A Flight Simulator Odyssey

by Charles Gulick

Shifting Sands

Chart: Washington, then Charlotte
Ground Coordinates:
   Aircraft: NI5055, E20628
   Tower: N15055.276, E20628.191
   Aircraft: 0
   Tower: 16
Heading: 151
Time: Daylight

You're pointed toward Runway 10 at Elizabeth City Coast Guard Air Station/Municipal Airport--obviously a double-duty facility--located in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. You'll find it at the bottom of your Washington Area Chart. Runway 10 isn't the one directly in front of you, as you can tell from your compass reading. You'll taxi ahead to the inter-section and then turn left for your takeoff. This is a longer flight, so plan on your maximum cruise configuration.

Our destination is a revered place in aviation history--Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the site, of course, of the first flight of the Wright brothers. As we fly there I'll give you a little background on those visionary bicycle repairmen, Wilbur and Orville.

This flight should be interesting for two more reasons. First, we're going to fly from one chart area to another, and sometimes that sort of transition will result in the aircraft being displaced by a few miles. It won't this time, however, if you fly carefully. Second, we're going to attempt a precision landing directly on Kitty Hawk, with very little to guide us (there's no airport there). So pay close attention, and follow my guidelines as carefully as you can.

When you're ready, taxi into position and take off. Climb straight out to 1000 feet, which will be our cruising altitude. Continue on the runway heading, 100 degrees, until you're over the last peninsula and see nothing but the Atlantic Ocean on your windshield. While you fly you'll have time to read the following capsule history.

Orville, the younger of the Wright brothers, was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1871. Wilbur was born near Millville, Indiana in 1867. Their first joint venture was publishing a small weekly newspaper. The bicycle repair business was the second.

The brothers developed a passion for the sport of gliding, having read of the experiments of Germany's Otto Lilienthal who made hundreds of flights. Lilienthal's technique for con-trolling the equilibrium of his gliders was to shift the weight of his body, a flawed procedure that resulted in his death in 1896. The Wrights developed a far more sophisticated technique, in which the center of gravity remained constant and equilibrium was controlled by adjusting the angles of the wings and other airfoils, thus varying the air pressure against them. They patented their system, and you experience it today as aileron and elevator control.

Their interest in gliding soon gave way to study of the serious scientific aspects of aeronautics. Because they found the existing data unsatisfactory, they abandoned it and did their own investigating. They created a small wind tunnel in which they could measure the lift and drag of a wide variety of airfoils and airfoil combinations, a pursuit that interested them so intensely that they often worked at it around the clock.

Believing their data now made it possible to predict the performance of a flying machine--one that would require far less power than had been proposed up until that time--they set about in October of 1902 to design and build an engine-driven aircraft. When completed a little more than a year later, their machine weighed 750 pounds complete with Orville as pilot. Its four-cylinder engine developed just 12 horse-power. But that was sufficient to permit Orville to take off and fly for 59 seconds at a speed of 30 mph. The plane made four such flights on December 17, 1903, over distances as short as 120 feet and as long as 852 feet. The rest, as they say, is history. By 1906 they were able to stay aloft for an hour or more.

When only ocean is visible ahead, turn right and fly a compass heading of 170 degrees. You'll be flying along the eastern edge of a barrier island, which looks almost rectangular seen from the cockpit, though your map will confirm it's shaped more like an arrowhead.

After some minutes, the land you're flying over abruptly narrows. Your course should take you over the center of the narrow portion, and as you come to it, an airport will appear about 10 degrees to the right of your heading. That's Dare County Regional Airport, Manteo, North Carolina. At this point, slow the airplane down and drop your gear.

Take a look straight back. The near edge of the wider portion of the barrier island will come into view to the right of your horizontal stabilizer. Keep the rear view, and when you can see the whole of the wide section of island outlined against the water, restore your out-front view and do a gentle 180 to the right (use half your usual bank, or about 15 degrees, for a gradual turn), rolling out on a heading of about 340, or so the wide section of island is straight ahead of you.

Now land straight ahead, treating the geography at the edge of the water as if it were the threshold of a runway. Elevation is about 20 feet. Use flaps if required, trying to land just beyond the water's edge. When you're on the ground, put on your brakes.

You can't see them, but you're surrounded by sand dunes and, perhaps, by ghostly wings. You're there. Where it happened. Kitty Hawk.

Enable your map. The white spot behind you is Manteo/Dare County Regional Airport. Just to the right of the airport, across the water, at the thinnest part of the island, is Kill Devil Hills. There, rather than on Kitty Hawk proper, is the sand dune area where the Wright Brothers National Memorial stands. The reason the sites of the memorial and of the actual historic flight are different is that the contours of this area have changed over time. This island and its dunes are continually reshaped by wind and wave, and the location of both Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills is not what it was in the time of the Wright brothers. So no one can point to a specific spot today and say "Exactly there ..."

But the whole area is memorialized by what happened at Kitty Hawk. And at Dare County airport there's a VOR station, aptly named Wright Brothers.

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