DAYTON THE CRADLE OF AVIATION
During the closing years of the century just passed and the opening years of the present one an idea-germ was floating around both hemispheres seeking a human brain to give it an abiding place. Here and there, on rare occasions, it found temporary lodgement. Those who first offered it hospitality were marked men, for its mere possession was enough to make other people tap their brows and shake their heads dolorously. For the idea was no more or less than men might, at some future time, learn to fly in the air like birds – literally the most amazing, unbelievable incomprehensible idea ever hatched and of course never to be entertained except by a simple-minded pipe-dreamer.
In the course of time this incredible idea came to Dayton and there it concluded to stay, because two minds instead of one took hold of it. It is an ofttold story about the “Wright boys,” as they were called. How they became interested in a self-propelling toy brought home by their father to lessen the boresomeness of a childish convalescence. This toy, when thrown into the air, instead of immediately falling to the ground, fluttered and soared for some seconds before being overcome by gravity. How these brothers, being clever with tools, thought they could make one like it and did; how they made another larger one which also flew, and then a still larger one which did not fly at all, and how this very failure precipitated invention. The toy was a primitive helicopter only the makers did not know it, even the name not having been invented.
The mystery of the failure gripped their curiosity; why a contraption of a certain size would fly when loosed from control while another of the same construction but of double the size should fall ignominiously to the ground. It is now well understood, even by laymen, that when doubling the size of their machine they should have quadrupled the power, a principle up to that time unguessed. They applied the principle to kites and kept on constructing, experimenting, inventing, all merely as an interesting recreation while the neighbors continued to tap their foreheads and commiserate with Bishop Wright for having such a worthless pair of sons. Suddenly their occupation ceased to be play and became work – the conquest of the air. That is what lay behind their apparently aimless potterings.
While European dreamers were hesitating, the Wrights went ahead and, with such scanty means that it seems impossible to believe, made a practical application of the flying germ-idea and perfected it. The world therefore never must be allowed to forget that the mighty science of aviation was born in the Miami Valley. Lord Northcliffe, the great British editor and statesman, bore irrefutable witness to this fact when he came to Dayton in 1918 to bestow upon Orville Wright the medal of the Society of Arts and Science of Great Britain. “In spite of contradictory evidence,” he asserted, “Dayton is really the home of heavier than air flying.”
If the brothers had begun as amateur dabblers they did not remain so. Omnivorous readers, they assimilated every book on the subject so far available; serious observers, they put every proposition to the test; with a colossal capacity for work they were at their shop laboratory from the earliest dawn. Their immediate objective was a study of the principles of wind currents – “Mathematics of the Air.” For, early in the enterprise, it was discovered that the mechanism of the flying machine was only half the story; the air, like the ocean, is full of inequalities which must be taken into account in navigation.
Their first help came from a system of logarithms worked out by Lilienthal who was the first to discover that the great problem of flying rests upon figures. The technical details are too complicated for mere laymen, suffice it to say that four years were consumed in the study of these mathematical problems and the working out of theories on paper before actual flying was accomplished.
Their uttermost plans at that time went no further than to construct a kite on the principle of the helicopter and operated by cords from the ground, which would remain in the air in winds having a velocity of from fifteen to twenty miles an hour. The world knows how they went to the barest, windiest, sandiest place in the United States, Kitty Hawk, on the North Carolina seacoast not far from Cape Hatteras. How they made a “glider” with ground ropes like a kite; and how, having made a machine that would stand up under the wind, they put a man aboard to guide it. And how at last the day arrived when, with no ground ropes, with an improved engine and contributing winds, the clumsy machine, weighing seven hundred and fifty pounds, rose on the wind, stayed up for fifty-nine seconds and landed without wrecking. This was on December 17, 1903, an epoch-making date in the history of the world.
We remember now how the brothers came back to Dayton, got permission to use Huffman Prairie for experimental flying; how they minded their own business, kept to serious study, allowed no wildest guess to remain unanswered and took nobody except one or two clever mechanics into their confidence. At that day in Dayton not a soul knew anything about them or cared. The few who suspected what they were aiming at quoted “Darius Green and his Flying Machine.” Because, of course, it was the wildest, silliest, most impossible of achievement, and the most unproductive of human ambitions. If they had minded all this we never should have been able to keep an appointment for luncheon in Washington. But they were too busy and happy in their work to know they were being neglected. And the adulation, when it came, they accepted with equal serenity.
