Builders and Shapers: First Flight Foundation

Builders and Shapers: First Flight Foundation

May 16th, 2023

If there is one date that is associated with the Outer Banks more than any other, it has to be December 17, 1903.

The day a pair of bicycle-building brothers from southwest Ohio launched humankind into the air at Big Kill Devil Hill.

Nearly 120 years later, the hallowed grounds of Wright Brothers National Memorial attracts visitors from around the world to learn the story of those first forays into flight.

Formed in 1995 to partner with the National Park Service for the centennial celebration of that historic day, the First Flight Foundation now works to preserve, protect, influence, advocate, educate and collaborate to champion the legacy of the Wright brothers.

The foundation’s Executive Director, Karen Warlinter, details the past, present and future of telling the stories of two Builders and Shapers of the Greater Outer Banks.

Who do you serve, and how? When and why was your nonprofit created?

We serve the public, without boundaries, across a myriad of interests and organizations. The stories of Wilbur and Orville Wright and building the airplane (Flyer, to use their original terminology) via research and development into the secret-to-science of flight, are neither limited to history nor aviation. These stories are life and business stories filled with trials and lessons across decades and centuries. Tragedy. Illness and death. Adversary. After 120 years, the work of the Wrights continues to astonish and challenge us.

We champion the passion of aviation and pursuit of development and applications. Our largest current project is primarily directed toward the Wrights’ North Carolina story while simultaneously formalizing initiatives for the 2028 125th Anniversary of the First Flight and the 2032 100th Commemoration of the Monument at WBNM.

Our strategic initiatives include:

  • Preservation and Protection of the Wrights’ Legacy
  • Influence and Advocacy: Leverage Foundation accomplishments and relationships to communicate the Wright brothers’ story.
  • Education: Share the Wright brothers’ story in a manner that inspires the public and deepens the understanding of the brothers’ accomplishments.
  • Collaboration and Partnership: Identify and build local, national, and international relationships to advance our mission.
Orville Wright takes off in the first flight of the 1903 flyer as Wilbur Wright assists.

Since 1996, the foundation has raised funds for the Centennial Celebration, improvements to facilities at the park, two renovations of the memorial pylon atop Big Kill Devil Hill, and numerous events that honor the Wright Brothers legacy and have featured pioneers and innovators across aviation.

The foundation has received the “Franco Mazzotti” Mille Miglia Club Foundation prize for “Courageous Intelligence-Intelligent Courage” in honor of Orville and Wilbur Wright; Combs-Gates Award of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, 2008, for the second restorative program of the monument, and nomination for the Director’s Cooperative Conservation Award External Category.

For the last 11 years, the foundation has provided four-to-eight hours per week of volunteer support at the National Park Service Wright Brothers National Memorial visitor via front desk services, hosting special programs, public engagement, partnership projects, and working annual events such as National Aviation Day and the December 17 commemoration.

According to Scott Babinowich, NPS Outer Banks Group Chief of Interpretation, Warlitner is one of the few, or only executive directors/staff of a NPS park partner that works as a NPS volunteer on-site/hands-on in the park as a component of its relationship.

Karen Warlinter. [submitted photo]
Working in the park is invaluable to staying updated on park needs and programs and contributing to the park’s and Foundation’s mission of honoring the Wrights and sharing the story of First Flight and aviation history and the coordination of related entities with Outer Banks history and this unique feature of North Carolina history and aviation/aerospace industry.

It never fails to amaze, or reinforce, the power of the Wrights work – we see it every day at the Memorial; from children who have studied the Wrights in school, pilots, civilian and military, veterans (a special group), aviation mechanics, and NASA.

Aviation enthusiasts are found across all age groups and genres of society without limits of geographical boundary. The First Flight photo is one of the most recognized photographs in the world.

And if you are traveling and say you are from Kitty Hawk, the response is often, “Oh, the Wright Brothers!”

The Wrights’ work is applicable across varied perspectives. It’s truly humbling to watch the reaction of our military pilots, who fly high-tech aircraft g-intricate maneuvers performing, when they first see the 1903 Flyer.

They remark, “Yes, we have aeronautical resources and technology including simulators. But the Wright brothers, we can only do what we do because of them. They figured it out and they taught us to fly. And they had to figure it out, literally “on the fly”.
Many visitors to WBNM remark that they would like to try to fly the 1903; rarely is that visitor a pilot. As one pilot noted, “regardless of our training, few, if any of us, have the guts to try to fly their aircraft.”

