Kitty Hawk Kites has celebrated its 45th anniversary this year. Since then, our mission has been teaching the world to fly! But have you ever wondered how it all started? So we asked John Harris, founder and president of Kitty Hawk Kites, to give us in his words how he started this great company.
“In 1973, I was captivated by a picture of someone flying a hang glider in Utah. Seeing this hang glider reignited in me a passion for flight initially sparked by the joy of building and flying kites as a child on the farm where I grew up in Missouri. By the time I saw that photograph in Winston-Salem Journal, I had moved to North Carolina after graduating from Missouri University of Science & Technology with a Bachelor of Science in Geological Engineering and was working for AT&T as an ocean engineer.
“I had spent all my spare time exploring North Carolina, from the coast to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Inspired by the story of the Wright Brothers, who had traveled to Kitty Hawk for its wind and sand, I just knew Jockey’s Ridge would be the ideal place to learn to fly. I couldn’t imagine a better mountain site than the majestic Grandfather Mountain on the opposite end of the state to fly this portable, inexpensive flying machine, the hang glider, the Rogallo Wing; and all I could think about was how I was truly going to fly!
“Feeling inspired, I bought a mail-order hang glider for about $600 and set off for Jockey’s Ridge to learn to fly with friends. We ran up and down the dunes until we figured it out. Just like the Wright Brothers, we were lifted from the soft sand forgiving sand dunes with nice steady winds and experienced the thrill of personal flight. The experience was even better than I expected so I couldn’t wait to share my passion for flying with everyone. As soon as I flew, I knew I wanted to spend my life Teaching the World to Fly.”
Founding the Business
“In the Spring of 1974, we founded Kitty Hawk Kites, with a business plan that included teaching people to fly and selling hang gliders. We began operating in an old garage with an outhouse across from Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head. We offered hang gliding lessons, sold and repaired hang gliders, and sold T-shirts and kites. Business was tough going and very seasonal, but it was fun and so personally rewarding to see others experience flight for the first time!
“After operating out of the garage for 5 years, we were able to get a loan to build a building for a store location. This is the current flagship location of Kitty Hawk Kites in Nags Head, featuring the Rogallo Tower. We had lots of help and support from the local community, the hang gliding community, and Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, inventors of the flexible wing, who then lived in Southern Shores, NC.”
“Following my dream of a mountain flight from Grandfather Mountain, I asked High Morton, who owned most of the mountain near Boone, for permission to fly off the peak. Thankfully, Mr. Morton granted me permission and on July 13th, 1974, I was the first to fly a hang glider off the beautiful mountain. Mr. Morton fell in love with hang gliding after witnessing my flight and tirelessly promoted it through competitions, his photography, and films. Fortunately for me, he became a lifelong friend and mentor.”
“Kitty Hawk Kites, Inc. has grown to add many more selections to its retail offerings in over 20 stores along the coast of North Carolina, stores in Destin and Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Virginia Beach, Virginia and Morningside Flight Park in New Hampshire. Throughout the years, Kitty Hawk Kites has grown to be the largest brick and mortar kite retailer in the United States, the leading outdoor adventures company on the Outer Banks, the largest Hang Gliding School in the World, and one of the few Kiteboarding Resorts in America. Now, we offer over 25 Adventures, in addition to hang gliding. We still want to Teach the World to Fly; we want to lift people – whether literally in the air on a hang glider – or figuratively by the coolest toy or T-shirt they’ve ever seen!”