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The Wright Stuff
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

Rolling dunes slope downhill half a mile to breakers on the shore.  Sugar-white sand warms my bare feet, but a steady breeze off the ocean keeps me cool.  “How’s that feel?” asks the instructor as he helps clip on the strong body harness that attaches me to the glider and checks the strap on my helmet.  “Fine,” I assure him, trying not to show how nervous I am.  This is the big moment.  My first flight.  I take a last breath before the run and launch, knowing how the Wright Brothers must have felt as they prepared for takeoff from these same sand dunes exactly a century ago.

As a kid, I was an aviation nut.  I built and flew model planes and read every library book on the Wrights and the international race to be first into the air.   Kitty Hawk was Mecca.  So making a pilgrimage to North Carolina’s Outer Banks seems quite appropriate during this centennial year of flight.

At the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Jim Cross, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic park ranger, regales visitors with stories of that remarkable achievement.  Between 1899 and 1903, Orville and Wilbur built a series of gliders and then their first powered flyer at a total cost of only $ 1000.  They even invented special tools for making the counter rotating propellers, which had to be perfectly balanced mirror images of each other. 

The famous photo of the biplane skimming the ground dominates the visitors center.  The Wrights asked John Daniels, who worked at the nearby lifesaving station, to witness the flight and take the picture.   He had never even seen a camera before.  “After the historic first flight,” says Cross, “they asked him if he’d snapped the shutter, but John was so excited that he couldn’t remember.”  A week later, back home in Dayton, Ohio, Orville developed the plate.  “It’s really a great photo, and the only one Daniels ever took.”  

After viewing a replica of the plane, we walk out to the commemorative stone marking the spot where the Wrights took off.  Spread across a field are smaller markers indicating where each flight landed.  In the distance is a mountainous sand dune, crowned with a huge monument, where they trained with their gliders. 

But to demonstrate powered flight, Cross explains, flying down a hill was not acceptable.  Gliders had been doing that for over a decade.  So the Wrights set out their course on level ground, and decided that only a flight of 300 feet--a football field or more--would count as success.

With an engine of only 12 horsepower, their craft was just barely capable of flight under ideal conditions.  They needed a headwind of over 20 mph.  Orville was the first pilot.  Wilbur ran along, holding one wing to steady the plane as it shot down the track and lifted into the air.  It flew 120 feet in 12 seconds before skidding to a landing.  Wilbur went next and flew 175 feet.  Then Orville achieved 200 feet.  They were gaining confidence and a feel for the controls.  Fortunately, the wind held, and Wilbur’s second flight, their fourth of the day, was truly impressive.  Flying steadily along about 12 feet off the ground, he cruised 852 feet in 59 seconds.  Then a gust upturned and wrecked the aircraft.  It never flew again, nor did the Wrights for two more years, by then with a much improved new plane.   

A few miles south, I join four other neophytes for a lesson at Kitty Hawk Kites, the world’s busiest hang-gliding school.  And no wonder.  The dunes vary from very gentle slopes to steep dropoffs, and flights can be made with the wind from any direction.  With the soft sand, helmet and the protection afforded by the sturdy frames of the “kites,” injuries are rare. 

Instructor Kevin Coltrane, a wiry little guy in his twenties, explains how to shift our weight to steer when in flight, and to push forward on the horizontal bar in front of us to “flare”, or stall, the kite when we want to land.  He fits us out with harnesses and helmets, and we trudge up onto the dunes, where the red and white delta-winged glider awaits us.  The wind is blowing only about 8 mph, just barely enough to fly.  Over the next couple of hours, it slowly abates. 

Chris, the first to go, weighs over 220 lbs., and the kite simply cannot provide enough lift.  Carrying the kite above him, Chris starts running down the hill, directly into the wind.  Kevin races alongside holding one wingtip, just as Wilbur did for Orville.  Not fast enough, though.  Chris throws his torso forward into the horizontal launch position, but his feet never leave the ground.  The glider’s rubber front wheels dig into the sand and he lurches to a stop.

I’m next.  Kevin reminds me of the procedure.  Relax, he says, and I try my best.  I race down the dune.  The wind, giving lift to the wing, makes the glider feel a lot lighter than its actual 70 lbs.  As instructed, I pull the control bar toward me, running faster and faster, and then Kevin says “go”.  That’s the signal to release pressure on the bar and let the kite fly itself.   My weight is now slung entirely from a single point under the wing, hence the term “hang glider.”  My feet leave the ground.  I am flying!!

Yes, flying.  Not very fast and not very high, only four or five feet above the sand.  But I am flying, floating along down the dune.  After only a few seconds, though, I begin to lose speed and altitude.  “Flare,” shouts Kevin, who is running alongside.  I push out on the bar.  This is supposed to bring the wing up into a stall and let me land on my feet.  But I am already too low.  The wing begins to tilt up, but meanwhile by feet touch down.  The kite tilts forward and I slide in on a gentle belly flop, cushioned by the deep sand. “Hey, way to go,” Kevin shouts, “that was great.” 

Next come Jo, Barry and Julie, but none of them get off on their first attempt. On my second try, I get a better breeze and gain more height.  This time I fly maybe 50 or 60 feet.  There is just enough time to feel that sense of freedom, that delight in drifting along, weightless, above the ground.  Then a slight gust catches the wing, and the kite begins to turn.  I’m supposed to shift my weight to compensate, but in the excitement my mind goes blank.  Kevin shouts to flare.  I push the bar away from me, and this time I have enough speed and elevation that the wing really does tilt up.  That one last moment of lift lets me alight gracefully on my feet.  An almost perfect landing.  “Fabulous,” says Kevin, who slaps my palm with a high five.  “You were really flying.”

And a good thing, too, because soon the breeze weakens considerably.  Before it does, Barry, who had seemed the most nervous of all, takes to the air on the longest flight of the afternoon.  He swoops down the dune about ten feet off the ground and goes about as far as the Wrights did on their first powered flight.  After that, the wind really peters out.  I manage to get off the ground on each of my three remaining flights, but just barely, and never high enough for a proper flare and landing. 

Still, it’s been a great day.  Oh well, I tell myself, I can always come back and try again.  Meanwhile, it’s good to feel part of the fraternity of intrepid pilots.  Orville, Wilbur and I. 


If You Go:

For information on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, see the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau at 

For information on hang gliding on the Outer Banks, see Kitty Hawk Kites at

For information about events at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, see

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Email: (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)


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