The following in order of time an anticipation of twenty years. On December 28, 1928, the Rotary Club, of which Orville Wright had been made an honorary member, gave him a banquet and the president, Mr. George D. Antrim, invited as his guests some of the old habitués of the West Side who had seen the airplane in its doubtful youth. He recalled the early days when the Wright brothers were only bicycle repairers in a small shop on West Third Street and were tinkering on an old engine that they hoped one day might fly. Three old neighbors were present, the barber who used to shave the brothers, the landlord who owned the shack they worked in and who sometimes had trouble collecting his rent, and a hardware man who, during the flood, “tipped” Orville Wright a quarter for helping him move a carload of nails out of a water-threatened cellar. These guests were invited to speak but for obvious reasons declined. There were two mechanics, however, Charlie Webbert and Charles Taylor, who had been foremost in bringing the airplane into being. On a street corner some days before, the former had told an eloquent story describing the first flight, and Mr. Antrim related in the original words the narrative to the Rotarians. Said Webbert, through the lips of Antrim:
Well, Sir, we pulled that fool thing around over the ground of Huffman Prairie about thirty or forty times, hoisting it up on the derrick so it would get a good start, and we were all hot and sweaty and about played out. What was the use of wasting our time over such a ridiculous thing any longer? But once more we pulled her up again and let her go. The old engine seemed to be working a little better than ordinary. Orville stuck his head out and nodded to Wilbur and Wilbur turned her loose. And by God the damn thing flew. Round and round and round that field it went for thirty-one minutes. Some of the time he must have been a hundred feet up and every time he passed over us we all three threw our hats in the air and yelled our damn heads off.
The year 1908 was a notable one in the annals of the Wright brothers. First there was the accident to Orville on September 27, when a flight at Fort Myer, Virginia, with Lieutenant T. Selfridge as self-invited passenger, the plane crashed. On the bank of its fourth circle a hundred and fifty feet up, a cracked propeller blade snapped the rudder wire and the plane wavered for a plunge. Orville, by lightning swift action, leveled the craft for a down glide but he had only seventy-five feet of elevation left and a defective front rudder. Thousands of horrified spectators saw the crash and perceived the two men helpless upon the ground. It was indeed a tragic flight. Lieutenant Selfridge died a few hours later and Orville Wright suffered a broken leg and several fractured ribs, neither injury equaling the agony his mental suffering.
At this time Wilbur Wright was in France and Katherine Wright, the only sister, was teaching in the high school in Dayton, Ohio. Upon the receipt of the telegram she closed her desk forever and took the train for Washington, where the strongest prop the brothers had in life sat at the bedside and cheered the patient with her hope and confidence.
There was abundant need for cheer. The family fortunes were low, Bishop Wright, the aged father, had retired from the ministry three years before; the united savings of both brothers and the sister were exhausted in perfecting the machine and the family home had been mortgaged. The United States Government was slow in making up its mind that the airplane was of sufficient importance to receive federal aid. And now, broken bones, grief and family separation.
However, “the darkest before the dawn.” Four days after the accident Wilbur, at Le Mans in France, made a world record flight exceeding an hour and a half. Stepping from his plane just at dusk, surrounded with thousands of excited spectators, he said calmly, “This will cheer Orville up.” This feat across the ocean was not only a message of fraternal love but it was proof to the world that the disaster at Fort Myer did not mean that the airplane was a failure or that it impaired the future of aerial transport. The French government awarded the hero a substantial sum and the cable forwarded several thousands of dollars back to the convalescent in Washington.
Wilbur’s triumphs culminated on the last day of the year when, by a world record flight of two hours and twenty minutes, he won the Michelin prize of four thousand dollars. Not all the interest centered in his feats of aviation. To the ordinary Frenchman Wilbur Wright was a rara avis. He was austere and silent; he kept the Sabbath as his minister father had taught him; he used no tobacco, drank no wine, ate the simplest food and attended strictly to business.
