- Historic Sites
A town forced to earn its living by its wits from the very beginning—most spectacularly through the work of two young bicycle mechanics—and now remaking itself into a Colonial Williamsburg of the industrial age, this year’s Great American Place is
October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
After the 1905 flying season the Wrights ceased their flights for several years while they worked to secure m patents and customers for their invention. After that they flew in a number of other places, including back at Kitty Hawk. But in 1910 they returned to Huffman Prairie. By this time they had their own aviation company, and it was at the familiar old cow pasture that they flight-tested new models. There they also established a flight school, where 116 men and 3 women learned to fly. Tuition was $250, with the assurance that “contrary to the practice in many aviation schools, the pupil is not held responsible for any breakage to the machine.”
The flying field served as the base for the Wright Company’s flying exhibition team (soon closed by the brothers because the business proved so dangerous, with five out of nine pilots killed in crashes). It was also the starting point for the world’s first commercial flight, carrying 10 bolts of silk to Columbus, for a shipping charge of $5,000, which the customer more than recouped by cutting up the silk and selling the pieces as souvenirs.
Together the Huffman sites form a landmark of natural as well as aviation history. Huffman Prairie is Ohio’s largest remaining tallgrass prairie, a kind of terrain that once extended across much of the region. This was a transitional landscape, full of wildflowers and animal life, between the Eastern woodlands and the vast Western prairies. Go there now to commune not only with the Wright brothers but also with Indian grass and big bluestem grass, bobolinks and sedge wrens, deer, foxes, and woodchucks. The Wrights’ flying field took up only about 84 acres of the prairie. Unlike some neighboring farmers’ fields, this one had inadequate drainage for cultivation, so it served just as a pasture, which was the reason it was available to the Wrights. In later years the mammoth Wright-Patterson Air Force Base grew up all around it, but proximity to runways at the Air Force base and the field’s location in a floodplain still precluded development.
The U.S. Air Force Museum’s collection is not all military; it covers the whole epic of flight.
Today the field is officially preserved as a compact historic enclave on the Air Force base’s property, but it’s still open to the public. The plan is to keep it as pristine as possible. The only structure is a replica Wright brothers 1905 hangar. A more imposing memorial can be found on a hill overlooking the flying field. The 17-foot obelisk there is made, fittingly, of pink North Carolina granite, from the same quarry that was the source for the Wright monument at Kitty Hawk. Orville Wright was present when the Dayton memorial was dedicated, on his birthday in 1940. Around the shaft are plaques. One points toward the flying field; one lists the pilots who trained there; one points toward the military base; and a fourth points toward a cluster of early Native American burial mounds. “Thus,” says a publication issued by the Air Force base, “the significance of the memorial truly reaches across the millennia.” The surrounding 27-acre park is an appealing wooded setting, designed by the Olmsted brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted. A new Park Service interpretive center is now open on the hilltop.
The Air Force base offers still another attraction for visitors, and what an attraction it is: the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world. In contrast to the secluded Huffman Prairie Flying Field, only a short ride away, the U.S. Air Force Museum is host to nearly 1.5 million visitors each year. I grew up in Cincinnati, just 50 miles south of Dayton, so I’ve visited the museum a lot and watched it grow. By now it has more than 300 aircraft and spacecraft on display. Thanks to its location on the base, the museum has plenty of room for that growth to continue. Just this year a 200,000-square-foot hangar was added to house exhibits devoted to the Cold War era.
People visit aviation museums to see airplanes, and this museum doesn’t disappoint with the quantity and quality of its aircraft collection (see sidebar on pages 62-63). But for me some of the most evocative attractions are the smaller artifacts. The 1903 Wright Flyer may be at the Smithsonian, but the light cotton muslin that covered the left half of its lower wing is here in a climate-controlled glass case. The world’s first fatal airplane accident was in 1908. The pilot, Orville Wright, was seriously injured, and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was killed. The cause of the crash was traced to a split propeller, and here are pieces of that propeller.