I always consider it a privilege to be introduced as a pilot. It implies a certain kinship, a shared experience with a special group of men and women. Or as Flying Officer John Magee put it, "to slip the surly bonds of earth, on silver wings, where never lark or even eagle flew."
I want to tell you of a place. It is not the wind swept dunes of Kill Devil Hill or of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It is not yet December the 17th, 1903. It is a place in the countryside outside of Dayton, near the small Ohio town of Osborne.
Two young men, bicycle makers, are holding onto a large object with two ropes against the wind. The object looks something like a cross between a box kite and an early biplane. They called it a glider and they were using it to test out various airfoils.
They built a rather unsuccessful manned glider and tried to fly it on the hillside near Huffman Prairie. Orville actually said that he thought man would fly someday, but probably not in his lifetime.
In the 1920s, the Army Signal Corps engineering branch was moved from Dayton to a small valley just over the hill from Huffman Prairie. It was appropriately name Wright Field and became the headquarters for the Air Research and Development Command.
At the end of The War, that's WW Two for you younger ones here… my father was transferred to Wright Field. We lived just down the road behind Wood City, a section of Patterson Air Force Base. I remember picking my dad up at the base when he would fly in, in an old converted B-25 and walking past a shiny B-17 with general's stars just under the cockpit window. The chrome propped bomber was Jimmy Doolittle's personal plane.
My upstairs bedroom window looked onto a bone-yard of captured German and Japanese airplanes along with some well-used American WW Two aircraft. Air Research had brought these planes over to study them and they were piled up waiting to become part of the Air Force museum. That was as soon as there would be a U.S. Air Force.
My neighborhood buddies and I flew many a bombing mission in that old B-29 and a C-54 in the bone-yard. We'd duck and hide when the roving patrol came by.
Now most of those aircraft have been artfully restored and are on display at the AF Museum. When I'm in Dayton, I make it a point to stop by and see them. I appreciate the good care they are taking of my childhood toys.
Werner VonBranun and his extended family came to Wood City right after the war. His nephew Wolfgang and I attended junior high together. We became good friends and he shared many of his experiences at Peenemunde with me.
In 1948 when Orville died. Aviation was only 45-years old and we were already approaching the sound barrier. WOW!
If you go out old Route-4 and know where to turn, at the top of the hill a wooded area behind Wright Field is a large monument that stands 20 or so feet in the air. On it is a large tarnished bronze plaque. I've read it many times. I don't remember exactly what it says, but the words are a tribute to the Wright Brothers.
About 50-yards behind the Wright Memorial is a lookout point that overlooks Huffman Dam. Behind it lies the now tree covered Miami River bottom of Huffman Prairie.
If you stand on that hillside and squint just right and gaze out over Huffman Prairie, you will be able to see the first U.S. Army Air training field where the likes of Hap Arnold, commander of the Air Forces in WW Two, first learned to fly in a rickety old biplane. Or maybe you'd see Lt. Roy Brown, who was credited with shooting down the Red Baron in WW One. He learned to fly there too.
Twelve miles over the treetops is Vandalia Airport. I took my first flying lesson at age 16 in a Piper Tri-Pacer there. The first test pilot school where the likes of Chuck Yeager graduated was located at Vandalia.
To your right, you might see a C5A coming in for a landing at Patterson Field. It was the first runway that was built to hold a fully loaded operational B-36. The concrete on the runway was laid 6-feet deep.
And to your far right at Wood City was where a man with an idea to build a 3-stage rocket came. He said it would fly to the moon. He was right, and it did.
The Wright Brothers Memorial is not a cemetery. No one is buried there, but it is never the less hallowed ground. It honors a birthplace. Within a fifteen-mile radius of this hallowed ground, the entire American civil and military aviation industry began, one hundred years ago.
True stories of flying in Marvin Arnold's book "Flying Stories"
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