104th Anniversary of First Flight as told by Darrell Collins

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Kitty Hawk 2003 Celebration Events

Welcome to the 104th anniversary celebration of the worlds first powered flight. A hundred four years ago they used to say that the sky is the limit. Now we are reaching for the stars. As we begin the next century of pilot flight, reaching for the stars will be the greatest challenge for generations to come.

The world has changed from the flight of 1903. Flight has become second nature for hundreds of millions of people. It is almost impossible for us to imagine the world of the Wright brothers. The fundamental principles discovered and developed by the Wright brothers laid the foundation for the first generation of flight and travel from Kitty Hawk to the moon in the lifetime of a human being.

As we watch the milestones slip by, one might say we have a heritage, a legacy of greatness. In a letter to Octave Chanute dated May 13, 1900, Wilbur wrote, “for some years I was afflicted with the belief that fight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life.”

On the cold windy morning of Dec 17, 1903, the dream came true. Wilbur and Orville Wright made the worlds first successful powered flight in a heavier than air machine.

The Wright brothers began their experiments in Dayton, Ohio, in 1899 with a 5-foot kite they controlled from the ground. They were testing a system of control they called wing-warping.

They would soon realize that the weather conditions in Dayton were not suitable for extensive glider experiments. That year they wrote the National Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. requesting a list of locations in America where the winds were constant. Kitty Hawk, NC was on that list.

The letter to the Kitty Hawk weather station reached the hands of the local postmaster, William Tate. Tate was the man who brought the Wright brothers to Kitty Hawk.

He wrote a letter right back. In the letter he described that there were no trees or grass, just deep soft sand. There were four giant sand dunes know as Kill Devil Hills. The only way you could get to Kitty Hawk was by sailboat. Not too many people lived here.

So Kitty Hawk offered privacy, secrecy, and isolation. And they would find at Kitty Hawk something they would find no where else — “southern hospitality.”

The hospitality played a very important role behind the Wright brothers’ success. In our flight room auditorium in the main museum over there we have on display a symbol of that outer banks hospitality.

Ladies, it is an 1899 sewing machine. It was ordered from the Sears catalog for $2. Addie Tate, William Tate’s wife, let Wilbur Wright use her sewing machine to sew the cloth covering the wings for the first glider in September 1900. It was not covered with cheap material; it was covered with imported French sateen. The local ladies who live on the outer banks at that time had never seen such high quality cloth in their lives. They stressed concern openly to the Wright brothers why they were they wasting such high quality cloth on a flying machine?

When the brothers were finished with their gliding experiments that year they gave that cloth to Addie Tate and on that same sewing machine she made two dresses for her two girls, Irene (age 3) and Pauline (age 4).

The next year, 1901, when the Wright brothers returned to Kitty Hawk the little girls were running around in their dresses.

I’ve worked here for a long time, but about twenty years ago I did an oral taped issue interview with one of the Tate daughters. I will never forget her. Pauline was 93 years old and her mind was as sharp as a tack. She described those dresses to me completely because her mother also taught her and her sister to sew on the same sewing machine.

I finally asked, “do you still have the dress?” She said, “no honey we wore them out.” The best dresses they ever had in their lives.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the Wright Memorial atop of big Kill Devil Hill. It’s a monument dedicated to a commemorative event so significant that it has transcended the boundaries of our universe and will continue to inspire the next generations to achieve the impossible for the duration of life on this earth.

It marks the only spot on this earth that these two fellows would ever find what they were looking for. After all who would ever believe that two high school educated bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio would ever invent the airplane. Yet, it is carved in granite atop of big Kill Devil Hill. The inscription on that monument reads:

“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.”

The monument is a testament to every nature of the human spirit and what the Wright brothers did here that changed the world forever.

Reference: Darrell Collins is the historian for the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

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