But his letters home bubbled with enthusiasm. Since Orville was out of danger why should not Katherine come to France and act as her brother’s “social manager”? She accepted the invitation and came. Orville followed later. At Pau the brothers organized an air school to train pilots for the French Wright Company. No textbooks were available, no theories of instruction worked out, no medical examinations exacted to sift out the physically unfit. Teacher and pupil took their places in the open frame of a plane, rose in the air and took their chances.
It was then that European royalty woke up to what was happening. The King of Spain sent word that he was coming and requested an exhibition flight on Sunday. A royal request is a command but not to the Wright brothers, who had taken the Old Testament seriously. They courteously replied that they would be pleased to entertain His Majesty on any week day. It was on a Friday then that the king and his suite arrived at the hotel, shaking hands vigorously with both brothers and expressing delight at their accomplishments. The royal visitor then inquired for the sister, who by this time everybody knew had stood so loyally by her brothers in all their achievements. Katherine was over in a corner of the field taking her first lessons in curtseying under the tutelage of Lady Northcliffe who had volunteered to instruct her in this essential of greeting royalty. When the crucial time arrived however, formalities were forgotten and Katherine met the king’s reception in the truly American way of shaking hands. Alphonso was curious as a boy, running across the field, climbing into the seat by the side of Wilbur and demanding to know the uses of the various parts of the mechanism.
The Emperor William of Germany, with his suite, was another visitor, for once interested beyond the honors due to himself, talked cordially for some time with the brothers and the sister. Edward VII of England, Victor Emmanuel of Italy, Prince Francis of Teck, Lord Haldane, Ambassador Reid – in fact the leading royal and political lights of Europe came from time to time to meet these Americans who were turning the world upside down. To all of them the Wrights were serenely polite and politely explanatory, but they did no more bowing and curtseying and their manner was as if they were in the habit of meeting them all quite often in Dayton.
Now it was 1909, and the Wrights were back at home again. What could we do to match the glorious experiences of their foreign sojourn? Not much in one way, but in another we would show them, as best we might, the pride, affection and joy with which our hearts went out to meet them. For two whole days, June 17 and 18, Dayton did its utmost with speeches, bells, fireworks, medals and cheers to express what was less, perhaps, than any other occasion in its history, mere hero worship. The first day began with the firing of a salute on the river bank and the blowing of all the factory whistles. John V. Lytle directed a band in Van Cleve Park to usher in our patron saint, Jonathan Dayton, who advanced surrounded by heralds, an escort of Continental soldiers, the city council, the board of education and members of the celebration committee. Jonathan Dayton made a speech, so did Leopold Rauh, president of the Chamber of Commerce; Ezra M. Kuhns, president of the city council; Conrad J. Schmidt, president of the board of education, and all the people cheered wildly. The afternoon was ushered in by a parade drill of the Dayton Fire Department, filling Main Street from Monument Avenue to Sixth Street, and at 4:30 there was a review of troops. At eight in the evening all their fellow-citizens had a chance to shake hands with Orville and Wilbur at the Young Men’s Christian Association Building, then on the corner of Third and Ludlow.
Friday, June 18, the scene of festivities changed from the city to the Fair Grounds where the people gathered as they had never gathered before. All the record breaking crowds for which Dayton has been locally famous in the past were outdone. When Goldsmith Maid ran in 1873, when the Grand Army dedicated the Soldiers’ Monument, the Centennial in 1876, and that earliest and most wonderful of all, the Harrison Log Cabin campaign, in 1840, all paled into insignificance compared to the crowds assembled to do honors to the Flying Wrights. Rising tier on tier at the race track was a blossoming, blooming American flag composed of five thousand school children, some in white dresses, some in red and some in blue, to form a background for the speakers’ dais.
Here sat representatives of the government at Washington and of the State at Columbus, but not a single king, nor emperor, nor foreign dignitary – just our city fathers and the two brothers with their sister and father. What an unprecedented thing to have the opening prayer made by Bishop Milton Wright, whose feelings probably surged up with pride and affection past all belief. The yellow program, now twenty-three years old records another item which challenges our credulity. It says: “Response by Messrs. Wilbur and Orville Wright.” But we don’t believe it. They were not the speech-making kind. Wilbur once said, when urged to make a speech, that it would be too much like a parrot, which talks a great deal but can’t fly. The most oratory in which either of them ever indulged was to rise and bow and perhaps say, “I thank you.” But whatever they did, or did not do or say on this occasion, the great thing was to see them stand there so quiet and self-possessed (though rumor said blushing) and receive the greatest honors ever paid American citizens.
Three sets of medals were presented, one awarded by act of Congress, one by the Ohio Legislature and one by the city of Dayton. The managers of this celebration wisely determined to make it a lesson in history, therefore the really admirable transportation pageant which closed the day’s proceedings. On Main Street spectators saw on the leading float the first vehicle of transportation that the Miami Valley ever saw, the Indian canoe; after than the scow or pirogue, that ungainly vessel which brought our first ancestors up the river from Cincinnati in search of a new home. Then a Conestoga wagon with its accommodations for the pioneer family, the dog and cow following slowly; next the canal boat with a stovepipe pointing aloft. From that to the wonders of steam transportation, the locomotive, the steamboat, the automobile, and finally and triumphantly last, the airplane.
One of the unrecorded but plainly remembered results of this great occasion was the large number of people who had always known that the Wrights would succeed in flying. There was no more tapping of foreheads and grave nods; instead, jovial and repeatedly expressed versions of “I told you so.”
Thus far the history of aviation had been composed of equal parts of sentiment, experiment, enthusiasm, apathy, and success. Flying was indeed wonderful but its fruits were thus far negligible and remained largely in the future. The fireworks, welcoming speeches and brass bands seemed to have exhausted our capacity. Then and there Dayton should have established those facilities which every inventor needs to carry on his work. Had this been done, in due time we should have developed into the manufacturing center of the world’s airplane production. It was with a gasp of incredulity that we suddenly perceived other nations outdistancing us. The French were making extraordinary strides; England was already giving more credit to some of her own workers than to the Wrights.
Then Came the War and with it profound and saddening revelations. We found as Americans that we knew little about airplanes. We practically had none. In spite of Orville Wright’s repeated declarations that the United States ought to appropriate a sufficient sum to carry on the work, we were, here in Dayton, at the tail end of the great and lengthening procession of air transportation. The war had disclosed the value of the airplane for offense and defense. Germany was developing an aptitude for quick production and success in air fighting. There was no time to be lost. Throughout the country sounded the call “Build Airplanes! Airplanes will win the war!” But what uncharted territory it was, to be sure. Great factories would have to be built and highly skilled workmen assembled, mechanics who had not the slightest idea of the construction of an airplane. The demand was unique in the history of manufacturing.
It was the Dayton Wright Airplane Company that in this community answered the call. Foremost in this organization were Orville Wright, H. E. Talbott, H. E. Talbott, Jr., Charles F. Kettering, Thomas P. Gaddis, George Mead, Carl Sherer and G. M. Williams. At that time the Domestic Engineering Company, manufacturing the Delco light, was just completing a mammoth concrete and steel building at Moraine City some miles south of Dayton. The largest structure of its kind in Ohio at that time, it measured a thousand feet in length. This building was immediately taken over, its dimensions increased to two hundred feet in width and two thousand five hundred in length. Four more buildings were construction before the housing of this unprecedented undertaking was complete.
