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, Ohio.
Dayton Aviation Trail
The Dayton Aviation Trail presents over 16 sights related to man conquering the skies. From the Wright Cycle Company, where the brothers conceived their idea to the world’s first airport at the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the largest museum devoted to military flight in the world, a visitor can take in a wide range of aviation history.
Start out in the West Side neighborhood of Dayton 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 is still standing.
The Visitor’s Center provides a timeline for Wilbur and Orville’s development of the airplane, from conception to the working model they flew at Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina. (Not at Kitty Hawk as is commonly taught, that was just the nearest village.)
Aviation Trail Parachute Museum
It didn’t take too long in the early days of rickety flying machines for pilots to realize they needed a way to exit the plane safely in an emergency. The second floor of the Visitor’s 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.
Inside the Wright Cycle Shop, hands-on displays demonstrate how the Wrights transferred bicycle technology to airplanes.
But the legacy of silk lives on, aviators who have to jump from a plane to save their life become members of the Caterpillar Club; pilots Charles Lindbergh, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Doolittle and Neil Armstrong, who had to ditch aircraft twice in his career, are all members.
Huffman Prairie Flying Field: The World’s First Airport
On the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, seven miles east of the Visitor’s Center, sits the remnants of the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, considered to be the first airport in the world. 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 hazards were avoiding curious cows who had roamed over from their pastures nearby.
The wide-open meadow blanketed with prairie grass provided the winds that gave lift to early airplanes, allowing the Wrights to skip the arduous journey to North Carolina. A replica of the 1905 hangar and catapult system for launching planes have been built on the sight. With a little exploration the stone foundations of the original buildings can be found along a walking trail.
The world’s first airport. Look, no baggage lines!
National Museum of the United States Air Force
Also at the base is the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the 17-acres of hangars present more than 360 aerospace vehicles; from airplanes made with spit-and-paper to the latest stealth technology. In military speak it is presented as a “sensory-rich” environment. The museum conveys the remarkable achievement of how mankind tentatively soared from the sands of the Outer Banks then thrust through the boundary of earth’s atmosphere to land on the dusty surface of the moon, all in less than a century.
Despite the surplus of military hardware on parade, one of the most emotional displays is a handmade wooden case full of silver goblets. They commemorate the members of the 1942 Doolittle raid over Tokyo that occurred only four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The names of the crew are inscribed both right side up and upside down, so when it is turned over after he dies his name can still be read properly.
For years the surviving members of the mission got together for an annual toast to remember those who had died. In 2005 they donated the set of goblets to the museum. In 2013, their numbers dwindling, the four surviving Doolittle Raiders reunited for one last 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.
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 29th, 2013.
Do you have any Dayton sites to recommend?