Checking Out the Wright Brothers in Dayton, Ohio

Vintage photo of Wright brothers craft in flight
  • Vintage photo of Wright brothers craft in flight

You know that they made that historic first airplane flight (in 1903). Perhaps you’ve heard they’re from North Carolina. And if you’ve seen pictures of the Wrights, it’s not surprising if you sized them up as two unimposing, fairly frail intellectuals.

Yes, their first flight(s) did dart through the wind in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, over dunes providing soft landings and desolation lending more privacy (read: secrecy). But the boys lived and grew up in Dayton, Ohio – where they created their heavier-than-air flying machines to conduct those initial tests in Kitty Hawk’s ideal environment.

And how about some of the factors that helped catapult these two men into human flight? Here’s one of them: an 1896 German glider’s tragic fall from 56 feet high, which shattered his spine and within hours resulted in his death. After hearing this news, and further studying, the brothers were even more convinced that they could sustainably fly. There goes that frailty.

I’m here in Dayton, Ohio, excited for my cousin’s wedding; she’s beaming from ear to ear for her upcoming day. But I have another focus as well: I need to see that first airplane ever flown.

It’s quickly found out that Carillon Historical Park – comprising 65 landscaped acres and dozens of historic buildings – is the place to stroll though Orville and Wilbur’s lives and get a grasp on Dayton’s history. Amble past intricate presentations, various displays and historic buildings to the back of the park, and there resides the Wright Brothers Aviation Center.

But let’s back up for a second. I’m on my cell (hands-free), driving to Carillon Historical Park. Upon learning where I’m headed, my friend, Raquel, excitedly exclaims, “Oh, I saw their first airplane on exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., earlier this summer!”

Really? What am I going to see then? A replica of the first plane that’s sitting in another state? With my Wright wings already snapped, I forge on to see what’s left to learn at the “historical” site. It’s with this thought that I enter the showcase room that boasts the Wright Flyer III. “Oh great. The first third plane ever,” I hear my thoughts whine.

At this negative point Tom, the museum docent, offers me a relieving (and unrequested) piece of information concerning the first airplane being in D.C.: “Orville wanted it this way – the first airplane over there, and the first practical airplane’s home to be here in Dayton.”

The Wright Flyer III dominates the room with its 40-foot wingspan and 28-foot length. A Wright mannequin lies on the airplane’s bottom wing wrapped in a complexity of wires – above his head, from his hips – with both hands grabbing a gauge. Shifting his hips to the right turned the craft to the right and vice versa. Hitting the wire above his head started the landing process. The hand gauges controlled the rudder and lift. The pilot was strapped in, going nowhere but to a bad place if things went awry.

It was this airplane that made a 39-minute, 24-mile trip in 1905. That first 1903 flight lasted a mere 12 seconds, covered a paltry 120 feet, and could not turn at all. This Wright Flyer III was the first flying machine that could repeatedly take off, fly under pilot control for a significant length of time, and land undamaged. It is also the first airplane to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

These brothers’ visions clearly outweighed any immediate fears. Their dedication to study, design, documentation and risk taking renders one entirely inspired. Dayton’s Wright Brothers Aviation Center proved itself worthy of seeing first hand. The Smithsonian and D.C. can wait…for a while anyway.

(P.S. The Wright brothers were not the first to successfully pull off gliding in the States. In 1883, John Montgomery flew the first manned, controlled, heavier-than-air flight here in Otay Mesa. Look at you, San Diego!)

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