The company was incorporated in July, 1917, and the roof to cover it completed. But what a task lay ahead! Much necessary raw material was not to be had. Linen for wings, oil for lubricating, spruce for framework, all had to be procured under the most extraordinary difficulties. Only five or six men in the company knew anything about the mechanism of an airplane, and not one of them had any experience in quantity production. The force of mechanics numbered only forty, which number was rapidly increased to seven thousand men and women. Up to March, 1918, production was limited to the making of training planes of which five hundred were completed but, as soon as the release from the government had been secured, enabling them to proceed with the manufacture of battle planes, the pace was set for rapid work. By the following July one thousand fully equipped battle planes had been constructed; by October another thousand finished and the production rate definitely set at a thousand per month. It was no miracle, except it be the miracle of organization. In this case the secret seemed to be in a progressive system of manufacture by which no time was wasted in useless transfers from one department to another. All raw materials, wood, metal, textiles, etc., entered the receiving room just at the south door of the factory; from there they passed, by an admirable trucking system, into the first department; from there, when transformed into the required part, into the second department, each being fitted as it went. The finished parts gathered at last into the assembling room at the extreme farthest end of the huge place, emerged from the hands of the assembling force a complete airplane, ready for trial flight and shipment to France.
“Trial flight!” But that meant a place to fly them. And where should it be? Another hurry-up job for these doughty pioneers! So, behold three men in hip boots tramping the muddy fields north of town in search of space to fly airplanes. They were Orville Wright in the lead and following him Mr. Kettering and Mr. Smith. They were investigating a tract of level land west of the Troy Pike and east of the Miami River. The land belonged to the heirs of the Anson McCook estate and there were a lot of them. This tract and more of it on the opposite side of the river was purchased by Mr. Deeds and Mr. Kettering who offered to lease it to the city of Dayton on a basis of three per cent on the cost of the land with improvements. This proposal was accepted by the city and an ordinance passed by the city commission June 17, 1917, authorizing the city manager to execute the necessary instrument. On April 1, 1917, the city took actual possession. The original idea on both sides in the beginning was to provide an amusement park for the citizens of Dayton but, when war necessities arose, other uses had to be arranged for. Eventually the southern part of the tract was leased to the government as a flying field and named after the “Fighting McCooks” whose record in the Civil War made the title highly appropriate.
Work was at once begun leveling the ground, vacating several streets and alleys, and removing sheds, trees, etc. The total area of McCook Field was 121.547 acres. Hangers were erected, office buildings provided and a tall fence built shutting out from the eyes of the curious whatever went on inside. Many nationally known engineers and skilled mechanics were mobilized at the field for the purpose of pooling their aeronautical knowledge and making the results of their combined efforts available for the defense of the Nation. A considerable portion of the development work on the Liberty engine went on at McCook Field. Skilled test pilots and engineers were employed to measure the performance and determine the adaptability of the new machines for the use of our armies in Europe.
Then the War Stopped! – And the stopping was as great a jolt as the starting. Suddenly no more use for the high powered battle planes that had been pushing forth from the big plant south of town under the stimulation of the big plant north of town. All was at a forced standstill. But not for long. The airplane had come to stay. The war was over but other uses called. The history of civilization is largely the history of communication and transportation. We who have lived in the years since the end of the war have seen the airplane developed into a tool of everyday living. Mail air routes cross the continent, and the post office has its air mail stamps. If Chicago is our objective and we are in a hurry we take a plane. Regular routes for daily use connect city to city. Airplanes take food and medical supplies to regions devastated by flood. Airplanes scatter insecticides over infected agricultural areas. The Red Cross has its air ambulance like its motor ambulance, forest fires devastate large tracts of woods in the northwest but it is the airplane observation which first sees and reports the danger. In three years of aerial patrol in the State of Oregon the amount of territory burned over was reduced by sixty-two per cent. Aerial photography is another important phase of peace time aviation in greatly facilitating mapping, surveying and city planning. The United States Coast Guard is finding aviation a great aid in carrying out its duties.
But these things were as yet unfolded. Wise heads saw into the future but wise heads were few. The airplane was going to be improved, but the question was, who was going to do it? Dayton was logically the place in which to establish every facility, every stimulation, every impetus, only there was no one to make a start. Appropriations there must be from Congress. During the year of 1923-1924 Great Britain appropriated more than three times as much as America did. Italy expended nearly twice as much. The United States ranked at that time, in aeronautical appropriations, about on a level with France and Japan, each smaller than the State of Texas.
The need for scientific development of aviation in America was the outstanding lesson of the great war. The engineering department of the United States Air Service came into being because it was a war-time necessity. It proved to be no less a peace time necessity.
