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In the Footsteps of Giants

The Aviation Heritage of Dayton, Ohio

By Hal Bryan

October 8, 2015 - About a million aviation enthusiasts make the trek to Dayton, Ohio, each year to visit the National Museum of the United States Air Force, an institution that, thanks to the addition of a new building, is about to become 25 percent more remarkable. What many of those people don’t realize is that the greater Dayton area is full of more aviation history than it knows what to do with. Until now, that is, thanks to the creation of the first and only National Aviation Heritage Area (NAHA), under the auspices of the acronym-sharing National Aviation Heritage Alliance.  

The Alliance is a volunteer organization made up of representatives from the multiple sites that comprise the Heritage Area, and is itself a textbook example of how disparate groups can — and must — work together to promote aviation and preserve its history. While the acronyms and partnerships can easily become stupefyingly complex, the underlying idea is simple: If you come to the area to see one attraction, the Air Force Museum, for example, they’re going to make sure that you know about the others in the area. For the marketers among you, it’s cross-promotion 101. For the rest of us, it’s a valuable service that helps ensure that we don’t miss the rich and fascinating aviation history the area has to offer.

In the interest of full disclosure, about a dozen of us were in the area recently as guests of the Alliance, and given a two-and-a-half day whirlwind tour of several of the participating locales, including:

  • The aforementioned National Museum of the United States Air Force and its restoration center, home to more than 360 aircraft, spacecraft, and missiles, and the collocated The National Aviation Hall of Fame. We were privileged to be on hand for the ceremonial arrival of the first artifact in their fourth hangar, the North American X-15A-2.
  • Historic Grimes Field, home of the famous twin Beech known as the Grimes Flying Lab and the Champaign Aviation Museum, whose collection includes a C-47, a B-25, and a B-17G that they are restoring (building, really) to flying condition. 
  • The WACO Air Museum in Troy, Ohio, home to a terrific collection of WACO aircraft and artifacts.
  • Carillon Park, which houses an amazing collection of Wright artifacts, including the breathtaking 1905 Flyer III, generally considered the first practical airplane, whose restoration and display was overseen by Orville Wright himself.
  • The beautifully preserved mansion at Hawthorn Hill, a home designed and built by the Wrights. Wilbur passed away shortly before the home was completed, but Orville lived there for the final 35 years of his life, along with other members of the Wright family.
  • The Wright Company Factory Site, which will be opened to the public in 2016. The Wright Company built around 120 aircraft in these buildings between 1910 and 1915. It was dark and dusty, and easily one of the most interesting stops on the tour. A group called Wright B Flyer, Inc.  will be building a reproduction aircraft inside the original factory, with support from multiple EAA chapters.
  • Huffman Prairie Flying Field, at first glance a simple pasture, but, in context, 84 acres of hallowed ground. After their initial success at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights came back to Ohio and began perfecting the airplane and their skills as pilots. The prairie was the site of such milestones as the first flight in a circle, the first figure eight, and the first permanent flight school.

Most of us have grown up knowing the broad strokes: the Wright brothers invented the airplane, and made the first powered, three-axis-controlled, heavier-than-air flight on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. If pressed, we remember that the brothers started out in the bicycle business in Dayton, but maybe not much more than that. History, as it usually does, goes much deeper than that; thanks to the NAHAs and the more than 15 sites and organizations that participate, so can we.

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