Exploring the Wright Stuff in Ohio

The visitor center, near the Wright Cycle Company, is part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
The visitor center, near the Wright Cycle Company, is part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
Posted: December 30, 2013

DAYTON, Ohio - North Carolina license plates proudly declare "First in Flight," while Ohio's offer the competing slogan "Birthplace of Aviation." In this friendly interstate rivalry for bragging rights over the dawn of aviation, who's right or, in this case, Wright?

It's true that Wilbur and Orville Wright were attracted by the windswept dunes of North Carolina's Outer Banks to achieve man's first powered flight. As Orville said in a note, "We came down here for wind and sand and we have got them."

But the ideas and the workmanship deployed for this momentous achievement were nurtured in the city and grassy plains around their hometown of Dayton.

The Dayton Aviation Trail presents more than 16 sights related to man conquering the skies. From the Wright Cycle Company, where the brothers conceived their idea, and the world's first airport at the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force - the largest museum devoted to military flight in the world - a visitor can take in the gamut of aviation history.

Start out in the West Side neighborhood at the Aviation Trail Visitor Center, a unit of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. It's located across a brick plaza from the Wright Cycle Company, one of only two buildings where the Wright brothers worked that are still standing.

The Visitor Center provides a timeline for Wilbur and Orville's development of the airplane, from conception to the working model they flew at Kill Devil Hills, N.C. (not at Kitty Hawk, which was the nearest village). Little-known tidbits about the Wrights are revealed, including the printing press they operated in this building for their business that preceded flight, running the local newspaper called the West Side News.

In the early days of rickety flying machines, it didn't take long for pilots to realize they needed a way to exit the plane safely in an emergency. The second floor of the Visitors Center is devoted to the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum. In the early days, most parachutes were made from silk imported from Japan. World War II put a stop to that trade, and a recent invention called nylon was used.

But the legacy of silk lives on - an aviator who has to jump from a plane to save his or her life becomes a member of the Caterpillar Club. Pilots Charles Lindbergh, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Doolittle, and Neil Armstrong, who had to eject from aircraft twice in his career, are members.

Across the way, the Wright Cycle Company building displays models of the brothers' early bicycles; proceeds from that successful business funded their tinkering with airplanes. It's also where they took off with the development of their Flyer I, the plane that would soar to fame in North Carolina. Interactive displays demonstrate how the brothers' knowledge of bicycle mechanics, including how to lean around a curve, led to their first theories of flight.

On the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, seven miles east of the Visitors Center, is what remains of the Huffman Prairie Flying Field. Although it is adjacent to an active runway, it looks pretty much as it did when the Wrights were flying here near the turn of the last century. Back then, the biggest hazard was avoiding curious cows who had roamed from nearby pastures.

The wide-open meadow blanketed with prairie grass was swept by the winds that gave lift to early airplanes, allowing the Wrights to skip the journey to North Carolina. Replicas of the 1905 hangar and catapult system for launching planes have been built on the site. With a little exploration, the stone foundations of the original buildings can be found along a walking trail.

One of the star students at the Wrights' flying school was West Point graduate Henry "Hap" Arnold, who took to the air so well that he ended up leading the Army Air Forces in World War II.

Also on the base is the Air Force museum - 17 acres of hangars filled with more than 360 aerospace vehicles, from airplanes made with paper to the latest stealth technology.

In military-speak, it is a "sensory-rich" environment. The museum conveys the remarkable achievement of how, in less than 70 years, mankind soared from the sands of the Outer Banks through the boundary of Earth's atmosphere to land on the dusty surface of the moon.

Among the surfeit of military hardware on display, one of the most dramatic artifacts is a handmade wooden case of silver goblets. They commemorate the members of the 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo led by Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle only four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The names of the crew are inscribed both right side up and upside down, so that, when the cup is turned over after the flier dies, his name can still be read properly.

For years, the surviving members of the mission gathered for an annual toast to remember those who had died. In 2005, they donated the set of goblets to the museum. This year, their numbers dwindling, the four surviving Doolittle Raiders reunited for one last reunion and sip of brandy.

The final leg of the Dayton Aviation Trail touches down at Woodland Cemetery, where the Wright brothers are buried in a family plot alongside their sister, Katharine, the only one of the three Wright siblings to graduate from college.

Overhead, a C-17 Globemaster III, a four-engine Air Force cargo plane, roared as it practiced takeoffs and landings. One wonders how excited the Wright brothers would have been about the advances made to their technology.


milnespg@gmail.com

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