Talk bubbled everywhere. Orville Wright declared that “When we entered the war we did not have in America a real fighting airplane. . . . Individuals could not afford to develop airplanes at their own expense and the United States, before the war, was spending comparatively nothing for that purpose. We were fortunate in having the Allies to help us in getting designs for our first planes. . . . Another war and we may not have an ally. . . . Development work cannot be done in the hubbub of actual warfare. The expenditure of ten million dollars before the last war would have saved the hundreds of millions that had to be spent to accomplish the same result after the war had begun. Economy demands that we keep abreast of the world in aeronautical research.”
In 1922 General Dawes, director of budget of the Army Air Corps, had submitted to Congress a request for the appropriation of four million two hundred thousand dollars for aeronautical research work. When the bill came before the House appropriation committee that sum was reduced to two million two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. It was recognized by the air service officials if the proposed reduction were made but a small part of the large aims of the air service could be accomplished.
At this point Mr. J. H. Patterson comes into the story. He had just returned from Europe, an old man enfeebled with his herculean efforts to make people understand the importance of the League of Nations. When the proposition was brought before him his clear vision grasped it all at once. That all money spent in research was clear gain was evident to him from its part in the development of his own business, the manufacture of the cash register. Some of his declarations as sent to publications on the subject are: “Industry progresses in proportion to the research work done. . . . Private industries cannot afford to carry on extensive research work because of the small market for airplanes. . . . The remarkable progress that has been made in aviation should be continued. . . . If there is any change in fiscal amounts the proposed appropriation should be increased rather than decreased.
Being asked by General Mitchell in what way the National Cash Register Company could influence Congress to appropriate the larger figure, Mr. Patterson’s answer was prompt and practical. He commissioned two of his most trusted and efficient subordinates, John F. Ahlers and Horace W. Karr to go immediately to Washington armed with convincing ammunition for the senatorial mind. They departed March 1, 1922, and stayed five weeks. They called on Senator Fess and the leading members of the lower House; they talked to the military affairs committee, to the house appropriations committee, and the Ohio delegation in Congress; they interviewed four hundred Congressmen and ninety-six Senators. The result of all this persuasive oratory was the appropriation of three million seven hundred and forty thousand dollars to which the obliging Senate afterward added five hundred thousand more.
Highly gratifying, of course, this was to everybody, but after all is only half the story as far as Dayton was concerned. For her public-spirited citizens wanted not only the money for the work but they wanted the work to go on where it had begun – in their own city. One of the many lessons taught by the war and one which was perhaps the more forcibly thrust upon our attention because of our previous attitude of apathy, was the absolute necessity for a continuing program of air-craft development. The appropriation of huge sums would, it was felt, be of little avail without a definite knowledge of what to build and how to build it. This realization came too late to be of appreciable advantage in the war. In 1917, under the pressure of actual war conditions, the government realized that a central experimental plant was necessary and Dayton was chosen as the most logical location. The first practical difficulty was a lack of proper space. McCook Field had become quite inadequate. The smallness of the area and its proximity to the streets and homes of Dayton make experimental flying highly dangerous. Dwellers in North Dayton did not want parachutes dropping into their radish beds or their ears assailed by the droning roar of engine testing.
The inference was inescapable. If Dayton wanted the research field she would have to produce for the government a suitable site. Eight miles east of the city lay the tract of land originally known as Huffman Prairie where, as has been described, for the first time “The damn thing flew.” Part of this area lay in the retention basin above the Huffman conservancy dam, had been purchased of the Miami Conservancy District and used as a training field. This, the original Wilbur Wright Field, was a very important unit during the war and owed its selection for the use of the air service to Colonel Edward A. Deeds, then head of aircraft production in Washington.
At the eastern extremity, near the village of Fairfield, a number of buildings had been erected where war supplies in large quantities were stored. It was known as Fairfield Air Depot. The proposition, as it finally took shape, aimed at buying the Wilbur Wright Field, the Fairfield Airport, and in addition five hundred and fifty acres to the southwest in Montgomery County, the original tract being in Greene County. Between the two tracts lies a high ridge comprising several acres on which it is hoped at some future time, to erect a suitable memorial to the Wright Brothers. From this elevation can be seen the original wooden hanger used by the brothers in their early experiments.
