On October 8, 1991, exactly 30 years ago today, I flew my Cessna 172 Skyhawk to Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina - the birthplace of aviation. It was a very exciting and emotional flight for me. Now, 30 years later, I still clearly remember walking the short sand strip that bore the Wright Flyer into the air that momentous day over a century ago. And I remember entering the small shack at the end of that strip, and what I found inside that day!
Here's a photo of the entry I made in my pilot's logbook at the end of my flight three decades ago:
The entry records that on 10/8/1991 I flew my Cessna 172, tail number N3577Q, from 2N8 (my airport in Old Bridge, NJ) to WWD (Cape May Airport, NJ) for fuel, and then on to FFA (the airport named First Flight, in Kill Devil Hills, NC), making 2 landings in 3.3 hours of flying time. In Remarks I wrote, "Went to First Flight + touched the sacred ground; fuel stop at Cape May; ACY + Norfolk ARSAs"
When I got home I wrote an essay about my flight and always wanted to get it published. I was never able to.
So today, on the 30th Anniversary of that event, I'll finally publish it - myself!
Flight to Mecca
or, Pilots Register Here
Every field of endeavor in this life has it's Mecca - a place to which all its roots trace back; a place to pay homage to it's beginnings. Some are less definable than others, but with aviation there is no question. We, as flyers, trace our roots back to the windy shores of North Carolina's Outer Banks; to a sand dune at a place called Kill Devil Hills, better known to most as Kitty Hawk.
Ever since I started my private pilot training, I've thought about visiting the spot where it all began on December 17, 1903 when Orville and Wilbur Wright made that incredible voyage of only 120 feet. Everyone reading this today has had his life altered by what happened that winter, 88 years ago. I’ve always felt that it was an inevitable and natural part of my pilot training that I would someday fly myself to that spot, walk on that sand, feel that wind and personally acknowledge the greatness of that achievement.
So there I was, at six o'clock in the morning, shaving in preparation for the workday and my commute to work, when the voice of the helicopter traffic reporter said to me over the radio that it was beautiful flying weather that morning - no haze, no fog, low humidity and cool. Suddenly, with no premeditation, I thought today should be the day to go to Kitty Hawk instead of to work. I went to the phone and called flight service. Sure enough, the weather was perfect VFR all along my route of flight and forecasted to remain that way for the rest of the day.
I started the flight planning right away. Two ARSAs [30 years ago when I wrote this, I was referring to Airport Radar Service Areas, which today have been replaced by other FAA designations], a lot of military airspace, a couple of wide stretches of water to cross, and a lot of beautiful coastline. And there at the southernmost edge of the Washington sectional was my goal - First Flight - the airport (just a runway and a windsock) where it all began. Right next to the airport on the chart is an obstruction marker and next to that on the sectional chart in small black letters are the words "Wright Monument."
With my two flight plans filed, two of my daughters put onto their school buses, some food stowed in my flight bag, and a brief call to my office to tell them not to expect me that day, I was ready. Just one more thing: that leather jacket I'm so proud of most of the time, but a little bit embarrassed about in front of real pilots - I had to wear that jacket today.
Flying down the coast from central New Jersey is an easy VFR trip. The casinos of Atlantic City looked very impressive on that crisp blue morning. I proudly told the ACY controller that my destination was First Flight, North Carolina. He retained his professional composure despite the wave of emotions that surely must have swept over him.
I landed at Cape May, at the southernmost end of New Jersey, to refuel before the 20 mile water crossing to Cape Henlopen in Delaware. Continuing through Maryland, at Cape Charles I reported into the Norfolk ARSA controller. The Chesapeake Bay was breathtaking as I flew above the 30 mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. I was alerted to an F-16 at my 12 o'clock, opposite direction, 1,500 feet above me. I heard the fighter's pilot report that she had me in sight just before she streaked overhead.
Although I planned my route inland at this point through the Norfolk ARSA to avoid the military areas, the controller told me that I could follow the coastline down to First Flight if I wanted to. As I neared my destination, the first thing I saw was the monument. It put a for-real lump in my throat. Next I saw the beautifully maintained day-time-only 02-20 runway and then the windsock and segmented circle set in a clearing on an adjacent hilltop.
I tied down the plane and walked up the historic dune which the Army Corps of Engineers has since covered with grass to keep it from shifting. I reached the monument, so blandly referred to on the sectional. These are the words carved around it's granite base:
IN COMMEMORATION OF THE CONQUEST OF THE AIR ACHIEVED BY DAUNTLESS RESOLUTION AND UNCONQUERABLE FAITH
Next I walked over to the spot where the flight actually took place. I'd always heard that the first flight was only twelve seconds long, but standing on the very sand where it happened, I was amazed at what a short span it was. I had just flown 300 nautical miles as a culmination of that 120 foot flight on that windy Thursday morning so long ago, when two dreamers altered all our lives.
There's more to see. Near the flight path is a small museum with interesting documents and paraphernalia relating to the Wright brothers' work. You can look into the wooden hangar where the Wright Flyer was kept. (You'll have to go to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC to see the aircraft itself.) And there's the rickety-looking wooden building where the brothers lived while they were out there among the sand dunes. These are not luxurious accommodations. You can feel the strength of conviction that these two men must have had to realize their dream as you look at the bedding nailed between the rafters above the crude kitchen. The view of the ocean and surroundings seen from the monument is beautiful. That's where I ate my lunch before starting back.
As I walked back to the tie-down area I passed a small booth with a National Parks Service sign on the top that said, "Pilots Register Here." For me it was one of the most emotional entries I've ever made in a log book. I've never been more proud to call myself a pilot than I was standing under that sign that day. I know Orville and Wilbur were watching as I added my name to the bottom of the list that they started 88 years ago.
- October 8, 1991
Post Script (10/8/2021)
Today, to commemorate the event, I returned to that 120 foot sandy strip courtesy of the incredible Microsoft Flight Simulator. Instead of walking along the strip, with no one to stop me this time, I took off from it in a Cessna Skyhawk just like the one I flew 30 years ago! Watch my prop whip up the same sand that the Wright Flyer did over 100 years ago: