North Carolina Centennial of Flight




Donated by GARY ROSE, in memory of Lt. Cmdr. VIRGIL F. HALLIBURTON, Naval Reserve

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Twenty-fifth Anniversary, December 17, 1928
by Steve Massengill
North Carolina Historical Review (October 2003)

Also excerpted in "By Dauntless Resolution and Unconquerable Faith": Selected Anniversary Celebrations at the Site of the Wright Brothers' First Flight, 1928-1978

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first successful flight, the International Civil Aeronautics Conference and the National Aeronautic Association organized a pilgrimage from Washington, D.C., to Kitty Hawk. Ben Dixon MacNeill (1889-1960), a staff correspondent for the Raleigh News and Observer, who also documented the event with his camera, reported that more than two hundred individuals representing forty nations made the pilgrimage. Among the delegates to the conference, held in Washington, December 12-14, were many prominent figures in the aeronautical field, members of Congress, and cabinet officials.

25th Anniversary of Flight Celebration
At the close of the conference, the delegation, including such notables as Orville Wright, Senator Bingham, Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis (1879-1945), aviatrix Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), aeronautical engineer Igor I. Sikorsky (1889-1972), and Italian airplane builder Giovanni B. Caproni (1886-1957), departed Washington on December 15 aboard the steamer District of Columbia for the difficult journey to Kitty Hawk. In 1928, the Outer Banks of North Carolina was one of the most remote destinations on the East Coast, and getting there was a considerable challenge. The party arrived at Old Point Comfort in Virginia on December 16 and toured Langley Field before heading to Norfolk, Virginia. The following morning, buses transported the group to Currituck Courthouse, North Carolina. Angus W. McLean (1870-1935), governor of North Carolina, and William O. Saunders (1884-1940), president of the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association, had welcomed and joined the party at the North Carolina-Virginia border. Automobiles replaced the buses at Currituck Courthouse because they were better suited to travel the forty miles over the main road, which was then under construction and included many detours to Point Harbor on Currituck Sound. The entourage then crossed the three-mile-wide shallow waters of Currituck Sound by ferry and proceeded the final six miles by automobile to Kitty Hawk.1 Visitors attending the ceremony from mainland North Carolina, including newspapermen, were transported to the Outer Banks aboard the USS Pamlico and boats provided by the U.S. Coast Guard.2 Several thousand visitors, mostly making their way on foot, joined the group from Washington in Dare County.3

25th Anniversary of Flight Celebration
The party dined on pork barbecue and turkey provided by the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association at Virginia Dare Shores (a local establishment) and subsequently had to travel a distance of about three miles over the shifting sand to the site of the first-flight ceremony. An amusing incident occurred just prior to the festivities when Amelia Earhart, along with Reed G. Landis (1896-1975), a celebrated World War I flyer and son of Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, commandeered a Coast Guard wagon and two horses. Tired of waiting for the few cars to transport visitors to the site, Earhart and Landis, picking up passengers along the way, guided the team from the dock over the sand some three miles to the scene of the celebration.4

The large assemblage first gathered at a platform atop Kill Devil Hill to witness the first of two brief ceremonies—the laying of the cornerstone of the national monument. It was from this hill that the Wrights made numerous experimental glider flights during the three years leading up to the first engine-powered flight. Assistant Secretary of War F. Trubee Davison (1896-1976), who had been a pilot in World War I, presided over the event, which included a welcome by Governor McLean, an address by Congressman Warren, and the laying of the cornerstone by means of a crude derrick. Secretary of War Davis, presiding over that portion of the program, proclaimed, "Since time immemorial nations have consecrated battlefields and erected monuments to their distinguished sons. This nation, dedicated to peace, may well consecrate these sea-swept, sandy shores as a peace-time battlefield, for here mankind conquered the air." Orville Wright previously had deposited documents and descriptions of the first flight in a special box, which had already been placed in the cornerstone. Congressman Roy G. Fitzgerald of Ohio, on behalf of the citizens of Dayton, presented an American flag for the occasion.5 Participating in the ceremony were three of the four eyewitnesses to and assistants at the initial flights—John T. Daniels (d. 1948), Adam D. Etheridge (d. 1940), and Willie S. Dough (b. ca. 1869-d. before 1932).

25th Anniversary of Flight Celebration
The crowd then moved about a half-mile down the hill to the approximate site of the first flight, where a six-foot-high granite marker, covered by a silk parachute, had been placed on a small mound. It was difficult to determine the precise site of the first flight because the nearby sand dunes had shifted some five hundred feet since 1903. Capt. Bill Tate and three of the witnesses to the first flight verified the location of the now-famous event. The National Aeronautic Association erected the marker, which was carved to resemble a boulder. Executive secretary of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics John F. Victory (1892-1974) presided over the unveiling of the marker. W. O. Saunders and Captain Tate addressed the crowd, and Senator Bingham, who also served as president of the National Aeronautic Association, dedicated and presided over the unveiling. The marker contained a bronze tablet with an inscription commemorating the achievement of the Wrights. Saunders laid a wreath at the foot of the boulder in honor of Wilbur Wright, who had died in 1912. That act became a tradition observed at subsequent anniversary celebrations. The modest Orville Wright did not make any public remarks. Motion-picture cameramen and newspaper staff photographers recorded the event for posterity.

It is somewhat ironic that no airplanes participated in the first commemoration. Squadrons of airships were to have come down from naval air stations in Virginia, but area duck hunters protested so strongly that the flights were canceled. Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1972) had planned to attend the celebration but was advised by friends not to do so for fear that he would steal the limelight from Orville Wright. A year earlier, Lindbergh had gained worldwide fame for making the first nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris. Thus ended the silver anniversary celebration—the event that spearheaded the growth of the Wright brothers' memorial site.6

1. News and Observer, December 16, 17, 1928. Some of MacNeill's photographs are housed in the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and at the Outer Banks History Center at Manteo. Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the First Airplane Flight: Proceedings at the Exercises Held at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on December 17, 1928, in Commemoration of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the First Flight of an Airplane Made by Wilbur and Orville Wright; 70th Cong., 2d sess., 1929, H. Doc. 520 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1929), iii-vi; Stephen Kirk, First in Flight: The Wright Brothers in North Carolina (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1995), 261-262. Langley Field was named for Samuel P. Langley, airplane pioneer and rival of the Wrights.

2. News and Observer, December 16, 1928.

3. Kirk, First in Flight, 262.

4. News and Observer, December 18, 19, 1928.

5. News and Observer, December 18, 1928.

6. Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the First Airplane Flight, vi-vii; News and Observer, December 18, 19, 1928; Kirk, First in Flight, 262-263. Johnny Moore was the eyewitness not present at the 1928 celebration.