Celebrating 50 Years of Kitty Hawk Kites

By Molly Harrison | Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Thanks to the Wright brothers, the Outer Banks will always be associated with the history of flight. But when it comes to keeping the spirit of flight alive on the Outer Banks in the 21st century, we can thank Kitty Hawk Kites.

Founded in 1974 with a mission to share the joy of flying, Kitty Hawk Kites is the largest hang-gliding school in the country and has branched out to offer other flight-related activities like kiteboarding, parasailing, aero tours, kite competitions and festivals, and even flights on a replica of the Wright brothers’ 1902 glider. In 2024 Kitty Hawk Kites is celebrating its 50th year in business, and the festivities kick off this weekend.

How It All Started

As an engineer working in Winston-Salem in 1973, Kitty Hawk Kites co-founder John Harris saw a photograph in the Winston-Salem Journal of a man flying an early prototype of the hang glider.

“That was an epiphany for me,” Harris says. “I’d always wanted to fly and here was a simple flying machine. I literally couldn’t think about anything else.”

Harris tracked down the man in the photo and had him ship a hang glider to North Carolina. He and his friends figured out how to fly it on the dunes of Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head, employing techniques similar to those the Wright brothers used when they were learning to fly here. Harris was immediately hooked.

“The feeling of flying a hang glider was even better than I expected,” he says. “I knew this was really something.”

In the summer of 1974 Harris and his friend Ralph Buxton opened Kitty Hawk Kites, a hang gliding school in Nags Head. Homebase was in a garage across the street from Jockey’s Ridge, and they gave their lessons on the dunes. Being that the sport was only two years old, no one really knew what they were doing, but their highly visible location attracted attention, and customers came. That same summer, Harris drew more attention to the sport by being the first person to hang glide off North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain.

Photo: John Harris prepares to launch from Grandfather Mountain outside of Boone, NC on July 13, 1974.

Over the next 50 years Kitty Hawk Kites expanded to the six recreational centers and 28 retail stores they operate today. The hang gliding school has taught more than 400,000 students, annually training between 6,000 to 10,000 students between their two locations at Jockey’s Ridge and at the Cotton Gin in Currituck County. Kitty Hawk Kites also operates Morningside Flight Park in New Hampshire, where they offer hang gliding instruction, tandem hang gliding instruction, paragliding, power paragliding, camping and tree-top zipline tours.

“We teach more people to fly than anybody else in the world,” Harris says. "And we are also the largest producers of hang gliding instructors in the world

Kitty Hawk Kites has trained more than 1,200 instructors, who then spread out all over the country and world to teach others to fly.

“It’s been an honor that we’ve been able to continue to teach people to fly and glide,” Harris says.

Harris is always quick to point out that none of this could have happened without Francis and Gertrude Rogallo’s invention of the flexible wing, which made it possible for the general population to enjoy hang gliding, kiteboarding, paragliding, parasailing, kite flying and other types of flight-related activities. He also points out that he never did any of this alone. “It’s been a huge team effort,” he says.

Harris says he is especially grateful to Kitty Hawk Kites’ 49-year partnership with Jockey’s Ridge State Park and for all the help he has had from people like his original partner, Ralph Buxton, his wife, Sandra Allen, and longtime staff members Sandra Bull, Sandra Schawang, Billy Vaughn, Johnny Thompson and so many more.

Photo: Kitty Hawk Kites' founders Ralph Buxton (left) and John Harris.

Along the way, Kitty Hawk Kites has been a huge supporter of the Outer Banks community.

“I grew up in a rural farming area with a strong sense of community, watching neighbors helping neighbors,” Harris says. “I have always believed in giving back wherever we can.”

Kitty Hawk Kites contributes to countless causes on the Outer Banks with a focus on preserving places for outdoor recreation with organizations like N.C. Coastal Land Trust, N.C. Coastal Federation, North Carolina Friends of State Parks and Grandfather Mountain. Another of Harris’ main missions now is the Rogallo Foundation and finding a way to build the Rogallo Museum through that nonprofit foundation.

Harris says the value of the last 50 years has been all about recreation and fun.

“There is tremendous joy in being outside and interacting with the wind,” Harris says. “Not only is it exhilarating, but it also changes your outlook and gives you more confidence. If you can fly, you can do anything.”

Looking back over the last 50 years, Harris is first and foremost feeling grateful.