The world meets at Wright Brothers National Memorial. Coming to Wright Brothers National Memorial is a lifelong dream for many, nationally and internationally. To be on the grounds where the First Flight happened. To walk the flight line where the Wrights flew. Many tears stream down the faces of visitors at WBNM.

The Foundation has supported several aviation events and projects across the state and around the country as well as several historic moments celebrated at WBNM. Support includes funding, program support, volunteer services, research and research materials, fact-checking, collaboration, and partnership.

In 2021 the Foundation assisted Zara Rutherford’s stop at First Flight Airstrip during her successful attempt to solo around the world as the youngest woman to do so. In 2022, the Foundation supported her brother, Mack Rutherford, in his successful attempt to be the youngest man to solo around the world.

For Zara, the Foundation provided hospitality and ran point with the public, NPS, and media and assisting in incidentals with her team, notably, Lyndse Costabile of FunD Av Consulting. For Mack, the Foundation team hosted Mack with accommodations, provided fuel for the airplane, sundries, media, and public relations support, and NPS assistance.

The Foundation has supported taking the Wright Brothers and Wright Brothers National Memorial to the stars.

In July 2019, the Foundation sponsored the NASA astronaut appearance and served as the event director of ceremony for “One Giant Leap’”, the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary celebration at WBNM. The Foundation also managed the on-site appearance of the NASA astronaut.

In 2021, the Foundation worked with the History Channel’s “The UnXplained with William Shatner” for the episode on Genius. The Foundation provided the expert speakers, Darrell Collins, retired NPS WBNM historian and founder of A Legacy of Greatness, and Chip Walton, Wright historian/pilot; coordinated permitting, scheduling, and filming with NPS including on-site crowd assistance; and provided advance research and materials with the California production company Prometheus.

In 2022, the Foundation worked with Bob Balaram of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory developing the concept materials and initial meetings for the NASA-NPS WBNM National Aviation Day event of the Wrights/1903 Flyer and NASA INGENUITY parallels. Balaram was the chief engineer for the Ingenuity helicopter which is the first-powered aircraft to make flights on another planet. The Foundation subsequently has worked with his daughter on a documentary.

Bob Balaram is the originator of the concept that became the Ingenuity helicopter, and Chief Engineer during its development, test and operations. Ingenuity is seen at Wright Brothers Field on Mars after its historic first flight on April 19, 2021. [courtesy NASA/JPL]
What’s makes the First Flight Foundation unique?
The Foundation’s origin was fundraising and applicable elements for a significant historical and cultural celebration, the “Event of a Lifetime”, the Centennial of Flight.

Taking the lessons and knowledge learned during that process, we were humbled to realize how much of the story remained to be told, and the number of stories to be told and lessons applicable to all of our lives. We evolved to Champion the Legacy of the Wrights and aviation with fluidity.

We removed expected, narrowly focused projects and collaborations and engaged in not only outreach of partners but have engaged new and diverse initiatives.

Like many historical events we learned in school, “we all know” or “we believe” we know the story”. But 120 years after the First Flight, the discovery of the “secrets of flight”, the origin of powered aviation continues to enthrall across generations.

There are so many questions: How it happened? Who were the Wrights? The tragedies in their lives. The attempts to smear/malign/discredit the Wrights and their work; this continues today. The criticism of their fierce defense of their patents. The dishonest people who tried to capitalize on their work. The media “getting the Wrights wrong since 1903″.

While we are currently focused on the North Carolina story project with the building of the Wright 1908 and related work with the N.C. Museum of History, we have ancillary projects across the state, country and internationally.

The American Story chapters: Acknowledgment to Millville, Indiana, Wilbur’s birthplace; the family foundation and life in Dayton, Ohio; the hospitality and perfect conditions of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; and the aviation school in Montgomery, Alabama.

The World Story early chapters: Wilbur launches he and Orville into international celebrities demonstrating their aircraft and flying skill in France, Italy, Great Britain. Orville’s subsequent flights in Europe.

What’s new? What are your upcoming events or initiatives?

  • N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh – Commission and building a reproduction Wright 1908 Aircraft for the coming Wright Gallery; exhibit content development; assisting temporary relocation of three Wright aircraft reproductions during museum expansion; assisting fundraising and outreach with sponsors for museum exhibits; curating a traveling exhibit and a “History In A Box” exhibit available for loan to educational institutions.
  • Final stage of a documentary
  • A pending collaboration with an aviation museum in France
  • 2024 NAA Electric Airplane Race, the return of the Pulitzer Prize: the multi-day and cross county race concludes at Dare County Regional Airport. We are serving as the Expo project manager and site liaison, and other duties as assigned.
Tactile model of the 1903 Wright Flyer that sits in the Flight Room of the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center. NPS Photo.

