World’s First Flying Field

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

After their successful first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903, the Wright Brothers wanted a place to fly closer to home so that they could continue their experiments and perfect their machine and at the same time be close to an engineering center. In 1903 they were delayed twice when they had to return to Dayton to fix their propeller shafts.

The 1903 Wright Flyer had demonstrated that flight was possible, but it was an experimental machine. It was unstable in flight and required further refinement to make flying a practical reality.

Huffman Prairie

In the spring of 1904 at the kindness of Torrence Huffman, a vice-president of the Fourth National Bank and a family friend, they obtained the use of an isolated cow pasture eight miles northeast of Dayton that became known as Huffman Prairie. Orville was familiar with the site because his ninth grade biology class under the guidance of teacher, William Werthner, had visited the site on a field trip for the purpose of sketching wildflowers.

An electric interurban traction line ran by the field. Simms Road Station was conveniently located fifty yards away. It took less than 30 minutes for the brothers to make the trip from their home in West Dayton.

The Wrights actively used the field for eight years. The first two years, 1904 -1905, were used for experimentation with improved machines.  Then, after a hiatus for several years, they returned during the years of 1910 – 1916 to train pilots and test new types of planes from their factory and provide the home base for their exhibition business. Nine new types of planes were tested at Huffman.

Wilbur provided a vivid description of Huffman Prairie in a letter to Octave Chanute:

“We are in a large meadow of about 100 acres. It is skirted on the west and north by trees. This not only shuts off the wind somewhat, but gives a slight downward trend. However, this is a matter we do not consider anything serious. The greater troubles are the facts that in addition to the cattle there have been a dozen or more horses in the pasture and as it is surrounded by barbwire fencing we have been at much trouble to get them safely away before making any trials. Also, the ground is an old swamp and is filled with grassy hummocks some six inches high, so that it resembles dog town”

A rededication ceremony during the “Inventing Flight” celebration marked the culmination of a 10-year effort to restore the prairie to its former state. A replica of the 1905 wooden hanger has been built and there are plans to build the catapult used to launch the airplanes and rebuild the train platform at Simms Station.

A new historical  marker was presented by the Ohio Historical Society and the Ohio Bicentennial Commission for placement at the front entrance. Two new plaques from the National Park Service and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics were placed at the cornerstones marking the park boundaries.

Huffman had permitted the use of the prairie on the condition that the Wrights moved the cattle and horses out of the way before doing any flying. It was used as a pasture because of flooding from the nearby Mad River.

The brothers felt obligated to stay within the boundaries of the approximately 84 acres allocated to them so as not to disturb the neighbors. Also, if they flew beyond the fence line, they would have to lug the airplane back over it.

That meant flying an egg-shaped flight path bounded by power lines to the north, 50-foot trees to the west, and Hebble Creek to the south. Hebble Creek was named after my great-great grandfather Henry E. Hebble who had built a house near Huffman Prairie in 1841.

The house still exists on WPAFB. It is known as the Arnold House now in honor of General Hap Arnold who once lived there as the commanding officer of the base in 1929-31.

The small field was confining, they could fly less than 1,000 feet in a straight line. It did well serve one of their major goals. That was to learn how to make controlled turns.

Their first hanger, the size of a garage,  was built near Hebble Creek on the opposite side of the Prairie as far away as they could get from the traction line in order to maintain privacy.

1904 Flights

In 1904, the Wrights flew Flyer II 105 times for a total flying time of 49 minutes. At first progress was slow. It was not until their 49th attempt that they were able to fly longer than their best attempt at Kitty Hawk.

The terrain was swampy dotted with grassy hummocks, persistent insects, gusty winds and summer storms. When I was there during the “Inventing Flight” celebration, I walked the flight path and ended up with over 20 mosquito bits.

The lack of strong and consistent wind and Dayton’s less dense air gave them great difficulty in getting airborne even though they extended the launch rail four times as long as the one used in Kitty Hawk. They solved the problem by constructing a 20-foot high derrick from which a 1,600-pound weight was dropped to catapult the Flyer to a speed near 25 mph to achieve take-off.

On May 23rd, before the construction of the derrick, they invited the press to observe their plane fly. About 12 reporters showed up on a windless day. The Flyer ran down the rail and and didn’t rise a single inch. The Wrights invited them back the next day and 3 showed-up. The Flyer did fly between 20 and 60 feet, depending on whose account you read. After that the reporters left them alone.

On September 20, Wilbur flew the world’s first controlled circle in an airplane. Ames I. Root who published an account of the event in his magazine, Gleanings in Bee Culture, witnessed the event. Root wrote:

“When it turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it, and I said then and I believe still, it was… the grandest sight of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing right toward you – a locomotive without any wheels… but with white wings instead… Well, now, imagine that locomotive with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with the tremendous flap of its propellers, and you have something like what I saw.”

