by James Farber
June 14, 1937
Doubtless the most fortuitous circumstance among the many by which the City of Dayton has become predominantly the center of experimental aviation in the United States is the fact that it numbers Wilbur and Orville Wright amongst its most distinguished sons.
This, in the ordinary course of things might not have paved the way for the achievements now generally credited to Dayton: with the forward march of progress after the epoch-making accomplishment of a great invention (such as the airplane), the progenitors thereof may easily have been lured from the scene for greener pastures beyond. Not so, the Wrights, however. After their long era of experimenting in and about their home city, after their proof to the world of their work, and after their acclaim by the greatest nations on the face of the globe, they returned to their own bailiwick to continue their careers.
It may even be advanced in support of the argument that Dayton came by its aeronautical fame quite fortuitously that the city and its citizenry did little if anything to encourage, foster or aid the Wrights in their work. Rather, as has been the case so many times throughout history, the Wrights worked in an atmosphere of skepticism, doubt, and even ridicule engendered in not only the ignorance of their fellow citizens but as well in their intolerance and unwillingness to permit their collective cerebra to be penetrated by even the quintessence of a new idea!
Flying was born in Dayton without the aid of and despite its citizens.
Daytonians suffered the leave-taking of the Wrights for Kitty Hawk with apathy. They welcomed them back with unprecedented demonstration like unto that accorded long lost brethren.
Although the date of this leave-taking is now known to have been a few weeks prior to December, 1903, the beginning of the Wright experiments that led to revolution in aeronautical concept antedates even the turn of the century.
At this point in any consideration of the earliest days of the Wrights, it is as well to explode a great journalistic canard that existed for thirty years concerning the initial impulse of the young men which led them into the complicated field of aerial exploration:
The brothers did not determine to transfer their energies to “aviation” as the result of a toy helicopter which their father brought home to them one day.
For years this myth persisted. It was never denied. Orville Wright has maintained an aura about him for years which has discouraged the news mongers. He has permitted misstatements, errors, assumptions rather than break his wall of taciturnity.
But on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of his Kitty Hawk flight, Mr. Wright assured the writer in an exclusive interview subsequently published for the first time in the New York TIMES, that the story of the toy helicoptre being the inspiration for the beginning of monumental aerial investigations was not true.
Mr. Wright stated the if, indeed, one were able to place his finger upon the time he and his brother found themselves awakened to the possibilities of aerial navigation, it most likely was the time he brought a book home for Wilbur to read as he lay abed, ill. That book, Mr. Wright said, was the story of the glider experiments of the renowned Otto Lilienthal.
Once begun, however, the work was slow. By 1898 the two young men had progressed to complicated kites. Large kites they were, requiring manual directional impulse from the ground. Ever practical, the brothers invented an aileron of their own. Glenn Curtiss, too, had invented an aileron. The Wrights patented theirs. Mr. Curtiss did not. For years afterward the litigation went on; the Daytonians won out.
The story of the Wrights at Kitty Hawk has been preserved in a score of archives. Editorial space here can be devoted to the barest details of that long period of experimentation.
It was the merest chance that Orville and not Wilbur became the first man to fly a powered air craft. Mr. Wright relates today how, on December 14, 1903, all was in readiness for the first flight. The brothers drew lots. Wilbur won. Before he could take off, there was a slight accident which damaged the controls. Wilbur had lost his opportunity. It took three days to make repairs. It thus became Orville’s turn to make the first flight. He flattened himself on the wing and unleashed the wire holding the ship to the ground. Then, with Wilbur running along the side holding the lower wing for balance, he lurched into the air.
Thus, man flew for the first time. Orville and Wilbur Wright became men of the era---of the ages. They no longer belonged to Dayton. They had joined the ranks of the most illustrious of all time.
Mr. Wright said many years later: “I don’t recall having any sensation at all in making the first flight. I was so interested in whether the thing would work or not that I did not have time to think about it or gather any impressions.”
But it was six years before Dayton woke up to the fact that two of its sons had achieved world renown. This was for several reasons. The world received the news of the first flight with considerable skepticism. In addition to that, the brothers, on their return to this city, continued their experiments and said little about them. They had achieved flight. Their next step would be to lift their work above this experimental stage to a level of great practicality.
For that matter, the delayed local recognition was also caused by the fact that formal recognition had not yet been achieved in official circles. Dayton, thus, was in reality only a year or two behind the world in acclaiming the brothers. In 1904, after ceaseless experimentation, they were ready to build a better ship. In 1906 they developed a four-cylinder, vertical type engine and chalked up a milestone. They were on the brink of portentous things. In 1907, they made the first flight of one hour duration and Wilbur Wright was seriously injured.
