On the morning of Dec. 17, 1903, some of us were gathered at the base of Kill Devil Hill, a wind cursed stretch of sand skirting the outer banks of North Carolina. It was bone cold that morning and I was not the only one in our little group that was beginning to feel a bit foolish.
The object of our attention? Two men, brothers we were told, fussing about a curious collection of muslin, spruce, and iron. They called it a flying machine, but the jury was still out regarding that boast. Some claimed to have actually seen one of their gliders skimming across the dunes and eventually coming to rest where we stood. But that was the year before, and the machine in front of us now was decidedly different. It was much larger than the previous, with a motor and two large wooden propellers to push it through the air.
Eventually, the two brothers came together, and I saw one toss a coin high into the air. Having won, the taller of the two men then proceeded to arrange himself face forward across the lower wing. The other took a position at a wing tip, balancing the craft on a small trolley that rode on a single rail.
Quite suddenly the motor sprang to life, pulling chains and propellers into service with a clamorous howl of metal to metal. Two young boys standing at my side decided they had had quite enough and ran back to their homes.
As the craft gathered momentum, we were all caught quite unaware by the speed at which events unfolded. In the time it takes a man to gather a good breath, the machine raced beyond the grasp of the man running alongside, rose off the track, and lifted into the air.
Even to this day, the image that I carry with me, was watching the little trolley tumbling over and over beneath the shadow of the flying machine. We must have stood there the better part of an hour before the thought even crossed my mind that what we had just witnessed was an event that would shape all our lives.