Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park

Location: Dayton, Ohio

Webpage: National Park

General Description: The Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park consists of 6 separate units: The Wight Cycle Company and Visitor Center, Paul Laurence Dunbar House State Memorial, Wright Company Factory, Wright Brothers Aviation Center, Hawthorn Hill, and Huffman Prairie Flying Field and Interpretive Center.  All except the Dunbar House, all of the sites are connected to the story of the Wright Brothers.  Orville and Wilbur Wright were born in Millville, Indiana in 1828 and 1831, respectively.  Their father, Milton Wright was a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and traveled a great deal when they were young.  Consequently, they were raised primarily by their mother, Susan, who being mechanically gifted herself, encouraged the boys to tinker with all the household appliances from an early age. Although both boys attended high school, neither received a diploma, due in part to moving abruptly to Dayton, Ohio in 1884.  Orville dropped out of high school in his junior year in 1889, to start a printing business building his own printing press with Wilbur’s assistance.  Wilbur joined the business and they launched a weekly newspaper, the West Side News.  In April, 1890 it became a daily newspaper, The Evening Item, but only lasted 4 months.  The printing business turned to focus on commercial printing, while the brothers began their next enterprise capitalizing on the national bicycle craze.  In December, 1892 they opened a repair and sales shop, the Wright Cycle Company and in 1896 began manufacturing their own brand.  By 1896 there had been many major advances in aeronautics that sparked the brother’s imaginations.  In 1899, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institute requests detailed information about this new field and they began to draw up plans drawing from the work of others and their experience with bicycles.  They developed the concept of wing warping as an essential control of the plane along with a rudder for steering.  Beginning with kites to test their control ideas they quickly moved to gliders.  However, they needed a location with steady, consistent winds that was at the same time remote from reporters who tended to turn other inventors efforts into circuses.  They selected remote Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to test their glider.  In early autumn, 1900, they began testing their glider design which were all unmanned, using ropes on the ground.  In 1901 they returned with a larger glider and made dozens of flights up to 400 feet in length setting all the records for gliders.  However, the glider did not have the lift it should have causing it to frequently stall and their yaw control with the wing warping and rudder would sometimes turn the glider in the wrong direction, known as adverse yaw.  Wilbur was totally discouraged and ready to give up the quest.  However, the poor lift led them to question the lift coefficients from Lillenthal’s data tables, the current standard coefficients.  Tests with kites and a unique design using a bicycle to provide the wind, they determined there was a problem with these coefficients.  Therefore, they built the a six foot wind tunnel and began a series of detailed experiments with different wing shapes to accurately determine the correct coefficients over the winter.  With their new wings and other improvements to the rudder design, they returned to Kitty Hawk in 1902 for further testing.  Over the span of nearly 1000 glides they perfected their design making hundreds of controlled flights, the longest lasting 26 seconds over 622.5 feet.  Many historians credit this success as the first true airplane and thus a more important result than powered flight.  In any case, the Wright brothers returned to Dayton to add an engine to their design.  After writing to several automobile manufacturers to build a lightweight engine and being turned down, they turned to their bicycle shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, to build their engine in six weeks.  Once again returning to Kitty Hawk in 1903 they began testing their new plane.  On December 14, 1903 they succeeded in the first powered flight from a standing start ever accomplished.  However, their work was far from finished.  In 1904 they built the Wright Flyer II, however, to avoid the expense of conducting their tests at Kitty Hawk they located a field at the end of the trolley run that would fit their needs, Huffman Prairie.  However, the erratic Ohio winds made their rail system for takeoffs impossible, so they changed their design slightly to use a catapult system for launching.  This catapult was essentially a dropped weight that was attached by a pulley to the front of the airplane to pull it down their track.  In 1904, they further refined their design with the ultimate goal of stable control during turns, since the goal of the Wright Flyer I was to be stable in a straight line.  In September, Wilbur flew the first complete circle in history.  In 1905 they designed a new airplane, the Wright Flyer III, enlarging both the forward elevator and rear rudder, moving them further apart, and most importantly, a separate control for the rudder instead of being tied directly to the wing warping.  This finally gave them the control they needed leading to flights ranging from 17 to 38 minutes covering 11 to 24 miles and could have been longer except for running out of fuel.  The Wright Brothers had now designed the first practical airplane and after the summer of 1905, shut down their tests at Huffman Prairie.  For the next two years securing their patents and trying to convince US and European governments that they had a successful flying machine and looking to sell it.  Since the US military showed no interest, they turned their attention to Europe, especially France. By 1907 they had contracts with a French company and entered a bid with the US Army Signal Corps.  They returned to Kitty Hawk for further testing in 1908 since both contracts required two seated passengers requiring a new control system for the pilot.  Both contracts required a public demonstration so Wilbur sailed to France and Orville went to D.C.  Both public demonstrations were great successes and overnight Wilbur and Orville became international stars.  Thus, the Wright brothers, especially Wilbur, became more businessmen then inventors becoming embroiled in numerous patent suits.  In 1910, the Wright Company became the first airplane factory and students at the Wright School of Aviation became the first trained pilots.