The total number of flights flown that year was 105 for a combined flying time of 49 minutes. Two flights of 3 miles each were flown on November 9 and December 1, respectively.

1905 Flights

In 1905, Flyer III partially built with parts from Flyer II, made 50 flights. The longest was over 24 miles flown in 39 minutes 23 4/5 seconds on October 5. In making the extraordinary flight, Wilbur circled the field 29 times and landed only because he ran out of gas.

The machine could not only turn in circles, but also performed figure eighths. The engine could produce nearly 21 horsepower or almost twice that of the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, and had been modified with oiling and feeding devices to permit longer run time. The Wrights after six years of hard work, inventiveness and perseverance had mastered controlled flight and had developed the world’s first practical airplane.

They were now ready to find buyers for their airplane. While negotiating with potential buyers, they stored their machine in Nov. 1905 and didn’t fly again until April 1908. By that time they had secured contracts with the U.S. Army and in Europe.

Wright Company Flying School

In late 1909, they established the Wright Company to manufacture their airplanes. In May 1910, the Wrights returned to Huffman Prairie where they operated the Wright Company School of Aviation and the Wright Exhibition Company and also tested company manufactured airplanes. They built a much larger hanger in the spring of 1910. The hanger remained standing on the prairie until WW II.

Their brochure for the flying school read:

“The Wright Company operates a permanent school of aviation at the historic grounds at Simms Station near Dayton, where the Wright Brothers carried on their experiments. The field is admirably adapted to training purposes, the ground being level and free from obstructions.

The course of instruction consists of four hours of actual practice, given in a series of flights ranging in duration from five to fifteen minutes, or perhaps longer, depending on the weather and the desires of the instructor and the pupil. Every pupil is given individual training, and with the excellent facilities available, not only at the field, but at the factory in Dayton, a course of training in this school is without question superior to any in this country, if not in the world. The machines that are used for school work and the method of dual control adopted, give almost perfect results, and students are often turned out as competent pilots eight or ten days later after their first trip in an aeroplane.

Not more than four or five pupils are under the care of one instructor, and the lessons are given in regular rotation. In all of the training flights the pupil is accompanied by the instructor on a machine equipped with duplicate control levers. As the pupil begins to acquire the feel of the air, the instructor gradually relinquishes the levers to the pupil, but he is ever present and ready to resume control should the pupil make any serious mistake. By this method the usual dangers are eliminated but the presence of the instructor by no means suggests that the pupil himself is not flying, as it is the customary practice for the instructor to make sure that the pupil knows that he is running the machine himself. Pupils usually learn to fly in two to three hours of actual practice in the air, but the work for one day is on the average restricted to one-half hour.

The rate of tuition in the Wright School is fixed at $250.00 payable at time of enrollment. Contrary to the practice in many aviation schools the pupil is not held responsible for any breakage of the machine. The fee covers every expense for tuition.”

The Wrights delegated most of the teaching to instructors, but Orville would regularly check up on student progress. He would sometimes ask the students if they had done any “mushroom hunting” today. By “mushroom hunting” he meant very low flying, something that Orville often did. For the students it meant that they had to be very alert not to drag the wings on the ground or make some other serious error while flying.

Miriam Rosser who lived near Dayton described in a 1910 letter to her mother the sights she saw at Simms Station:

“We went out there about half past three or four and lined up with scores of other autos and vehicles on the side of the road stretching along the aviation field.

At five o’clock the sensation of the week took place in the flight of Orville Wright over the city of Dayton and back. We watched him start, try the air in a few circles and then fly away up in the blue until he was finally a mere speck and we could no longer hear the whir of the big paddles. He disappeared, but in about 20 minutes the sharpest eyes discovered him again and we watched him return. It was like a giant beetle to hear it coming louder and louder. Then he neared the field again and flew right over our heads, fairly scaring one and circling, landed amid the cheers and clapping and honks of the automobiles.”

Several other interesting events occurred at Huffman Prairie in 1910:

* On May 25, Wilbur and Orville flew together for the first and last time. They had promised their father they would never do that. Their father had relented for that one time. They flew a Wright Model A/B and circled counterclockwise for about six minutes.

* Their father watched his sons fly that day and then it was his turn. Milton, 81 years old, had never flown before. He enjoyed the ride, telling Orville to “fly higher and higher” during the flight.

* The world’s first commercial flight was flown by Phil Parmalee, a Wright exhibition team member. Orville and sister Katharine were present when Parmalee took off in a Wright Model B from Huffman Prairie on his way to Columbus, Ohio on November 7. He was carrying a cargo of silk strapped to the passenger seat.