What’s makes the First Flight Foundation unique?
Like many historical events, “we all know”, and especially those in our own backyard. We “believe” we know the story.

But 120 years after the First Flight, the actual “secrets of flight” discovered, the legacy of modern aviation – we are still enthralled with the story.

There are so many stories: How it happened. Who were the Wrights. The tragedies in their lives. The attempts to smear/malign/discredit the Wrights and their work. The criticism of their fierce defense of their patents. The dishonest people who tried to capitalize on their work. The media getting it wrong since 1903 (a whole book can be written right there).

The story of the Wrights and the development of aviation will continue to create wonder. So many only think they came here in December 1903. They do not know about 1900, 1901, the significance of 1902.

What they actually discovered and patented-the control operating system and three axis control (pitch, roll, and yaw) which is the basis of all aviation including satellites, drones, even submarines.

That is the “a-ha moment” that in 1908 they came back to test and perfected here. Then make America’s first passenger flights on May 14, 1908, and the 1911 world record soaring glides, when they went ack to the basics of flight to determine the issue of stability.

That is the North Carolina story of the Wrights, not just one day in December 1903. We continue to learn untold stories of history. We are working to make sure the North Carolina story is told and work to do such with projects of longevity and permanence.

What else would you like readers to know (perhaps an interesting insight or heartwarming story)?
I have had many wonderful opportunities I could never have anticipated. I have had the privilege of working with Wright authorities Dr. Tom Crouch, Dr. Peter Jakab, Rick Young, and Darrell Collins, who are now friends. And Dr. Bob Balaram, NASA JPL, and his family are dear friends.

While working on research for the 1908 commission, Rick Young, Wright Historian and Wright aircraft reproduction expert, handed me a pair of white gloves and a box of Orville Wright’s original papers including letters and notebook. After dealing with being awestruck, I got lost in reading the original documents-while covered in goosebumps.

2019 The Wings of Freedom/Collings Foundation held a two-day event at Raleigh Durham International Airport. It is always an honor to meet our veterans, regardless of service branch or position in the military. As we continue to say “goodbye” to members of The Greatest Generation”, we should treasure the opportunity to meet them and listen to their stories. It is so moving to witness these veterans meeting each other. They tell the best, and often most colorful, stories.

During the event there were many great first-time meetings between WWII veterans and veterans across the various engagements. But it was two WWII pilots who are most remembered. They met for the first time on the tarmac by planes which they had flown.
When they reminisce, they go back in time not only in place but in age to when they served.

These two pilots still had some “fight” in them as the stories became an argument over whose plane was the fastest, the most lethal, and the prettiest!

The Foundation has been a sponsor for years for the Candy Bomber program in Manteo organized by Karin Edmond. We had the privilege to set a dinner for Col. Gail Halvorsen and his family during on his last visit in a home provided by Village Realty.

The Hilton Garden Inn donated a prime rib dinner with all the trimmings for the family and crew. My two volunteers and I got an hour of private time with Col. Halvorsen, an experience I will treasure for my lifetime. He was such a kind man with a soul of giving.

As a sponsor of the Candy Drop, we had the opportunity for a flight on the original Spirit of Freedom C-54. They miscalculated the number of seats so I was put in the jump seat between pilot, Tim Choppin, and co-pilot.

The experience itself was amazing, but I cried when we flew to Wright Brothers National Memorial and circled the monument.

On Dec. 17, the Spirit of Freedom landed at First Flight Airstrip, the largest aircraft to land and takeoff from the airstrip.
Col. Halvorsen did not wait for the mobile stairs; he came down the ladder at age 99. He told us, “I’ve done this more times than anyone here.”

Then there is the 94-year-old World War II veteran who was finally visiting Wright Brothers National Memorial. He inquired about setting a record.

He was traversing the country with his family marking off his bucket list. They began their journey at Pearl Harbor where he, as his grand-daughter said, received his medals for his service in the war.

When he came into the visitor center, he asked if we wanted to see his knees. He pulled up his cargo shorts to show us the redness of his kneecaps-he had just climbed atop the sculpture of the First Flight, south of the monument.

He did this solo. He had to have the picture “flying” beside Orville.

He wanted to know the age of the oldest person to climb aboard the sculpture. I shared that we did not keep such records, but I only knew that an 88-year young woman was helped aboard by her grandsons.