The United States Army, still skeptical and extremely so, nevertheless invited the Wrights to Fort Myer, Va., after the wild accolade which marked the brothers’ tour of Europe. The government offered $25,000 for an airplane that was capable of carrying two men at the speed of 40 miles an hour over a prescribed course, roughly, from Ft. Myer to Alexandria, Va., and return. In a burst of generosity, with few to believe that the Wrights’ plane was capable of meeting the conditions, the offer carried a bonus of 10 percent for each mile-an-hour over 40.
Orville Wright, accompanied by Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois, (later to be commandant at Wright Field and still later, a major general, chief of the Air corps), not only complied with all conditions but won an extra $5,000 reward for averaging 42 miles an hour!
The best answer to those who would fix firmly in their minds why the Wrights were the peers of all aeronautical men of the time is contained in the remarkable fact that it took four years for their Kitty Hawk flight to be duplicated elsewhere: and by this time, the Wrights were flying 25 miles at a hop. Santos Dumont, experimenting in France, flew 238 yards in sustained slight—21 seconds. His record was bettered by Henry Farman, also in France, in 1907 with a one-half mile flight lasting 56 seconds.
No other inventor in the world, it may readily be seen, even approached the Wrights. The latter were actually the only ones in the world to be flying. The others had barely arrived at the Kitty Hawk stage while the Dayton men were forging ahead in seven league boots.
But back of this superb story of accomplishment lies another which has all the homespun qualities that these two great protagonists on the world stage of aerial achievement had themselves. Their father, the Rev. Milton Wright, Bishop of the United Brethren church, had two other children besides Wilbur and Orville. Katherine was for many years a teacher in the Dayton public school system. Lorin is today a successful Dayton manufacturer. Orville and Lorin alone survive.
The Wrights were kindly and tolerant people. They occupied their Hawthorne St. residence for forty years. Wilbur died there. Bishop Wright edited The Religious Telescope, a denominational paper, published in Dayton, with a wide national circulation. He urged women’s suffrage and he and Orville even participated in a great suffrage parade in Dayton. The kindly churchman passed away in his eighty-sixth year.
In reality, Wilbur and Orville were practical mechanics. They repaired bicycles and later scraped together enough money to open up a little shop on W. Third St. between Williams St. and Broadway. The structure, together with the Hawthorn St. homestead, was purchased in 1937 by Henry Ford and removed to the magnificent sanctuary of Americana which Mr. Ford maintains at Dearborn, Michigan.
The young repairmen had few funds to carry on their extracurricular activities in the field of aeronautics. Sir Hiram Maxim, for example, had $100,000 to spend on his elaborately and colossally unsuccessful steam-engine airplane in 1889. But if the brothers lacked the interest, appreciation and understanding of their fellow townsmen, they had the support of the members of their family. Their father encouraged them with sympathy and cash. They received moral support from the others. Later, their sister Katherine donated generously to their needs from the savings she managed to lay aside from her none-too-substantial earnings as a school teacher.
With this background and under these circumstances, Wilbur and Orville, with a peculiar mixture of adventurousness and caution, went to work on their “sideline”. Their personal character was probably never so advantageously and graciously evinced as on the occasion of their reception by the City of Dayton in a Homecoming celebration, June 17, 1909, that was gigantic for those days. They received their plaudits with dignity. They acquitted themselves with aplomb before their fellow citizens including so many whose jibes and scoffs had turned to genuine appreciation. It was a manifestation of a characteristic of greatness: this ability to forget the unkindness of the past.
Before Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912, the brothers continued their work of experimentation, flying and teaching. General Foulois, first Wright pupil and for a time the one-man Air Corps of the United States Army, relates how he took a correspondence course in flying from the Daytonians. He had been ordered to take a Wright plane to Texas to fly it and experiment with it. He had had few lessons from Orville. Problems and dust arose on the Texas prairies. Foulois wrote letters to the Wrights at their Dayton plant whenever he encountered mishaps or engineering problems he needed help in solving. The answers were voluminous, he recalls, but highly illuminating and helpful.
When Canada began training a fine air force, pupils were sent in 1915 and 1916 to Dayton for instruction. One of these young men was Roy Brown, credited officially with shooting down Germany’s aerial duelist and gunfighter, the Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
The Dayton aviation scene changed with the entrance, April 6, 1917, of the United States into the World War. It was early recognized that aerial warfare had progressed from the shotgun and brickbat stage. (Flyers actually took off during the first year of the war armed with shotguns, stones and bricks. They tried hurling the latter through propellers to bring down their adversaries. Then, someone synchronized machinegun fire through whirling blades and a new era of aerial gunnery was born.)
