Growing up, I had always known Orville and Wilbur Wright as the men who successfully completed “The First Flight”. I found their feat impressive but never gave it much further thought. Rather, I simply grouped them together with the other men in history who accomplished tasks previously considered impossible – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Karl Benz, Alexander Graham Bell, Neil Armstrong, etc. I understand all the accomplishments of these men made life as we know it possible, but it is difficult to truly grasp the vastness of their impact until you put yourselves in their shoes. This was especially the case with the Wright brothers.
At the beginning of the summer, twelve of the other Huang Fellows and I made plans to spend a weekend in July at the Outer Banks. As the weeks flew by, I looked forward to our trip, excited to spend the weekend laying in the sand and swimming in the ocean. I had no idea we would even visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial let alone that our visit would be my favorite part of the trip. To be honest, I did not even know “The First Flight” took place in the Outer Banks before visiting the memorial.
When I stepped out of the car at the national park, an expansive field of green filled my view. The long winding path around the park appeared daunting in the sweltering heat that is North Carolina summer, which was already causing me to sweat. We started trekking up the path and soon arrived before two wooden structures. Their small interiors were bare, containing only a few wooden shelves and a table. We soon realized these structures were replicas of the camp buildings in which the Wright brothers lived and worked during their four years of experimentation. It was hard to imagine spending four years living in such tight quarters, but then I thought, “Wait, isn’t that what college is?”
The next stop along the path put us in front of a large boulder. The monument marked the take-off location of the flights and was added in commemoration 25 years after “The First Flight”. More than two hundred people participated in a pilgrimage from Washington DC to Kitty Hawk to participate in the 25-year anniversary celebration, including Amelia Earhart. It was a remarkable feeling to know I was standing where Amelia Earhart had stood – standing where 113 years ago, the Wright brothers took off and reached new heights. History was made here, and you could feel it in the air.
Standing next to the boulder, we looked out over the field, noticing the four stone posts that marked the landing spots of the four flight trials. As we walked down the path to view the different stone markers, it was easy to imagine the growing excitement that must have been running through the veins of Orville and Wilbur Wright on December 17th, 1903. The flights improved with each consecutive trial, culminating in a fourth flight that lasted 59 seconds and covered a total distance of 852 feet. While we walked down the path to the fourth and final marker, it was as if I could hear the whoops and hollers of Orville as Wilbur piloted the plane over those 852 feet. I do not think it is possible to fully fathom the excitement and joy the brothers must have felt that day.
The trail ended with a climb to the top of Kill Devil Hill where the grand monument commemorating the Wright brothers and their achievement lies. The climb was long and steep; by the end, we were out of breath and dripping sweat. This was the same climb Orville and Wilbur made countless times during their four years at Kitty Hawk. However, unlike us, the brothers climbed the hill without a path and while also dragging a glider plane behind them. It was from the top of the hill that the brothers completed most of their experimental glider flights. Overlooking all of Kitty Hawk and the coast beside it, the breathtaking view from the top was absolutely worth the hike.
At the time, Kitty Hawk was a small fishing town made up of approximately 300 people. The residents of Kitty Hawk were very supportive of the Wright brothers’ experiments. They welcomed them into the town, providing them with food and even helping them in their experiments. To me, this seems like a perfect example of what we value at Science and Society. The Wright brothers did not isolate themselves and focus only on their experiments. Rather, they engaged with the community around them and incorporated the community into their science. The Wright brothers brought science many steps forward through their accomplishments, but they did not leave society behind in the dust to do so. Instead, the brothers included local members of society, and together they made achievements that would benefit society in unimaginable ways. A lot can be learned from Orville and Wilbur, with the ability to fly being only one of those lessons.
Claudia studies Global Health and Biology. She is interested in pursuing a career in medicine to work towards making accessible healthcare a global reality.