Aviation Town, USA

For airplane enthusiasts, Dayton has plenty to offer.

The Air Force Museum's X-15 on the way to its new hangar. (USAF/Ken LaRock)
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The industrial city of Dayton, Ohio, may seem like an unlikely destination for global travelers. But it was in Dayton that the Wright brothers designed and built the first heavier-than-air flying machines, inventions so profound and influential that schoolchildren may still be learning their names in a thousand years. And for those fascinated by the Wrights’ invention and its follow-ons, Dayton is hallowed ground.

It’s hard not to notice aviation’s affect on the area. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (named after Wilbur Wright and WWI pilot Frank Stuart Patterson) dominates much of the city’s economy, and more than 17,000 students attend nearby Wright State University. Relief sculptures of F-16s grace an interstate highway bridge, and a celebrated local brewery is named Warped Wing for the Wrights’ pre-aileron control system (Disclosure: Dayton’s National Aviation Heritage Alliance organization housed, fed, and chauffeured me around Dayton for three days).

Any aviation enthusiast’s tour should start off at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, which houses a collection second only to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (the Smithsonian, for example, has the Enola Gay, while NMUSAF has Bockscar; each museum has one of the two remaining X-15s; they recently swapped B-17 restoration projects). Some weird and rare aircraft inhabit the museum, including a Mitsubishi Zero and a B-2 stealth bomber (the structural test article, anyway). Many of the aircraft on display have interesting histories: a MiG-15bis landed by a North Korean defector; the Boeing 707 that carried John F. Kennedy’s body home following his assassination; a Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk prototype pressed unceremoniously into service over Afghanistan (nicknamed “Grumpy” for its temperament). 

Just as interesting as the museum itself is the weekly behind-the-scenes tour, where you can see the unrestored aircraft hangared in a more natural habitat. The tour allows visitors to see details that would otherwise go completely unnoticed, or that might be replaced during restoration. One of the two B-17s under restoration there, the famous Memphis Belle, is covered in carved inscriptions from its war bond-selling tours in the U.S., which will eventually be painted over to make the bomber look like it did during its combat career. The other B-17, Swooze, sports national flags and crew names from its time as a staff transport that likewise will be painted over. A wingless MiG-25 still has dirt from the Iraqi hillside it was pulled from. If you’re lucky, your guide will be a volunteer knowledgeable enough to talk about their own experiences with the aircraft, or to explain how the museum cast parts for which the engineering plans are long lost.

On the margins of Wright-Patterson is Huffman Prairie, where the Wright brothers tested their designs before and after the first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. At the time the prairie was little more than a windy cow pasture, and aside from the replica shack and launch catapult (and minus the cows), it looks much the same today, its borders marked by large white flags. Though officially part of the air base, it is open to the public, and from there you can catch a glimpse of the Wright-Patterson runway regularly used by C-17s and C-5s. The official Wright Memorial and Interpretive Center are on a nearby hillside.

Back in the city of Dayton you’ll find two separate recreations of Wright brothers bicycle stores (different ones—they worked in five at various times). The originals were torn down long ago, but in the neighborhood where they stood is a faithful replication, run by the Park Service, and a replica of the house where the brothers once lived in (that original was also torn down). The original Wright Company manufacturing facility is a short car ride away, and though it’s in disrepair, there are ambitious plans to restore it.

Worth the trip is Carillon Park, close to the University of Dayton campus, which houses the second bicycle shop replica, a (mostly) original Wright 1905 Flyer, and a plethora of interesting family heirlooms. The Wright brothers variously tried their hands at building bicycles (one of only five examples known is there), newspaper printing (a page from their surprisingly tabloid-esque paper is on exhibit), and airplanes (the original wind tunnel is there as well). The family Bible, letters, a bag famously carried by Orville, and other such sundries are there as well. Surrounding the bike shop are other buildings of historical significance, and perhaps most importantly, a brewery.

Outside Dayton, in Urbana, Ohio, is a real treasure: the Champaign Aviation Museum, housed in a hangar at Grimes Field. Though small, the museum houses a B-17 undergoing restoration to flightworthiness. Unlike most museums, visitors can freely wander around to examine and touch the Flying Fortress, surrounded by the volunteers who are restoring it with painstaking accuracy, many of whom have relevant stories from their own lives. The B-17 has parts from at least three separate aircraft, including some salvaged from a crash in Alaska, others from a former movie prop, plus a top turret found under someone’s deck. The museum also cares for a flyable B-25 (disclosure: they were kind enough to fly me and several other reporters around).

Last but not least is the Waco Air Museum in Troy, Ohio. The company formed after WWI to build popular civilian aircraft during the years. Waco aircraft became hugely popular, with dozens of different models ranging from open-cockpit barnstormers to closed-cabin cruisers for businessmen. They gained a reputation as reliable, easily maintained machines—particularly high praise in those days—that were both affordable and easy to fly, the choice of silent film stars and airborne explorers alike. Wacos inspired a die-hard fanbase: many are still flying, and new ones are still rolling off the line thanks to one Michigan company. Several rare Waco aircraft are housed at the museum, which also boasts a short grass runway should any Waco pilots feel like arriving in style. 

If people are still talking about the Wright brothers in 1,000 years, chances are Dayton will be mentioned in the next breath. There are plenty of reasons why.

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