With recognition of the acute need for engineering, research and material development to provide the nation with a highly effective air force, the War Department accordingly established McCook Field at Dayton as the center of these activities. Late in 1917 the work was well under way; engineers, technicians and craftsmen arrived. The post, commanded by Major Thurman H. Bane, one of the Army’s noted engineers, rapidly assumed the form of a vast experimental station. One walked from a beehive of offices, through factories where skilled artisans built nearly everything a plane required from propeller to tail fins, into laboratories devoted to a score of scientific inquiries.
They tested machineguns, they analysed paints; they developed parachutes, they assembled planes from the battlefronts; they improved old engines and built new ones; they built wings and evolved delicate instruments; they jumped from planes to test ’chutes and climbed to the substratosphere to make the beginnings of stratospheric exploration; these things and more they did at McCook Field during the days of the war.
Activities were scarcely less curtailed after the Armistice. Such a comprehensive and important experimental organization had been built up that its continuance was imperative. The human beehive housed in cantonment-type buildings of wartime vintage paced the technical developments of the Air Corps. It was only a question of time before these activities must expand to the point where they could not find proper facilities at McCook Field.
That time arrived by 1926. The citizens of Dayton donated the $450,000 tract of ground for the establishment of a new field. Thus, Wright Field, named for both the Wright brothers, had its beginning. In 1927, the Material Division was moved from McCook to its new quarters.
In shape, Wright Field is generally triangular. Its area is 746.78 acres, of which 520 acres is a flying field.
Landing area is exceptionally good. Planes can arrive and take off a mile in each direction. Wide concrete aprons front the hangars and at night rotating beacons, floodlights and flushlights show the way to incoming and outgoing pilots. Even the wind indicator is illuminated. Counting those under construction, the Field numbers more than forty buildings including the spacious administration structure which has 87,000 square feet of floor space. The main laboratory has 148,920 square feet of space. These are the largest of the group which in all provide 900,000 square feet.
This branch of the government is known as the Materiel Division. The word “materiel” applies to every object or bit of raw material from a strut bolt to high altitude flying suits, and it is the specified function of the Materiel Division at Wright Field to have in readiness for immediate production and service the most advanced types of aircraft, engines, armament and aerial defense equipment.
The Engineering Section is composed of five main branches: Aircraft, Power Plant, Equipment, Materials and Armament. The Aircraft Branch develops new types of planes and improves those already in service. The Power Plant Branch computes, measures and studies all forces developed in high speed engines. The Equipment Branch develops all kinds of accessories and standard flying equipment. The Materials Branch subjects raw materials to the most stringent tests, including fabrics, metals, rubber, paints, etc. The Armament Branch provides the “stingers” for aircraft: the machine guns, bombs, racks, etc.
The Field houses one of the word’s foremost aeronautical museums. Here the visitor is shown airplanes, engines, instruments, models, photographs and all manner of equipment and materials. Under the supervision of Major Albert W. Stevens, famous aerial photographer and stratosphere pilot, the museum probably has no real rival in its field in the world.
Command at Wright Field is reposed in Brigadier General A. W. Robbins.
The visitor in Dayton will find this exceptionally interesting place more than worthwhile and easily accessible. The most direct route is to proceed East on Third St. to Springfield St., along Route 4. The field is approximately three miles beyond the city limits. Visitors are welcome daily and are conducted on thorough tours by guides who provide a highly vivid, easily understood description of the activities of the Air Corps here.
Points of Interest include: the wind tunnel laboratory for testing propellers and planes; the load-testing of wings; the incomparable displays at the museum; propeller design and testing; developments in aerial photography; a hundred or more various types of military aircraft; night flying instruments and lighting; some of the armament designed for aerial warfare.
Wright Field is a mecca for the technical men of aeronautics. It is the nation’s one Air Corps experimental depot and as such attracts visitors from all over the globe. Few important names in aviation have not at some time or other signed the registration book and, as is oftener the case, have often done so. It would be impossible, even impracticable to attempt publication here of a roster of these notables.
Dayton hotel men know, probably better than anyone else in local business, of this constant influx of men and women identified with aviation. Probably few of these visitors have not seen the elaborate, beautiful murals of the Kitty Hawk Room at the Biltmore hotel where the original flight and the most modern fighting planes are depicted in quiet, tasteful color.
