Contact: Glenda Powell
NOAA News Releases 2003
NOAA Home Page
NOAA Public Affairs

The Wright Brothers Help NOAA Show the Way

Wilbur ran alongside the huge flying machine – doing what he could to help stabilize the craft, using only his bare hands while his brother Orville wrestled with the contraption’s primitive controls. Finally, amid chilly December winds their invention took flight amid the swirling sand from the Kill Devil Hills dunes and cheers from the crowd.

That historic 12-second flight on December 17, 1903 was the first of many by Wilbur and Orville Wright. Today, we fly for hours using technological advances the Wright Brothers could only imagine. Everyday millions of people take flight, confident that the pilot will guide them safely to their destination. But safe navigation within the National Airspace System begins well before the pilot even touches the planes controls; it begins with the runway.

The airport runway plays a major role in the safe navigation. Pilots and air traffic controllers use the runway to guide planes for safe departures and arrivals, but not many people understand the amount of work and preparation that it takes to ensure the safety of passengers.

The Aeronautical Survey Program (ASP) administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides highly accurate position, height, and orientation information needed for safe air navigation. Part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey (NGS) has been performing aeronautical surveys since the 1920's. These surveys provide critical information about airport features and about obstructions and aids to navigation. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses this information to establish airport approach and departure procedures, determine maximum takeoff weights, update aeronautical publications, and for airport planning and construction studies.

Another air travel safety program administered by NOAA’s geodetic experts is Safe Flight 21. This pilot program between NOAA and the FAA will create Geographic Information System (GIS) data layers for 60 airports. The data will provide an airport layout diagram to pilots, air traffic controllers, apron controllers, surface vehicle operators, construction/maintenance crews, emergency/security personnel, commercial and cargo airline operations personnel, and general and business aviation operations personnel information. Knowing the multi-layered location and orientation of runways, taxiways, stands, and more helps develop standardized airport mapping databases and promotes safe, efficient surface movements.

No one understands the importance of these programs better than Dave Doyle, chief geodetic surveyor for NOAA, who has performed many of these surveys. “Like the invisible foundation and framework of a sky scraper, the geodetic survey measurements in support of the National Air Space System ensure the integrity and safety of air, land and sea navigation systems,” said Doyle.

These two programs would never exist if it were not for the initial flight of the Wright Brothers. It was their vision and diligence that paved the way for all of the technological advances and conveniences we enjoy today. In honor of the 100th anniversary of their historic flight, the NOAA’s geodetic survey team will set a 12-inch commemorative marker at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. This marker will be set among seven other markers on the Outer Banks, including two set by the Coast Survey, predecessor to NGS, in 1848 that are among the oldest surviving geodetic survey monuments in the United States.

A significant piece of American history, the Wright Brothers were the forefathers of human flight, helping to expand peoples’ minds and showing everyone that dreams can come true. NOAA is one of many agencies that work to make certain that their dream lives on today. It is our mission to provide accurate and safe navigation, contributing to better public safety, economic prosperity, and environmental well-being.

NOAA's National Ocean Service is dedicated to exploring, understanding, conserving and restoring the nation’s coasts and oceans. It balances environmental protection with economic prosperity in fulfilling its mission of promoting safe navigation, supporting coastal communities, sustaining coastal habitats and mitigating coastal hazards.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

On the Web:


NOAA National Ocean Service:

Wright Brothers visit:
or call Glenda Powell, NOAA, 301-713-3066 Ext 191