Wrights celebrated; Walter and Olive Ann Beech inducted into First Flight Shrine

Published 3:50 pm Wednesday, December 20, 2023

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Sunday marked the 120th anniversary of a 12-second event that changed the world.

About 10:35 a.m. on a cold and windy December 17, 1903, Orville Wright, with assistance from his brother Wilbur, made the first successful manned powered-airplane flight.

It was the first time ever that a flying machine had taken off from level ground, traveled through the air, and landed under the control of its pilot. It also marked the beginning of the modern age of aviation.

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That monumental moment followed years of aviation and aeronautical research by the two self-taught engineers as well as numerous experimental glider test flights at a site then known as Kitty Hawk that sits within the town of Kill Devil Hills today.

After that first successful 120 foot flight that lasted a brief 12 seconds, the two brothers from Ohio took turns making three more flights that day with the longest covering about 852 feet and lasting roughly 59 seconds. Shortly after the fourth flight, a gust of wind overturned the aircraft and damaged it beyond repair.

A major part of Sunday’s annual celebration honoring that pivotal moment in history was a gathering at the Wright Brothers National Memorial near the original flight site with a review of historical events and facts from Cape Hatteras National Seashore superintendent David Hallac, lead interpretive park ranger David True, and First Flight Society president Mike Fonseca.

Fonseca explained that the First Flight Society’s mission is to tell the Wright brothers story and has been celebrating the event since 1928 when Orville attended and laid the cornerstone for the monument.

Admiral Joey Tynch also took a few minutes to talk about the Wright Flight Academy with 23 First Flight High School students building an actual FAA certified RV-12iS kit plane within a few yards from where the Wright brothers made that first flight.

“Aviation is a team sport,” said Tynch. “There is no air support anywhere in the world without ground support. I can say these juniors and seniors have been at work since August and the same spirit and passion for flight that drove the Wright Brothers 120 years ago is still alive today.”

Tynch went on to say the class is only a few tens of thousands of rivets from completion in 2025.

During his talk, True pointed out that while Orville and Wilbur made the very first flights, they had considerable support from their mother Susan and younger sister Katharine Wright.

“Katharine played an important role in the early United States aviation industry,” said True. “She worked closely with her brothers, she managed their bicycle shop, and after her brothers secured a patent for their aerial device in 1906 and focused on selling their invention, Katharine served as their executive secretary.”

“When Orville and Wilbur traveled to Europe, Katharine was their social manager,” True continued. “As the brothers toured and showed off their plane, Katharine played a critical role in engaging the crowd. And the French loved her.”

As the keynote speaker, C.K. Lee, president of the American Bonanza Society, opened his comments by pointing out that the December 17 flight by Orville and Wilbur changed everything in the world, including the way we think and move as well as methods of transportation and warfare.

Moving to the induction of Beech Aircraft founders Walter and Olive Ann Beech into the Dr. Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Lee said the couple put flying within the everyday reach of everyone.

Walter (1891-1950), a World War I military pilot and early leader of the growing airplane industry, founded the Beech Aircraft Company with his wife, Olive Ann (1903-1993) in 1932. Together they created a legacy of aircraft known for safety and dependability.

According to Lee, Beech Aircraft Company was a revolutionary offering with groundbreaking developments based on military and post war achievements.

For her part, Olive Ann was often called the “First Lady of Aviation” and was the first woman to lead a major aircraft company. She was also responsible for Beech Aircraft becoming one of the most successful airplane companies in the world.

Following Lee’s comments, Jeffrey Pitt, the grandson of Walter and Olive Ann Beech, made a few brief comments and a portrait of the couple was unveiled to be placed in the shrine located in the nearby Museum and Visitors Center by Mary Lynn Oliver, daughter of Walter and Olive Ann Beech, and Jennifer Pitt, granddaughter of Walter and Olive Ann Beech, with assistance from Fonseca.

Following the portrait unveiling descendants of John Daniels, Adam Etheridge, Will Dough, W.C. Brinkley and Johnny Moore, the five eyewitnesses to the first flight, placed wreaths at the base of the boulder marking where the four Dec. 17, 1903 flights took place.