The citizens of Dayton accept Wright and Patterson Fields as a rather well coordinated part of the community picture. Patterson Field, on Route 4, just southwest of Osborn, is an outgrowth of the old Fairfield Intermediate Air Depot, established before the close of the World War. Patterson Field named for Lieutenant Stuart Patterson, scion of Dayton’s prominent family, who was killed while test-flying an airplane. After the war, there were indications that the depot might be moved elsewhere. Its name was changed, however and the vast reservation was subjected to a vigorous program of development and beautification which reached a climax during the last five years with the completion of a model village for Air Corps officers and their families.
Standing alone, weatherbeaten and ramshackle in a wilderness of unkempt grass and weeds, is the prairie hanger where the Wright Brothers experimented with their ships both before and after Kitty Hawk, barely a mile from the impressive red brick-and-tile of the Officers’ Village. A ghostly reminder of a primitive day in aeronautics.
It is probably significant that Dayton citizens are by no means apathetic to what is going on about them in aeronautics. At first glance, this might seem a trite statement. One might be tempted to believe, and with reason, that with so many vital activities almost in their very midst, Daytonians could scarcely help finding them selves interested. On the contrary, with such a fanfare of events constantly about their ears, people living in such an environment might reasonably be expected to pay little heed.
The fanfare is supplied by the local newspapers. The policies of their editorial sanctums favor the over play of local aviation news. Particularly is this true of what is called in newspaper parlance, “feature stories”. No week passes without some “feature” being picked out of the Wright and Patterson Field scene by an energetic but desperate reporter seeking to please his editors. The result of this is the finest collection of detail concerning aeronautica Daytoniana that will probably ever be written. Local newspaper files contain data of immeasurable value on the local developments in aviation. No volume will ever be written, it is safe to say, that would be as comprehensive as this imbroglio of information would provide if it were even untangled, dissected and edited.
But Daytonians since the war days have found their interest compelled to rivet itself on the march of aeronautic events. This, it must be repeated, is due to the unflagging efforts of the local newspapers to overplay the news as well as the feature angles of local events. The occasion of even a slight accident at either of the fields -- if the newspapers get wind of it – is likely to find itself puffed into a main-play banner headline. The occasion of a major accident in which, for example, several men save their lives by taking to parachutes from a disabled plane, is an occasion for special and highly concentrated editorial attention.
The justification of all this journalistic enterprise is, of course, the genuine story interest contained in such news breaks. Consider, then, these swiftly-paced, kaleidoscopic events that more than quickened pulses down through the years and you will have concomitantly a vivid impression of Dayton’s aeronautical life and times:
In February, 1920, Major Rudolph W. Schroeder, flying an improved Lapere biplane, ascended to 33,113 feet. The intense cold, the lack of facilities for equalizing the air pressure, numbed the Major’s senses; froze his eyeballs. In semi-coma, he dropped to within a few thousand feet of the ground; landed almost as an automaton. But he broke all world’s records. Startled Daytonians (and the rest of the world), read the thrilling story beneath hysterical scareheads.
The next year Lieutenant John A. Macready topped the Schroeder mark by reaching 34,508 feet. He was better equipped; did not plummet back to earth. The story made history – and great reading. In 1922, Captain Albert W. Stevens, already a noted parachute jumper and aerial photographer, leaped from a plane at an altitude of 4,200 feet. He broke a world record and his leg. The story was national news. The same year, Lieutenant Donald Bruner introduced devices and plans by which scheduled night flying was made practicable for the first time in history. Then, as though the year had not already contained sufficient sensation, the Barling Bomber was built. It was the most gigantic airplane ever made. It paved the way for the Clipper ships of a new era. It was a triplane of astonishing dimensions, bristling with the snouts of machineguns, small bore artillery and bombs. It was flown in 1923; served its experimental purposes; was dismantled.
The year 1923 saw the beginning of the long series of efforts to make records and then break them. The Verville-Sperry racer was built; made a world speed record with Lieutenant Alexander Pearson at the controls. Lieutenant Harris and Lockwood smashed records over a course twice as long. Lieutenants Macready and Oakley G. Kelly took a Fokker monoplane aloft; stayed there 36 hours. They then proceeded to break every speed record for transport type planes over four long courses. Still not satisfied, this notable pair took off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, and sat down 26 hours and 50 minutes later at Rockwell Field, San Diego, Calif. Man had spanned the continent in a nonstop flight!
Meanwhile, the same year, Lieutenant Albert F. Hegenberger and Bradley Jones went down to the Ohio River, climbed high above all clouds, never went below them until they reached their stated goal, the Hudson river. “Blind” flying was about to be ushered in! What that was to mean to aviation is obvious.
