrier, a landing on the moon, the creation of a global village. What these two bicycle-builders from Dayton, Ohio achieved in this remote retreat was a conceptual shift that changed the course of history; and they did it with the power of logic and scientific reasoning, the courage to question conventional wisdom, and imagination. And when the day was done – the last flight damaged the craft beyond easy repair – they quietly packed up and went home. Later they would calmly telegraph their father from the nearby town of Kitty Hawk giving details of the distances flown.
When Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface and declared his “giant leap for mankind” he was very aware of what he was doing because of many precedents. But I wonder if the Wright brothers fully realized the significance of their moment, even though Wilbur’s own words – albeit in retrospect – hint at it: “We had taken up aeronautics merely as a sport. We reluctantly entered the scientific side of it. But we soon found the work so fascinating that we were drawn into it deeper and deeper.” As a result of their disciplined engagement in the science of aeronautics, they achieved powered flight. And what they did that no one else had done was to effect stability and control by working within an unstable environment and with the elements, as opposed to attempting to apply control mechanisms from without. Their ingenuity and persistence made the dream come true through a consummate understanding of the forces of lift, weight, thrust, and drag; and a realization of the critical integration of roll, pitch, and yaw. In short, they understood the dynamic environment constantly in play in the air.
And this is how life still proceeds apace in the hurricane-prone but benevolent Outer Banks.
The first flight the Wright brothers achieved a hundred years ago is being celebrated in many ways throughout this centenary year in the Outer Banks – “Home of the First Flight.” Events have been planned that celebrate all aspects of flight and the men and women who have followed the Wright brothers’ flight path. Outdoor symphonic performances of flight-inspired compositions, the 25th annual Wright Kite Festival, an all women’s cross-country air race, gliders galore, hot air ballooning, an art exhibit from the NASA art program, the unveiling of the ICARUS International Monument to a Century of Flight, an anniversary carnival, a special day for “igniting the imagination” of children (the next generation of aviators), and an aviation film festival are some of the events that will culminate with the First Flight Centennial at the Wright Brothers National Memorial – the largest memorial erected in the United States to a living person.
A more appropriate venue for such a commemoration would be hard to find. Surrounded by sand, sea, and sky – far from the commercial hyperactivity of most beach resorts – one senses the kind of liberty evoked by free flight, an emancipation that is also a primary element in the Outer Banks. Although it is a busy place in the summer months, the Outer Banks is a year-round destination where one goes to get away, to walk the beaches, to ride the bike paths, to golf Scottish-style links, to observe the abundant bird and marine life. In the prelude of a florid sunrise one quiet morning, I gaze at a calm sea while three groups of dolphins – near to shore, mid-distance, and far-off – make their way in crescent formations parallel to the shoreline quietly, unobtrusively, and elegantly. Their gracious procession and the enhanced perspective it gives to this Outer Banks morning confirms for me why we return to the sea for solace – and to rearrange our priorities.
The Outer Banks is also a destination for ecological enjoyment. The Nags Head Woods Preserve, for example, is one of the best remaining examples of a mid-Atlantic maritime forest; at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge you will see some of the 400 species of birds that frequent the Outer Banks. And for those who appreciate diversity, the Outer Banks is also a gastronomic sensation. The fresh seafood that arrives at your table from the boats that dock in the small fishing village of Wanchese is another quality ingredient of the Outer Banks. I will not soon forget the Margarita sea scallops marinated with Cuervo and sugarcane, grilled delicately, and served with a key lime vinaigrette and toasted almond wild rice pilaf.
And to get just a small taste of the moment as Orville must have experienced it, I take a beginner’s hang-gliding lesson at Jockey Ridge State Park, the tallest natural “living” sand dune system in the Eastern United States. After a preliminary classroom session, Kevin and Andy equip us with harnesses and helmets and our small group walks through the dunes to a sandy hill from which all around us we see an endless sky. The wind has picked up, gusting now to 28 miles an hour. We strain to hear the final instructions as the sand swirls in veil-like wisps around us. When my turn comes, I attach my harness to the brilliantly-coloured glider. At either end of my “wings” Kevin and Andy struggle to hold my craft down; the wind is anxious to have its way. I shift my weight as instructed, striving to find the precise balance of the elements of flight and to “penetrate” the air. I begin to run with the wind as I am told. And then, I feel a weightlessness, lift, and forward movement. I realize that I am defying the law of gravity. Running alongside, Kevin and Andy guide me – airborne – down the slope of the dune. It is the softest and most peaceful sensation I think I have ever experienced. It is as if a myriad of moments have coalesced in timeless symmetry.
For more information on the Outer Banks and on First Flight events, visit the Outer Banks website at http://www.outerbanks.org. If you want to experience the Wright sensation, contact Kitty Hawk Kites at http://www.kittyhawk.com/. (Last pic courtesy of)