KITTY HAWK, N.C. - In the small town in North Carolina’s Outer Banks where aviation was born on this date 109 years ago, little is the same.
The area once sought out by two brothers from Ohio for its ideal windy weather and relative seclusion is now a popular beach town.
A large memorial now looms over a hill near the air strip the Wright Brothers used on that fateful day. Even the terrain is different. The sandy expanse that Orville Wright launched his flying machine into the air from for 12 seconds at 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, 1903, is now a grassy marshland.
And Monday, the 109th anniversary of that first flight, was a cold, rainy morning – nothing like the sunny ideal conditions that helped enable history more than a century ago.
The weather made a planned flyover impossible. EA-6B Prowlers from Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 1 were slated to join aircraft from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City and numerous civilian planes to pay tribute to the birth of an era in this year, the centennial of Marine aviation.
But the Marine Corps was honored in a different way – retired Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. was this year’s inductee into the First Flight Society’s Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine.
Bolden’s remarkable career includes flying more than 100 combat sorties in the Vietnam War, serving as an astronaut, where he flew four times in the space shuttle, serving as commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and now heading NASA, where he oversaw the conclusion of the space shuttle program and the successful launch of a vehicle on Mars.
“I see myself as a representative of Marine aviation,” said Bolden. “It’s quite an honor because of the people you’re joining in the shrine.”
As its newest inductee, the general joined the ranks of men and women like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong.
“I think he stacks up pretty well. We honored Neil Armstrong when he made it to the moon. I think Charlie Bolden represents making it to another planet,” said Geneva Perry, the president of the First Flight Society, a group dedicated to preserving the history of Kitty Hawk and the first powered flight. “From the sands at Kill Devil Hills, to the moon, and now to Mars. And as we are recognizing the centennial of Marine aviation, it seemed appropriate that our honoree be a Marine.”
Modern aviation has grown leaps and bounds since the Wright Brothers flew 120 feet in a flyer made of spruce wood and canvas.
“I can’t in my wildest imagination believe the Wright Brothers had a clue how much their 12-second flight would change the world,” Perry said.
Just last month at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., the Marine Corps activated the first operational F-35B Lightning II squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121.
“It’s so appropriate for the Marine Corps to be rolling out the newest generation of aircraft in the F-35 in our 100th year,” Bolden said. “This is the most advanced aircraft the nation has operated since 1903.”
Bolden stressed that the only reason Marine aviation exists is to support the warfighters on the ground. Through that mission, Marine aviators have carved a slice out of aviation history. The members of the First Flight Society agreed.
“Bolden in our eyes represents a part of aviation history,” said Bill Harris, a member of the First Flight Society. “When we honor Marines, we also honor the Wright Brothers.”
Indeed, one of the major changes to the region over the last century has been the prevalence of the Marine Corps in eastern North Carolina.
“All military is family to us. We’re very familiar with seeing the aircraft from Cherry Point fly the skies,” said Perry. “We love them.”