He said that was great, but he did it solo and he was 94 and to make sure we tell people he had the record.

Kids give us great stories too.

The sister, age 12, and brother, age 10, were diligently working on their Junior Ranger books to earn their Junior Ranger badge.

When asked if they were interested in aviation careers, the brother said, “She wants to be a pilot. I’m going to be an aeronautical engineer and mechanic. We will serve together. I’ll be her engineer/mechanic-she will owe me for everything!”

Then there is a 7-year-old Mark who ran into the WBNM visitor center, slammed his hands on the desk and hurriedly asked “Where is it?”
His t-shirt was emblazoned with a plane so we pointed to the Flight Room and off he ran.

His family were a few feet behind him. Little brother, Josh, age 5, was wearing a dinosaur t-shirt. He was unhappy to be at the memorial as his brother had gotten three vacations and he only had one.

Josh complained that Mark got to come to First Flight and the Smith Place (Smithsonian is a large word for a 5-year-old)-the family had visited the Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Udvar-Hazy Center. Josh had only gotten to go to the Natural Science Museum.

A couple of hours later the mother came to the desk asking if we had seen Mark – he had gotten away from them.
She was very calm and not alarmed, unlike those of us at the desk who were immediately energized and motivated to find a 7-year-old amongst the thousand-plus visitors on a busy July day at the Memorial.

I found Mark lying on the floor in the Flight Room – arms outstretched – under the 1902 glider (now on display at NC Museum of History in Raleigh).

I asked him why he was there and what he was doing. The innocence and honesty of a child. “Ma’am, I am flying like Orville. And this isn’t my first museum. I know I can’t get onboard the real one”.

And then there is perspective that came during the 2019 One Giant Leap, the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 celebration at WBNM.
Our special guest and speaker were NASA Astronaut Eric Boe, Colonel USAF Ret, and pilot of the Space Shuttle Discovery’s last mission.

That evening, after a full, hot July day, and thanks to the monument’s maintenance department who provided transportation from the visitor center to the top of the hill, we made it to the monument base 90 seconds prior to the International Space Station flying overhead.

At the time aboard the ISS was N.C.’s own Christina Koch, who was in the process of setting the record for the longest period in space by a woman and who has since been tapped to be the first woman to step foot on the moon aboard a future Artemis mission.

It was an experience of amazement to stand on the base of the monument alongside an astronaut and watch the ISS pass over the Outer Banks.

After watching the ISS pass over, “our entourage” gave Boe some quiet, alone time. He walked around the base and then sat down by the obelisk topped by the bust of Orville.

After 20 minutes we asked if he was ready to climb to the top of the monument, a special gift from NPS. Taking a second walk around the base, Boe shared that this moment and the day was one of the best experiences in his life and career.

When one of our team noted that he was an astronaut and had flown in space, Boe shared “Yes, that was special, but this place was home. He was a pilot first, and this place was in the heart of every pilot.”

That truly puts things in perspective.

Karen never knows what, or what calls, will come into the office.

We have been asked to donate Wright reproductions to newly forming aviation museums in Romania and India. As we are not in the business of providing aircraft and do not own such, we did provide Wright Brothers materials and “historical care packages” of 2003 Centennial swag.

We have received and accommodated several speaking requests. We are uncertain of our response to, “well, if you are ever in London….?”

We field a lot of emails and calls from people interested in connecting with Amanda Wright Lane, our board member. Most of these contacts are inquiries are people claiming to be descendants of the Wright brothers.

One individual reported knowing a lot about DNA testing and insisted the Wright family provide him with DNA testing.

An individual claimed familial relationship based on extensive photographic evidence of photos of Wilbur Wright, specifically his high and large forehead as all of their family photos across multiple generations show the same shape and large size.

The most interesting claim of lineage was directly to Orville’s family-as the individual stated that their family records held that he moved to Russia for a while and had 10 children.

We share all such inquiries with the family and noted Wright historians/experts. Yes, there is a file for just this subject.

I share these with Amanda and Dr. Tom Crouch, now retired, Senior Curator Emeritus-Smithsonian Air & Space. They both keep files of these claims.

For more information on the First Flight Foundation:

In conjunction with the Outer Banks Community Foundation and the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, WOBX has launched “Builders and Shapers: Nonprofits for a Greater Outer Banks” a weekly series featuring the nonprofits that serve our area. They share details about how they are working to make northeastern North Carolina and the Outer Banks a better place to live, work and play.

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