From Dayton, Ohio, the Wright brothers in 1900 chose the Outer Banks, a barely populated string of barrier islands, to conduct a series of experiments with powered flight.
After years of trial and error, on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took the first successful airplane flight.
The National Park Service and First Flight Society are honoring the 116th anniversary of this first heavier-than-air, controlled, powered flight at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 17 at the Wright Brothers National Memorial visitor center. Park entrance fees will be waived for the day.
“The first successful manned, powered, heavier-than-air flights of human history took place on Dec. 17, 1903, and it is an event that went on to change the world,” Cinda Waldbuesser, acting chief of interpretation and education for the Outer Banks Group, told Coastal Review Online. In addition to the Wright Brothers Memorial, the Outer Banks Groups oversees Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
“Wright Brothers National Memorial hosts a celebration every year on Dec. 17 to commemorate the first time humankind’s bonds to the earth were broken,” Waldbuesser said, adding that every year, the park service sets aside this time to recognize the achievements of Wilbur and Orville Wright and “to reflect on the idea that sometimes what is thought to be impossible is just something we haven’t figured out yet.”
Visitors can learn the inspirational story of the Wrights through a morning program and afternoon ranger programs at the celebration. Waldbuesser added that while the morning program is centered around the commemoration of the first flight, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift also is being recognized.
“The morning event’s keynote speaker will be Gen. Maryanne Miller, commander for U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command,” Waldbuesser said.
Beginning in 1948 and ending in 1949, the 15-month airlift was part of a joint operation that included members of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army Transport Command, and British Royal Air Force.
Waldbuesser said that the Berlin Airlift was a historic event of global importance.
“When roads to West Berlin were blocked off in June of 1948, in an effort to drive allied forces out of the city, residents were left without the supplies needed to survive. The Berlin Airlift was a coordinated effort by allied troops to sustain the residents during this hardship,” she said.
Throughout the blockade, 4,500 tons of supplies were flown in daily to sustain the 2.5 million residents of the city.
“The use of aviation as the sole support system of an entire city was an unprecedented feat, and the reason the anniversary of the end of the airlift is being recognized at Wright Brothers National Memorial,” she said.
Honoring ‘The Candy Bomber’
“To honor the numerous men and women who made the Berlin Airlift possible, the First Flight Society, a park partner of Wright Brothers National Memorial, has chosen to recognize Col. Gail Halvorsen as this year’s inductee into their First Flight Shrine,” Waldbuesser said.
The Dr. Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine in the Wright Brothers visitor center that pays tribute to the history of aviation is named after the first curator of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Each Dec. 17, an inductee is honored and their portrait is added to the shrine.
During the airlift, Halvorsen looked for ways to make the lives of the children in Berlin a little brighter. “His solution was to drop candy tied to parachutes from his plane to eager children waiting below, earning himself the nickname ‘The Candy Bomber.’ For the past 20 years, Col. Halvorsen and the crew of the Spirit of Freedom, a renovated C-54 that was used in the airlift, have recreated his famous candy drops at the Dare County Regional Airport,” she said.
He was selected to honor all the flight and support crews who participated in the Berlin Airlift. A portrait of Halvorsen will be placed on display in the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center at 3 p.m.
There will be a small flyover, weather permitting, at 9:45 a.m. before the morning’s proceedings will conclude with a wreath-laying ceremony, which will be led by Lisa Ellstrom, witness decedent and First Flight Society Vice President, with descendants of the witnesses of the first flight to honor the Wright brothers.
“After the morning program, there will be ranger programs as well as activities for youth scattered throughout the day. In addition, two airplanes will be parked at the First Flight Airstrip for visitors to explore,” Waldbuesser said.
Park rangers will provide interpretive walks at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Youth are invited to participate in the park’s free Junior Ranger program and other special activities throughout the day to earn a special commemorative Junior Ranger pin. The park will remain open until 5 p.m.
Mike Fonseca, who has been on the First Flight Society board for three years, told Coastal Review Online that the now nonprofit organization was created in 1927 as the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association, which was made up of area businessmen who wanted to promote the building of a memorial to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903.
Authorized as Kill Devil Hills Monument March 2, 1927, it was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service Aug. 10, 1933, and On Dec. 4, 1953, Congress renamed it and designated it a national memorial. The Kill Devil Hills Memorial Society became the First Flight Society in 1966.
“Without the First Flight Society there wouldn’t be a Wright Brothers Memorial and we have been holding celebrations since before the Park Service’s involvement,” Fonseca said, adding that the first celebration of the first flight at the original site was the 25th anniversary on Dec. 17, 1928.
The monument was dedicated in 1932 and the National Park Service established Wright Brothers National Memorial in 1933.
“Since then, the society has worked jointly with the park service to commemorate the anniversary. The largest anniversary celebrations were the 50th, 75th and 100th, but the celebrations are held every year,” he said.
First Flight Society created the Dr. Paul E Garber First Flight Shrine to honor annually the great accomplishments in the history of aviation and each Dec. 17, the Paul E. Garber Shrine inductee is honored, and their portrait is added to the shrine that is located at the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center.
This year, First Flight Society hasn’t received the grant from the state that they normally do because of the budget impasse, and are welcoming sponsorships and donations, he added.
The Dec. 17 celebration will include following speakers and presentations:
- Arthur Lamothe, First Flight Society president, will preside over the event.
- Patriotic music provided by the First Flight High School Band from Kill Devil Hills.
- Presentation of colors by Camden Highschool ROTC.
- National Anthem led by Walter Swan, Director of the ECSU choir.
- Invocation by Father P. Nicholas Cottrill, Pastor, Holy Family Catholic Church, Elizabeth City.
- National Park Service welcome by Superintendent David Hallac.
- Remarks from Wright brothers descendant Paul Wright Jameson.
- Darrell Collins, Historian, will speak on the Wright’s historic achievement on Dec. 17, 1903.