That portion of the land lying in Montgomery County was equipped with buildings to house the various projects carried on at McCook Field and eventually became known as Wright Field, while the original Wilbur Wright Field had been rechristened to honor the memory of a Dayton boy who gave his life to the cause and is called Stuart Patterson Field.
This in brief was the plan, the recounting of which has gotten ahead of its own chronology. The mere statement of the idea was enough to set a campaign in motion. John H. Patterson had died, but he left a son, Frederick Beck Patterson, whose interested in flying was due to the fact that he had held a commission as a lieutenant in aerial photography during the great war. The first step towards the raising of the money was to organize the Dayton Air Service committee with the following personnel: President, Frederick Beck Patterson; vice-president, Frederick H. Rike; secretary, Ezra M. Kuhns; treasurer, W. M. Brock; board, W. R. Craven, Valentine Winters, H. H. Darst, I. G. Kumler, Colonel Frank T. Huffman, Colonel E. A. Deeds, G. W. Shroyer, F. J. Ach, J. C. Haswell, H. W. Karr, Edward Wuichet, George B. Smith, H. D. Wehrley, John F. Ahlers, and C. E. Comer.
Calling to his assistance the citizenry of Dayton, Mr. Patterson outlined a plan which included, as its main feature, the acquirement of five thousand acres of land to be presented to the government free of charge for the establishment of a research station. The National Cash Register Company led in publicity work, the papers loyally did their share. It was insisted upon that other cities, no less than thirty, and especially Detroit, with Selfridge Field, were competing strongly for the honor. If this opportunity were allowed to pass, Dayton, the logical cradle of aviation, would forever take second or third place. The greatest honor we could bestow upon the man who had invented the airplane would be to make secure the plan for centering all the activities of aviation in Dayton.
For two heated days everybody thought and talked Wright Field. Not a man was left unapproached. All the arguments were aired; all our civic loyalty was drawn upon. When the final count of contributions to the fund was made it showed that Dayton had
“gone over the top” to the tune of $425,673. F. B. Patterson sent the following telegram to Major-General Mason M. Patrick, chief of the United States Air Service:
Our public spirited citizens today subscribed sufficient money to buy the new site for the government’s aviation experimental field on the eastern boundary of Dayton. Enough money was raised to pay for the five thousand acres in the proposed gift and a sufficient amount to be used as a nucleus for a memorial to the Wright Brothers.
. . . . The spirit which dominated the campaign will ever mark the attitude of Dayton toward the United States Air Service. Our citizens will always extend a hearty hand of fellowship to its members.
So now, the Wright Field being definitely established, what, after nine years, are the conditions and accomplishments? First it is the home of the Materiel Division of the United States Army Air Corps. The interested observer sees two runways, each one mile long, grass covered. There are three hangers of steel and concrete construction having a total area of 86,300 square feet with a plane capacity of seventy-five. The lighting system consists of a beacon, 1,000 watts, rotating; two floodlights, observation, best approach and runway marker lights, illuminated wind indicator. Twenty-nine buildings house the Material Division activities, including administration building, main laboratory and radio, power plant, wind tunnel and propeller laboratories with a total floor space of 2,200,000 square feet. These are the physical characteristics. The Material Division is divided into six main engineering sections: Airplane, power plant, equipment, armament, materials, and lighter than air (balloons).
Airplane Branch – Contrary to usual opinion, no flying is taught at Wright Field. It is a vast laboratory for experiment and the production of all that concerns the art of flying. The airplane branch deals primarily with the military airplane structure. Before a new type of airplane is completed, all its parts are tested to learn their actual strength values. There is a wind tunnel laboratory where small models are tested. Wright Field uses two such tunnels, a large one and a small one. Propellers are developed in this section and Wright Field possesses the largest propeller test rig in the world. Propellers up to forty-five feet in diameter may be whirl tested.
