By Penny Rafferty Hamilton, Ph.D. for General Aviation News
On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the sky at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, flying a self-propelled, heavier-than-air plane. Little did they know their 12-second flight over some windswept sand dunes would eventually connect once remote places through our world-wide system of airports.
After their historic 1903 flight, the Wrights continued to improve the aerodynamic design of their airplane in their Dayton, Ohio, machine shop. In 1904, with fewer than 8,000 cars in the entire United States and only 144 miles of paved roads with the maximum speed limit of 10 miles an hour, the Wrights had to test their improved designs closer to home.
According to the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park Service, a suitable flying field close to home was available rent-free. Dayton banker Torrence Huffman allowed the Wrights to use the flat pasture only a few miles northeast of town. With Kitty Hawk more than 500 miles away, this was a much more reasonable solution to conduct their 1904 and 1905 aeronautical experiments.
It became – for all intents and purposes – the nation’s first airport.
According to the Centennial of Flight, the brothers had successes, failures, and many frustrations at Huffman Prairie. The wind at Dayton was much lighter than it had been at Kitty Hawk, and without high winds, the Wrights had great difficulty getting their Wright Flyer off the ground.
They had to extend their launching rail so they could take off on windless days. The slower the wind was blowing, the faster the airplane had to move to take off.
They decided that they needed some help getting the Wright Flyer off the ground. Late in the summer 1904, Wilbur and Orville built a device that would get them up to flying speed — a catapult. This catapult was actually a wooden derrick, 20′ high, which dropped a 1,200- to 1,400-pound weight attached to a rope. The rope stretched down the derrick, under the launching rail, and back to the rail on which the Flyer traveled. When the weight dropped, the rope pulled the carriage and the Flyer along the rail, giving the airplane the extra energy it needed to reach flying speed. Soon, they were off the ground time-after-time into the air.
The newly installed starting derrick allowed Wilbur to set a new distance record.
Huffman Prairie Flying Field saw the Wright brothers tweak designs in more than 100 flights, totaling 49 minutes in the air with their 1904 Wright Flyer II.
With that flying machine, they made the first turn and the first circle in the air.
The world watched as their airplane kept getting better through testing and small design improvements.
In the 1905 Ohio flying season, the Wright Flyer III proved the evolution of the design worked. That flying machine allowed the pilot to bank, turn circles, and even fly figure eights. On Oct. 5, 1905, Wilbur piloted the plane for a world record of over 24 miles in 39 minutes.
About two weeks later, the brothers ended their experiments for 1905 feeling that they now had a practical airplane that they could market. In the 1905 flying season, the brothers stayed aloft for 262 minutes in 50 flights.
Their “home airport” at Huffman Prairie served the future of aviation well.
In 1910, the Wright brothers returned to Huffman Prairie Flying Field. That field was used by their new business, The Wright Company, as a testing ground, flying school, and home to their exhibition team.
The Wrights trained others to fly at their Wright Flying School. In 1910, many of their graduates joined the Wright Exhibition Team. On June 13, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the site for their first public performance. Pilots were paid $20 each week and $50 a day when actually flying. At a time when the average worker earned only 22 cents an hour and only around $400 a year, this was a unique opportunity.
1910 was called the year of “American air awareness” because of large aero-tournaments held in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Chicago
As enthusiasm for aviation grew, more airfields popped up all over our nation. However, many were “shared use” with fair grounds and race tracks that quickly returned to their main purposes after the exhibition aviation events were held.
In 1916, The Wright Company stopped using Huffman Prairie Flying Field. In 1917, the United States Army Signal Corps purchased the Huffman Prairie Flying Field and renamed it, along with adjacent acres, Wilbur Wright Field.
In 1948, this historic site was merged with nearby Patterson Air Force Base, creating Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, home to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Today, a replica hangar and catapult at Huffman Prairie recreates those early days.
The site is part of the Dayton National Aviation Heritage Historical Park. In 1990, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Just as today’s local airports connect their communities to the world, Huffman Prairie Flying Field allowed the Wright Brothers to sleep in the own beds and use their Dayton shop equipment to continue the design improvements of their Wright Flyers.
America’s amazing airports create a web of connected benefits worldwide.
Bill Gates of Microsoft fame said, “The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together.”
Today’s airports continue that connectivity legacy.
This is an excerpt from Hamilton’s new book, “America’s Amazing Airports: Connecting Communities to the World.”