In 1924, Lieutenant Bruner’s work made possible a regular night schedule from McCook Field to Columbus. The era of the sleeper plane was at hand. McCook engineers, meanwhile, perfected the first planes capable of spreading insecticide. The reign of the boll weevil was at an end. A radio interview was conducted between a pilot in the air and a reporter on the ground. The International Air Races were brought to Dayton; thousands were horrified as a plane exploded into million pieces as it gathered 300 miles an hour on a dive for the pylon.
In 1925, the first radio beacon was perfected and serial equipment installed in mail planes. Strides almost too great to measure or too rapid for timing were being taken. Remote control of radio-equipped battleships was made possible for the first time in world history at McCook Field where a model car was controlled on the ground by an airplane high in the air. Lieutenant George Goddard exploded a great flash bomb; took the world’s first night aerial photograph.
The year 1926 was singularly lacking in the great developments that make news. Numerous accidents occurred, however, although they were marked by effective use of parachutes in spectacular life-saving leaps. Preparations were being made to abandon McCook. Early in 1927, the Materiel Division was established at Wright Field. The march of events was accelerated with the first California-to- Hawaii flight in June. Lieutenant Hegenberger and Lester Maitland were the pilots; both received the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1928 numerous pilots received the D. F. C.; there were new records made; and parachutes proved again their vital importance.
In 1929, Captain Lowell Smith made remarkable demonstrations of fuelling planes while in mid-air. He was awarded the D.F.C. Captain Stevens traveled West; photographed Mt. Rainier from a point 227 miles away. Several more officers received the D.F.C. In 1930, Lieutenant J. E. Parker saved his life by taking to his parachute from a blazing plane. Master Sergt. Bottriell jumped for the first time with a manually operated free type ‘chute. In 1931, the fluid segregator was perfected by Sergt. Samiran and became standard Air Corps equipment. In 1932, Captain Hegenberger (promoted), made world’s first “blind” solo flight. This ushered in a new class at the Air Corps Engineering school at Wright Field: teaching men to fly entirely by instruments as though they were utterly unable to see anything outside their ships.
In 1933 Wright Field began to draw men from all over the country to learn “blind” flying under the tutelage of Captain Hegenberger, now known as the “father of blind flying.” In 1934, Major E. L. Hoffman, world famous parachute expert, designed the triangular parachute; conducted experiments with parachutes attached to airplanes. Major W. E. Kepner and Captain Stevens soared to 60,613 feet in a special stratosphere balloon on a flight sponsored by the National Geographic Society. Both men were awarded the D.F.C.
The year 1935 saw another assault on the stratosphere record, with success this time at 72, 395 feet. Stevens and Lieutenant Orval Anderson made the flight.
The era of the giant bombing plane was now definitely at hand. Since the introduction of the famous “Flying Cigar”, named from its resemblance to a winged cigar, which was experimented on, tested, and approved at Wright and Patterson Fields, the way was clear for bigger and better developments. In 1936, a giant bomber, successfully flown here from the West coast, fell a few feet to the earth, burned several occupants to death. But the work went on. Larger bombing planes were inevitable. The day of the four-engined bomber arrived and in 1937 the first of these giant eagles slid gracefully into the nation’s Number One Experimental Station.
Meanwhile, civic interest in a municipal airport had been developing. Agitation had been keen for more years than one would believe possible in such an aeronautical community, for commercial aerial facilities. The major airlines were glad to cooperate. They had been obliged to abandon Dayton on earlier schedules because an airport capable of meeting their needs was lacking. In 1936, after the tract at Vandalia was acquired by the City of Dayton and the management and backing were assured, work on the $500,000 airport was begun. Hundreds of Works Progress Administration workers began the huge task of leveling and grading. Before the end of the year, progress had been so rapid that on December 17, anniversary of the Kitty Hawk flight, and with Orville Wright taking part in the city wide observance of the date, the first giant passenger liner of the Transcontinental and Western Air service nosed into the port.
It was accompanied by the flagship of the TWA fleet and was christened “The City of Dayton”. The city was now definitely on both military and commercial aviation maps.
Work at the airport was not, however, completed. With still more funds and workmen supplied by the WPA, the task of providing the necessary facilities for night landing was begun. The work was completed by July 1 and air lines began negotiations with the Department of Commerce for routes crisscrossing the Middle West which would include Dayton as a stopping point and enable citizens here to board planes with connections for a hundred places on the face of the globe.
Dayton is doubtless now quite thoroughly air-minded. With this all-important step accomplished, the bright new epoch of aerial transportation is at hand.
By JAMES FARBER
Special writer, POPULAR AVIATION Magazine; Aviation Contributor, NEW YORK TIMES.