As a contemporary of the Wright brothers, Paul Laurence Dunbar also earned a place in history.  Born in Dayton in 1872, Dunbar’s writing talents made a significant mark in African-American history following the Civil War.  While still in high school he was the classmate of Orville Wright, the editor for the school newspaper, president of the literary society, and writing poetry.  For a short time after high school, the Wright brothers printed Dunbar’s newspaper for the African-American community, The Dayton Tattler.  At the age of 20, he self published his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, while working as a elevator operator.  This book along with public appearances to read his poetry attracted the interest of Charles Thatcher, an attorney, and Henry Tobey, a psychiatrist, who financed the publication of his second book, Majors and Minors, in 1896.  The well known critic, William Howells, wrote a favorable review in Harper’s Weekly which brought international attention to his work.  Although Dunbar died of tuberculosis at the age of 33, he was a prolific writer.  He continued to write and publish poems, but also novels, short stories, song lyrics, and musicals.  During his lifetime his most famous poems were written in the African-American dialect of the time expressing life in slavery, but today he is better known for his insightful poems and stories in standard English.  He was also very active in Civil Rights becoming close friends with Frederick Douglas.



1) The main Visitor Center is located at the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center in downtown Dayton.  This Visitor Center has an excellent movie about the lives and contributions of the Wright Brothers to aviation, as well as extensive exhibits about their accomplishments.  You not only learn about their childhood, but also the early careers in printing and bicycles manufacturing.  The second floor of the building was actually one of the early location of their printing business and includes example of printing presses.  However, the printing press they built has been lost.  This museum is well worth the time for an extended visit.

2) The Wright Cycle Company building is located next to the Visitor Center and is one of four buildings they used in Dayton.  They would move to new locations as the business grew.  This building is not the final building for the company, as this building was purchased by Henry Ford and moved to Dearborn, Michigan to be part of his museum there.  Once again this building was used for other purposes after the Wright Brothers moved so they have recreated the shop as best they would since the only photographs were for the outside of the building.  They have examples of the bicycles they made and the lathe and other machines they had for this purpose.

3) The Wright Company Factory is located out on Third Street.  In 1910, this became the first airplane factory in the world as they hand built their first planes for France and the US Government.  It is also the location of their simulator they used to train pilots in the Wright School of Aviation.  Unfortunately, this building is not yet open to the public.

4) The Wright Brothers Aviation Center is located in Carillon Historical Park.  It is a recreation of the final Wright Cycle Company shop with extensions for exhibits about their accomplishments.  The main attraction of the Center is the original Wright Flyer III, which was reassembled years later under the direction of Orville Wright for this purpose.  Instead of hanging from the ceiling it is placed on in a sunken floor so you can view it from a level position.  Orville also assisted in the design of the entire exhibit.  They also have a nice audio-visual program about the scientific tests conducted by the Wright Brothers to determine not only the best wing shape, but also the best propeller shape and size.  Included is the bicycle they used for their early tests of the wings prior to the wind tunnel.  It has a spare bicycle tire attached horizontally in front of the handle bars that would hold the wing shape.  Very interesting.

5) Hawthorn Hill is the home designed and built for Wilbur, Orville, and their sister Katharine.  Although Wilbur died before it was finished and Katharine eventually married and moved away, Orville continued to live in the house which was often filled with nieces, nephews, and their families.  The house is only opened for tours a couple of days a week, which did not fit with our schedule.

6) Huffman Prairie Interpretive Center is another small Visitor Center located on a bluff overlooking Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.  The exhibits in this Visitor Center focus more on the advancements made by the Wright Brothers after their return to Dayton for testing in 1904-1905.  It also covers their demonstrations in France and Washington, D.C. and the formation of the Wright Company and Wright School of Aviation.  Finally, you learn a little bit about the subsequent history of Wright-Patterson AFB and the many contributions made to aviation since the Wright Brothers.  Outside is a memorial to the Wright Brothers, some nice views of the base, and a couple of Indian Mounds.

7) Huffman Prairie Flying Field is still the centerpiece of Wright-Patterson AFB.  This 84 acre pasture has been maintained in the same condition and looks very much the same.  The have installed flags surrounding the field to show the extent of the circles the Wright brothers made to stay within the pasture.  They have also reconstructed the hanger and catapult system.  Next to the flying field they are in the process of recreating the natural tall grass prairie that would have existed before Huffman turned it into a pasture.  There is a nice mowed path through the prairie and a few interpretive signs about the plants to be found.

8) Paul Laurence Dunbar House was first a state memorial before it became a part of the Historical Park.  This is the home that Paul purchased for his mother, Matilda, in 1904 and also where he lived after he became to sick with tuberculosis to travel and perform.  Matilda preserved the home much as Paul knew it until her death in 1934 when it immediately became a state memorial.  Therefore, the furnishings are all originals and the wallpaper (which has to be seen to be believed – GAUDY!) had been replaced with the same patterns.