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At 55 and Counting, Wright Brothers National Memorial Enjoys Its Monumental Facelift


Wright Monument on Big Kill Devil Hill at Wright Brothers National Memorial. Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikipedia.

Originally established as Kill Devil Hill Monument in 1927, and still bearing that name when it was transferred to the NPS in 1933, Wright Brothers National Memorial finally acquired its present designation 55 years ago on December 4, 1953. A recently completed restoration project has made this 55th birthday even more worth celebrating. The park’s single most visible feature, the Wright Monument, has received a badly needed facelift.

When the Centennial of Flight rolled around on December 17, 2003, Wright Brothers National Memorial played host to President George W. Bush, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Chuck Yeager. John Travolta, and a horde of other dignitaries, celebrities, and miscellaneous visitors gathered to celebrate 100 years of powered flight. The park was gussied up for the occasion, of course, and appeared to be in pretty good shape. With one very noticeable exception, that is. The Wright Monument, though serviceable, was nowhere near as fit as it should have been. In the patois of the combat soldier, it was among the “walking wounded.”

The Wright Monument features a 60-foot granite pylon perched atop a big sand dune called Big Kill Devil Hill (see accompanying photo). The monument was installed there in 1932, not just because the dune top insures high visibility (the monument is visible for miles), but also because the 90-foot high dune was used for test glides and other experiments that helped set the stage for that monumental First Flight. The Wright Brothers used the dune to perform many thousands of glides and related experiments.

The inscription on the monument is inspiring:


The glittering monument installed more than three-quarters of a century ago suffered the ravages of time. Assaulted by windblown sand, salt spray, winter freeze-thaw cycles, and a host of other enemies, the monument deteriorated as the decades went by. Eventually, mere maintenance would not suffice. Only restoration could save it.

There was a major restoration over a decade ago, but many of the problems addressed at that time were not permanently taken care of. Fortunately, a more lasting fix was on the way. Earlier this year, the First Flight Foundation partnered with the National Park Service to undertake yet another restoration of the Wright Monument. Unlike the last attempt, this one would be truly sufficient to prevent further deterioration and “reestablish the monument’s structural and historical integrity.”

The project included cleaning both the interior and exterior of the granite pylon, re-pointing the exterior mortar, painting the stairs, polishing and coating the stainless steel doors, replacing the heating/ventilation system and the exterior lights, and renovating the electrical and mechanical systems. Even the marine-style beacon atop the pylon was removed, cleaned, and replaced.

The monument looks great now. When you visit Wright Brothers National Memorial, be sure to climb the hill and take a look for yourself, up close and personal.

Traveler trivia, no extra charge: The First Flight Foundation (then called the First Flight Centennial Foundation) raised money for the monument restoration project by means of a coin match project with the United States Mint conducted in association with the Centennial of Flight commemoration in 2003.


Great article, Bob!

Thanks for bringing this project to light. Prior to the 2003 "Centennial of Flight" celebration, the entire WBM complex had become rather worn looking, to say the least. Decades of exposure to salt air and simple visitor wear and tear had taken its toll.

After many years of just passing it by, I have made at least one visit each year over the past two years, and was very happy to see the facelift that the entire unit has enjoyed. It's also great to see that the restoration of the monument itself was financed through cooperation between the NPS and NGO's like the First Flight Foundation, helping the financially strapped park service as well as providing a sense of civilian ownership.

Another item of note: December 17th marks the 105th anniversary of the Wright Brother's maiden flight, and the First Flight Society will hold it's annual day-long Gala event at the WBM complex. From the First Flight Society Website:

The day's activities include a ceremony at the Memorial . . . the induction of a major figure in aviation into the Society's Shrine . . . a thrilling fly-over of civilian, military and historic aircraft . . . and an annual luncheon and formal Ball. This annual celebration is a joint effort of the First Flight Society, the National Park Service, the military and many other participants.

If you're in the area, make plans to attend this unique event!

Copy of the NPS Press Release detailing the 105th Anniversary Celebration Itinerary:

(Wish I could make it for the flyovers alone. There's some really cool aircraft in that lineup!)


National Park Service News Release
Release Date: December 8, 2008
Contact: Wright Brothers National Memorial
Phone: (252) 441-7430

Wright Brothers’ First Flight Achievement to be Celebrated on December 17
105th Anniversary Event Scheduled at Wright Brothers National Memorial

On Wednesday, December 17, 2008 the First Flight Society and the National Park Service will continue the tradition of honoring the accomplishments of Wilbur and Orville Wright at the 105th anniversary celebration of the first heavier-than-air powered flight. The event will take place at Wright Brothers National Memorial; park entrance fees will be waived for the day.

The observance will launch at 8:30 a.m. with a short wreath-laying ceremony at the exact spot where the famous first flight occurred. In this event, the Wright brothers and the witnesses of the first flight will be honored by the National Park Service and the descendents of the witnesses. This program segment will start at the Wright Brothers Visitor Center.

The formal program begins at 9 a.m. in the First Flight Pavilion, preceded with a patriotic musical prelude by the Northeastern High School Band from Elizabeth City, NC. Nags Head and First Flight Elementary School students participating in the Wright Flight academic achievement program will lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Dr. Tom Crouch, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum will introduce this year’s distinguished guest speaker - James May, President and COE of the Air Transport Association. Mr. May will provide a tribute to Herb Kelleher, the 2008 Paul E. Garber Shrine Inductee. Mr. Kelleher is the founder and former chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines. For the past 11 years Fortune Magazine has listed Southwest Airlines as number five among America’s top ten most admired corporations.

The annual aircraft fly-by will commence at 10:35 a.m. - the documented exact moment of the Wrights’ first flight. The military fly-by tribute is scheduled to include: F-18 Hornets from the U.S. Navy Oceana Air Station; F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base; V-22 Ospreys from the U.S. Marine Corp New River Air Station; Black Hawk helicopters from Fort Bragg U.S. Army Base; and C-130 Hercules and JJ-60 Jay Hawk helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard Elizabeth City Air Station. The C-54 Candy Bomber will conclude the fly-by.

The park’s museum exhibits and activities throughout the day will provide an atmosphere of enjoyable learning about one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. The visitor center will open at 8 a.m. Scheduled programs include: Flight Room Talk at 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.; First Flight Tour at 1 p.m.; Wright Flight, a kite-building program for children, at 11 a.m. Children are also invited to participate in the park’s Junior Ranger program. The Wright Monument will be open for climbing from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

For more information, call the National Park Service at (252) 441-7430.


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