“I’m grateful to the Outer Banks community for all their support these last 50 years, especially in the beginning,” he says. “Without the local community early on, we would not have made it. I’m also very grateful for the hang gliding community that has supported us all these years.”

Celebrate with Kitty Hawk Kites at the 52nd Annual Hang Gliding Spectacular

This weekend, May 16 to 19, is the kickoff to Kitty Hawk Kites’ 50th anniversary celebrations. The highlight of the weekend is Kitty Hawk Kites’ 52nd Annual Hang Gliding Spectacular, a homecoming-style event with fun competitions and side events.

“People from all over country who learned to fly here and worked here are coming back to the place where it all started,” Harris says. One such returnee is Tom Haddon, Kitty Hawk Kites' third hang gliding instructor and the winner of the 1980 U.S. Hang Gliding Association national title. Haddon was one of the people who was helpful in getting Kitty Hawk Kites going.

All weekend there will be competitions for hang gliders and also opportunities for spectators to watch the competitions. The public is invited to all of these free events.

Photo: Targeted landings on Jockey's Ridge are part of the Hang Gliding Spectacular competitions.

Thursday, May 16

Towing Competitions at The Cotton Gin in Jarvisburg - Watch towing competitors all day long. Fliers will compete for how much time they can spend aloft and in target landings. Spectators can park in old Cotton Gin parking lot.

50th Anniversary Celebration at Jennette's Pier in Nags Head. A social celebration with refreshments and entertainment begins at 5 p.m. At 6 p.m. there will be an inspiring talk with guest speaker John Jacobs, co-founder of Life is Good. “Life Is Good has been partners of Kitty Hawk Kites for 25 years now,” Harris says. “We have Life Is Good shops, and also our values are closely aligned. Their mission is to spread the power of optimism, and our mission is to teach the world to fly. Their message is positive and uplifting, and that is what we try to do too.”

Friday, May 17

Dune Competitions at Jockey’s Ridge State Park: From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., you can watch competitions on the slalom course and target landings.

Hang Gliding Film Festival at Kitty Hawk Kites: From 7:30 to 10 p.m. watch hang gliding films in remembrance of Bobby Bailey, Steve Wendt and Mark Vander Galien.

Saturday, May 18

Dune Competitions at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Woody Jones Memorial Street Dance at Kitty Hawk Kites at 7 p.m. There will be live music by The Barons, a band from Charlottesville. Everyone is invited, and it’s free.

Sunday, May 19

Dune Competitions at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Rogallo Foundation Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Community Room at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Three inductees for the Hall of Fame are David Barrish, Paul Voight and Peter Brock. Voight and Brock will speak and there will be a video about Barrish.

Awards Celebration, Kitty Hawk Kites, 4 p.m. Martin Palmaz, executive director of the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, will speak and there there will be awards for the weekend’s competitions.

Share Your Kitty Hawk Kites Stories

Over the last 50 years, Kitty Hawk Kites has touched a lot of lives, and they are collecting stories and photos of memories that have been made with Kitty Hawk Kites. The stories and photos they collect will be published in a 50th anniversary commemorative book in 2024. Everyone is encouraged to share their memories. They've made it easy to submit your stories here.

What’s Next?

Kitty Hawk Kites will be celebrating at every event they host this year. For a list of upcoming events, go here. You can also purchase 50th anniversary logo merchandise like kites, t-shirts, caps and other souvenirs at all locations of Kitty Hawk Kites. If you can’t make it to any of the events this year, be sure to follow Kitty Hawk Kites' socials to see all the fun that's going on: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube.

Photo: Kitty Hawk Kites is selling commemorative 50th anniversary merch like t-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, drinkware and more.

Fifty years of business is a momentous occasion, and it’s not a milestone Harris imagined he would ever reach.

“It happened very quickly, I can tell you that,” Harris says. “I thought I’d be retired by now, long retired. But something is still driving me, and I have more to do. The number one thing is that it’s still fun, and I very much enjoy what we’re doing. We are trying to provide uplifting experiences for our customers and create lifetime memories. It's very joyful from my standpoint. I feel drawn and compelled to keep doing it.”

About the Author Molly Harrison
Molly Harrison is managing editor at OneBoat, publisher of OuterBanksThisWeek.com. She moved to Nags Head in 1994 and since then has made her living writing articles and creating publications about the people, places and culture of the Outer Banks.