North Carolina Centennial of Flight




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Golden Anniversary Celebration, December 14-17, 1953
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

Joint sponsors of the fiftieth anniversary celebration included the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Society (previously known as the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association), the Air Force Association, the National Park Service, and the Fiftieth Anniversary of Powered Flight Commission. Gov. William B. Umstead (1895-1954) had appointed the nine-member commission with Carl Goerch (1891-1974) as chairman. The commission decided to make the celebration a four-day affair instead of a one-day observance as in the past. It was the most elaborate of the many worldwide celebrations planned to commemorate the first flight. The event was an ambitious undertaking, given the remoteness of the site, with no airport and a location fifty-eight miles from the nearest airline and fifteen miles from the nearest telegraph office.

The four-day commemoration was divided into the following themes: December 14: Pioneers and Flyers Day; December 15: Industry Day; December 16: Defense Day; and December 17: Anniversary Day. The National Park Service reconstructed and refurnished the Wright brothers' 1903 hangar and living quarters. In addition, pilot Billy Parker, sales representative for Phillips Petroleum Company, reenacted the first flight in his 1912 Pusher biplane at approximately the same time as the actual event had occurred.

50th Anniversary of Flight Celebration
During the mid-December activities, more than two hundred aircraft demonstrated the progress of modern aviation. Six F-86 Sabrejets broke the sound barrier as they streaked past the historic site. A Royal Air Force Canberra jet bomber arrived at the memorial from London and dipped its wings in honor of the Wrights. In further tribute, a National Airlines Douglas DC-7 flew over the memorial at four hundred miles per hour following its record-setting flight from Los Angeles to Washington. The "Thunderbirds," a U.S. Air Force jet aerobatic team, thrilled the crowd with a fifteen-minute demonstration of precision maneuvers by four F-84 Thunderjets flying no more than five feet apart at more than five hundred miles per hour.1

Windy and rainy weather canceled most of the flying portion of the first day's program on December 14 and greatly reduced attendance. Officials dedicated the reconstructed living quarters and hangar, and granddaughters of the witnesses laid the traditional wreaths at the base of the memorial. None of the participants or eyewitnesses were still alive, but the widows of John T. Daniels and Adam Etheridge were present. Special guests included Mrs. Henry H. Arnold, A. W. Drinkwater, and retired brigadier general and pioneer flyer Frank P. Lahm (1877-1963), president of the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Society. Twenty aviation pioneers from Oklahoma, including Billy Parker, were likewise on hand.2

A flag-raising ceremony conducted on a windy and chilly morning at the memorial was one of the highlights of "Industry Day" on December 15. Brigadier General Lahm raised the flag of the United States; Admiral Dewitt C. Ramsey, president of the Aircraft Industries Association, raised the flag of the United Nations; and Edward O. Rodgers, assistant to the president of the Air Transport Association, raised the International Goodwill Flag. Admiral Ramsey and Rodgers next laid wreaths at the foot of the monument and in the afternoon addressed the industry luncheon at the Carolinian Hotel.3

An impressive aerial review, held before a crowd of two thousand people, ended the morning session of "Defense Day" on December 16. Participants in the air show included the U.S. Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard (Elizabeth City Air Station), the Air Force "Thunderbirds," and Bensen Aircraft of Raleigh. Four-star general J. K. Cannon, commander of the Tactical Air Force; Rep. Herbert C. Bonner (1891-1965); and Mrs. Leontine Wright Jameson, niece of the Wright brothers, were among the dignitaries who witnessed the show from the first-flight reviewing stand.4

Some five thousand spectators watched an awe-inspiring display of air power on Anniversary Day, December 17. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle (1896-1993), retired general and chairman of the National Fiftieth Anniversary Committee, spoke at the morning outdoor session and at a luncheon held at the Carolinian Hotel:

When the Wrights had finished their work in 1903 and had packed up their improbable-looking plane and closed camp to go back to Ohio, the air was no more buoyant than before, and the Atlantic was just as wide as ever. Yet because of the Wrights' work, the oceans have shrunk-in time-and the continents have been joined through the air. . . . In a few decades, aviation has changed our lives. With the aid of modern aircraft, we can transport ourselves, the goods of peace, and the instruments of war over great distances at high speeds. The airplane has greatly stimulated the growth of our economy, and it has been the vital element in assuring our security-in preserving our freedom. . . . It is good that aviation has gained so firm a place in the life of the Nation. It should be remembered that aviation has won its place because it has progressed so fast, adapted itself so well to the needs of the times, and anticipated so well the requirements of the future. This progress must be continued. It must be accelerated.5
50th Anniversary of Flight Celebration
Lt. Gov. Luther H. Hodges (1898-1974) was also present at the luncheon and spoke on behalf of Governor Umstead, who was unable to attend. At the historic moment (approximately 10:35 A.M.), Billy Parker took off in his 1912 home-built Pusher biplane in a stiff wind and circled around markers indicating where the Wrights had made their first four flights. Parker flew his aircraft at an altitude of about one hundred feet, considerably higher than the Wright Flyer in 1903. Subsequently, performances featuring modern aircraft, including the aforementioned British Canberra jet bomber, the National Airlines DC-7, and the "Thunderbirds," entertained the gathering.6 Some fifteen thousand individuals attended the golden anniversary celebration of flight in Dare County. North Carolina received worldwide publicity during the four-day event from radio, television, motion-picture newsreel, and newspaper coverage. And in 1953, the official name of the National Park Service historic site became the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

A new $275,000 National Park Service visitor center and administration building was dedicated during the fifty-seventh anniversary commemoration. A small crowd attended the December 17, 1960, ceremony, which occurred in the wake of two tragic airplane crashes-one in New York and the other in Munich, Germany. Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois (b. ca. 1884), a pioneer aviator and chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1931 to 1935, made the principal address at the Wright Memorial. He had been present at its dedication in 1932. The festivities included the traditional wreath laying by grandchildren of the witnesses to the first flight, as well as a fly-over by some of the most modern aircraft of the air force. Gov. Luther H. Hodges spoke briefly at the dedication of the new building, and Governor-elect Terry Sanford (1917-1998) spoke at the luncheon. Other notables present for the occasion were Rep. Herbert C. Bonner, Lindsay C. Warren, Outer Banks historian David Stick, and A. W. Drinkwater.7 It may have been the last celebration attended by the telegrapher, who died of cancer in 1962.8

1. Golden Anniversary Observance of Man's First Successful Powered Flight: Proceedings at the Exercises Held at Wright Brothers National Memorial, December 14-17, 1953, in Commemoration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the First Flight of an Airplane Made by Wilbur and Orville Wright; 83rd Cong., 2d sess., 1954, H. Doc. 480 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1954), ix, x, xiii, 1-4, 23; Guide to Research Materials in the North Carolina State Archives: State Agency Records (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1995), 785.

2. News and Observer, December 15, 1953. Lahm had become the second army airplane pilot when the Wright brothers taught him to fly in 1909.

3. News and Observer, December 16, 1953; Golden Anniversary Observance, 2.

4. Golden Anniversary Observance, 3; News and Observer, December 17, 1953.

5. Golden Anniversary Observance, 20.

6. Golden Anniversary Observance, 4; News and Observer, December 18, 1953.

7. News and Observer, December, 17, 18, 1960. The Wright Brothers' Memorial Visitor Center was officially opened to the public on July 15, 1960. The interior of the Wright Memorial, which had served as the visitor center from 1932 until the completion of the new building, was closed to the public.

8. Kirk, First in Flight, 304.