Recently we were flying out of Dayton, Ohio – the home of aviation. We had some time, so we decided to revisit Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. There are a few different sites to visit. We had visited the main visitor center downtown, so this time we decided to check out Huffman Prairie Flying Field, the first airport in the world!
Everyone has likely heard of Kitty Hawk, the location where the Wright brothers first took flight. But that was a short trip (just 59 seconds) straight ahead. To make their experimental airplane truly functional, the Wright brothers still had to figure out how to launch a motorized flying machine without propelling it off a hill, then they needed to be able to steer it and land it safely.
Huffman Prairie was a perfect location for them to work out the kinks – almost 100 acres that a friend let them use, easily accessible to them by trolley but far enough to keep curious onlookers away. There they embarked on a long process of experimentation, involving lots of short flights and lots of crash landings! Think about it… today if you want to learn how to fly, you go to school. But for the Wright brothers, there was no school. They had to learn everything on their own.
Unlike Kitty Hawk where there was a hill to launch from, at Huffman Prairie they had to figure out how to launch from the ground and into shifting winds. They came up with a clever system using rails and a catapult to launch their flying machine over the prairie (and the cows). And, after lots of crashes and one unfortunate incident with a tree, they were able to learn how to steer and created a dependable steering mechanism that let them master banked turns.
In 1904, they managed only 78 good flying starts (37 for Wilbur and 41 for Orville) and many of those test flights lasted only seconds. But by 1905, both of the brothers were skilled aviators, able to do repeated landings and takeoffs and figure 8’s, staying in the air as long as the gasoline lasted. Their 81 year old father Milton was so confident in their abilities, that he finally went up with them for his first ride. During those two years, their perseverance took an experimental machine and transformed it into a fully functional flying machine.
When you visit Huffman Prairie Flying Field, you will be able to walk around the perimeter of the airfield, stopping to read informational signs about the site and the Wright brothers. One sign points out the stone foundations of the aviation school that the Wright brothers established there to teach future aviators, making this not only the first airport but also the first flight school. Many of the pilots they trained went on to fly on the Wright’s demonstration team and later, in World War I.
There is a replica of the catapult and their hangar. (They had to partially disassemble the airplane to fit it in.) Flags mark their original flight path around the meadow. If you want to really visualize the distance of their first flights, you can walk a 1 mile grassy path around the perimeter of the meadow.
We would also recommend walking around the 3/4 mile path through the adjoining Huffman Prairie State National Landmark. This is 112 acres of native prairie maintained by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the National Park Service and Five Rivers Metro Parks. This is a great example of native prairie, preserved along with an important piece of aviation history.
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