Dayton, Ohio


The “B” was the Wrights’ first production model. A little over 20 years ago a group of retired aviators, mostly military, completed work on a flying replica of the aircraft. To meet current safety standards and FAA requirements, they had to depart from several aspects of the original design. For example, today’s “B” Flyer has a stronger frame and a more powerful engine than the one that flew at Huffman Prairie in 1911. But it still cruises at 60 miles per hour or less. For a $150 donation to the organization that operates and maintains the airplane, you can strap in alongside the pilot, with goggles, helmet, and headset. As you taxi out, the wind and noise are fierce—and thrilling. The flight itself is brief. Because of insurance requirements, the operators say, you must take off, fly, and land all while still over the runway. From the ground it appears that the aircraft doesn’t go that high. But the view from on board, with nothing separating you from the slipstream, makes for a very different, and lasting, impression.

A fitting end to a Dayton journey is where the Wrights ended theirs. Woodland Cemetery is an inviting place, established as an arboretum as well as a burial ground. It’s rocky and hilly, the highest point in Dayton, with the city’s skyline stretched out below. Jim Sandegren, director of horticulture for the cemetery, speaks with authority about the rich flora of the grounds and the site’s geology and history. But he also refers knowingly to the principles of three-axis control in flight. That reflects the breadth of his knowledge, but it’s an indication as well of how Daytonians now understand and appreciate what the Wright brothers achieved.

Most of Dayton’s better-known residents are buried at Woodland, including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edward and Edith Deeds, and the humorist Erma Bombeck. Dunbar’s grave marker includes some lines from one of his dialect poems. “Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,” it begins, “Whah de branch ’ll go a-singin’ as it pass.” And Jim Sandegren has heeded the poet by planting a willow tree near his grave. At the Wright family plot, Wilbur and Orville lie with their sister Katharine between them. The gravestones are unadorned. A monument bears the Wright name, and individual markers give only names and dates. There’s nothing on the stones to indicate that the people buried there accomplished anything unusual, but as I stood there paying my respects, I heard the loud whine of jet engines. I looked up to see a big C-141 military transport headed for the Air Force base that bears the same name as the one I saw before me.