For those who love general aviation, as well as history, a visit to the National Aviation Heritage Area in Ohio is a must.
The federally designated heritage area surrounds Dayton, the hometown of the Wright brothers. The eight-county area is chock-full of aviation sites, from the original Wright brothers’ bicycle shop, to Huffman Prairie, where the brothers perfected their flying skills, to the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
What’s even better? Many of the sites are free, which means more money for avgas.
National Museum of the Air Force
Plan to start your tour of the city with a visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, which is on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Give yourself a least a day to tour the museum’s three hangars, which document the history of flight from the earliest days right up to today.
If your trip is planned for later this year, you might want to wait until after June 8, when the museum’s fourth hangar is set to open. The 224,000-square-foot building will house 70 iconic aircraft and space vehicles, including SAM 26000 (“Air Force One”), the only surviving XB-70 Valkyrie, and a massive Titan IVB space rocket.
There’s not enough room here to document all the exhibits in the air force museum, but rest assured there’s something for everyone who has any interest in aviation or history. Many of the exhibits have been updated with touchscreen displays that recount the pertinent facts about the plane or artifact on display.
It’s best to do some pre-flight planning before you get to the museum, suggests Dr. Doug Lantry, a research historian and curator at the museum.
He advises going online to NationalMuseum.af.mil and taking a virtual tour of the museum. Write down the exhibits you especially want to see in person, noting in which hangar and which gallery they are in.
Plan your tour to maximize time and efficiency, but realize that there’s going to be a lot of walking.
“The No. 1 tip is to wear comfortable shoes,” he said with a smile.
Don’t worry, however, if a day of walking seems impossible to you. The museum has wheelchairs available for free for those who can’t walk the great distances.
There’s a cafe on site to refuel, as well as the large-screen Air Force Museum Theater, which shows popular aviation and space films. For a small fee you watch a great movie and rest your feet.
While the museum can be toured in a day, for those who are really interested in learning about the exhibits, give yourself at least two days — maybe three — to see everything.
While on that side of town, take the opportunity to visit Huffman Prairie, an 84-acre field where Wilbur and Orville Wright perfected their flying skills in the Wright Flyer III, the world’s first practical airplane.
Start your visit at the Interpretive Center at Wright Brothers Hill, owned by the U.S. Air Force and operated by the National Park Service. Admission is free.
Where it began
Another must on your tour of Dayton is the The Wright Cycle Company and the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center at 16 S. Williams Street.
A designated National Historic Landmark, the Wright Cycle Company was where the Wright brothers first dreamt of flight.
The original building has been restored with interpretive exhibits. The site is manned by rangers from the National Park Service who will give you a tour through the building, as well as answer any questions you may have about the Wright brothers and their achievements.
Next door to the bicycle shop is the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, which is in the same building where the Wright brothers operated their printing business. The exhibits here not only explore the lives of the Wright brothers, but also Orville’s high school classmate, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
The center features a film about the three prominent Dayton residents, as well as hands-on displays.
Like Huffman Prairie, the center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is free
If you are feeling adventurous while on this side of town, travel down Third Street to the original Wright Brothers factory.
The factory is closed, but the nonprofit National Aviation Heritage Alliance (NAHA) is working with the property owner to acquire and restore the factory as part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. Officials envision the site will house aviation education and aerospace research and manufacturing, returning much-needed jobs to the neighborhood.
Tours are given periodically of the site, so check with NAHA at AviationHeritageArea.org to see if they will be offering one when you are visiting the area.
NAHA has big dreams for the old buildings, which was America’s first airplane factory. If those dreams are realized, the next Wright B Flyer replica will be built at the old factory site in Building 3, while Buildings 1 and 2 will be under the auspices of the National Park Service.
The remaining two buildings will be dedicated to industry, with “modern aviation manufacturing taking place,” according to Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Area.
Until those dreams are realized, however, the Wright B Flyer project continues to be based at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport (KMGY), just south of Dayton in Miamisburg. You can see the replica on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Admission is free.
The airplane, which made its Oshkosh debut last year, is available for fly-overs and static displays at public and private events. Honorary Aviator members are eligible for a free orientation flight.
Want to see the real thing?
The original 1905 Wright Flyer III is on display at Carillon Historical Park, a truly cool place on 65 acres near the Great Miami River.
The park immerses you in all of the area’s history — not just aviation — in 25 historical buildings, including a replica of the Wright brothers shop.
But there’s also a 1835 B&O (Grasshopper) steam locomotive, and the first automobile self-starter, as well as Dayton’s oldest building, Newcom’s Tavern, which was built in 1796.
There is an admission charge to the park, but it’s well worth the $8 price tag. When I visited, I only had about an hour there, but wished I could have spent a lot more time.
Don’t miss the animatronic show in the visitors center, which features talking figures of Orville and Wilbur Wright, along with other Dayton luminaries.
While in the area, consider driving north to Grimes Field (I74) in Urbana, home to the Champaign Aviation Museum.
Admission is free to the museum — although donations are appreciated. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am. to 4 p.m.
The prize project at the field these days is the restoration of the B-17 “Champaign Lady.”
But Wait, There’s More
There’s lots more to do and see in Dayton, so check out the National Aviation Heritage Area’s website (AviationHeritageArea.org), as well as the Dayton Convention &Visitors Bureau (DaytonCVB.com) to help you plan your trip.