Power Plant Branch – The aircraft engine forms the kernel of activities here, the constant aim being for higher power without increase in weight. A new cooling system, permitting great reduction in the size of the radiator, is an important development. A supercharger for supplying the engine with sufficient air pressure for operation in very high altitudes; the obtaining of a higher standard fuel and oil have resulted in much engine improvement.
Equipment Laboratory – Hundreds of projects of special interest are under way all the time in this department. Parachutes, field and air-lighting equipment, aviators’ clothing, oxygen apparatus (to enable the flier to breathe in an altitude above 17,000 feet), photographic supply, including an aerial mapping camera with five lenses are among the products in use here. Also a flight tutor in which the embryo pilot may learn quickly how he will react to the different positions of an airplane, and the gyro pilot, an instrument which keeps the airplane stable on its course without the aid of the pilot, are two enormously important inventions.
Materials Branch – This department is used for testing all materials used in the air corps, wood, sheet steel, wire, cloth, fuels, oils, paints, varnishes, fabrics, rubber goods, all must come up to the necessary aircraft standard. Common enough materials, all of them, and easy to procure in peace time; but every piece of an airplane is of uncommon material, perfect to a degree never before demanded. And a man’s life hangs on every piece. Where a material which would be necessary in time of war, such as parachute silk, is not available in quantity in this country, effort is made to obtain a substitute which may be domestically produced. During the war, when linen for airplane fabric was unobtainable in sufficient quantity, this laboratory developed a mercerized cotton which proved better for the purpose than linen. It also invented an aluminum alloy for use in cylinder heads of air-cooled engines. Innumerable small parts such as tires, wing-ribs, metal and wood wingspars, cables, and propeller blades are the subjects of ceaseless experiment.
Armament Branch – The war uses of airplanes include the carrying of bombs, guns, cannon and ammunition and it is this department which controls offensive and defensive operations. Instruments for the accurate dropping of bombs upon definite objectives, taking into consideration the speed of the plane, its pitching and yawing, the speed of the wind and the trajectory of the fall of the bomb have all been developed. Gun sights, machine gun synchronizers (a timing device which makes it possible for the pilot to fire dead ahead through the plane of rotation of high-speed propellers) are undergoing constant improvement. Pyrotechnics, including signal and lighting flares, and handled by this branch.
The Hangars – But all these technical elements in aircraft production are of less interest to the casual visitor than the giant hangars with the airplanes equipped and ready to be rolled to the flying line. Virtually every type of military airplane is represented – training planes, bombardment planes, observation planes, attack planes with guns mounted in the wings, light pursuit planes, transports for carrying troops and supplies, photographic and ambulance planes. Machines that were undreamed of fifteen years ago are here like steeds in a stable, ready for the race. Wright Field is the testing ground of new planes for the Army Air Corps, the only one of its kind in the United States. A group of special test pilots are stationed there to ascertain of each new plane its speeds, rate of climb, its “ceiling,” in short, just what it will do in the air. This taking up of an untried plane is pioneering of the most venturesome kind. Although the risks are ever present, thousands of test flights have been made without accident. In other instances aviators have lost a propeller, landed planes that caught fire in the air, taken to parachutes to save their lives or sometimes, in dreadful disaster, given up their very existence for their work.
The amazing history made by the Wright Field Pilots would fill a volume. Major R. W. Schroeder flew to 33,113 feet through sixty-seven degrees below zero to set a new world altitude record. Lieutenant Louise Meister landed his plane in a tree to break the fall when his engine failed. Captain A. W. Stevens established a record for a high altitude jump, going over the side of the plane at 23,894 feet. Lieutenant J. A. Macready on September 5, 1924, made a world record when he lifted his machine to 32,400 feet Lieutenants Macready and Kelley stayed up for thirty-six hours, beating the world at it.
Many more records of equal importance are increasing with every annual report. The core of our national defense is the airplane and in the airplane as it is in its home at Wright Field on the eastern horizon of Dayton.
We can best conclude this chapter by the estimate of General Patrick J. Hurley, Secretary of War, which he paid to Dayton when he landed at Wright Field on a recent flight from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Washington: “There is no question that Wright Field is the nerve center of aeronautics in the United States and that it is the greatest air and air-equipped experimental station in the world.”
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