* Charlie Taylor, the Wrights’ chief mechanic who manufactured the engine that powered the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer and latter was assigned to manage the Huffman flying field, tells a story of his flight with Orville. Charlie says that Orville tried to scare him one day in May. Orville acted as if he was having trouble controlling the machine as it pitched violently. After they landed, Orville asked Charlie if he was scared. “No, if you weren’t, why should I?” Orville thought it was very funny.

General “Hap” Arnold

Henry “Hap” Arnold, who commanded the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II and became a five-star general, was one of the more famous pilots that learned to fly at Huffman Prairie. Arnold soloed in 10 days after 28 flights totaling 3 hours and 48 minutes.

From 1929-1931, Major “Hap” Arnold lived in a house on Wilbur Wright Field that was built by my great, great-grandfather Henry E. Hebble. The house at that time was used to house the base commander. Henry Hebble built the house in 1841 after he migrated from Pennsylvania. Residents of the house could see Huffman Prairie and the flying activities associated with the flying school.

Major Arnold occasionally entertained Orville in the house. The house is now known as the Arnold House and is preserved as the oldest building at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Flying School Closes

Wilbur Wright died in 1912 of typhoid fever. The loss greatly affected Orville and he lost interest in running the Wright Company. He sold it in 1915. In the fall of 1916, the flying school also closed.

In 1919, Orville was asked by some officials to identify the 119 pioneer pilots including three women that were trained at Huffman Prairie. An effort was made to exclude one pilot from the list who was suspected of being a draft dodger. Orville would have none of that. Orville wrote to Edward Deeds and demanded that the name be included on the official list. Draft dodging wasn’t the issue to Orville, accuracy was

Huffman Prairie Becomes Part of Wright-Patterson AFB

In 1917 the government was interesting in establishing a major military airfield near Dayton, the home of aviation. Orville was asked to provide a recommendation of where it might be built. Not surprisingly, he recommended the land around Huffman Prairie now owned by the Miami Conservancy District. One of his technical reasons was that, “the ground was soft and spongy and cushioned the shock of landing.”

The U. S. Army subsequently leased 2,074 acres of the land to establish an aviation school. The new installation was given the name of Wilbur Wright Field in honor of one of the founding fathers of flight.

Soon after, the Army added another 40 acres adjacent to the aviation field to house the Fairfield Aviation General Supply Depot.

The Army also leased a third parcel of land just north of downtown Dayton to serve as an engineering and research facility. This land was formerly known as North Field and was owned by the Dayton-Wright Company, headed by Dayton businessmen, Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering. Both were friends of Orville’s and Orville was a technical consultant to the company but not part of management. The Army named this field, McCook Field.

McCook Field outgrew it facilities in the 1920s. With no room to expand in their current location, the Army was considering relocating the facility to another location in the country. Dayton civic leaders headed by NCR president John Patterson were not going to let that happen.

On May 5, 1922, underscoring his interest in aviation, Patterson arranged a gala reception for General Mitchell, at which a campaign was activated to keep McCook Field in Dayton open as a military base. Patterson also supported Mitchell’s proposal that aviation, which had proved itself in war, should be made a separate military service directly responsible to a civilian cabinet officer. On Saturday May 6, 1922 Patterson died while on a trip.

One Dayton newspaper editor wrote that the “angle of death has called.”  Stanley C. Allyn, later to become CEO of NCR, said, “I don’t suppose the angel had such another reception in town until the decease of Orville Wright in 1948.

In 1924 the Dayton Air Service Committee was organized under the leadership of the NCR and raised enough money to purchase the existing leased land for Wilbur Wright Field and added 2,500 additional acres. They sold the entire property to the government for a grand sum of $1.00.

The entire tract of new land, including Huffman Prairie, and the newly relocated activities from McCook Field was renamed Wright Field in October 1927.

The formal dedication ceremony was held on October 12, 1927. Orville raised the flag on the new engineering center.

The buildings of McCook Field were razed and a city recreation park was established. When I was a kid I played many baseball games on diamonds built in this park.

The year 1931 brought another name change. The portion of the base that previously had contained Huffman Prairie Flying Field, The Wilbur Wright Field and Fairfield Depot was renamed Patterson Field.

Lt. Frank Stuart Patterson, 28, the nephew of NCR founder John H. Patterson was killed during an experimental flight at Wilbur Wright Field in 1918. He was also part of a military program at McCook that tested aerial engines, weapons and photography for the government.

The area constructed to house the transplanted McCook Field, was renamed Wright Field.

In 1948 the newly created U. S. Air Force merged Wright and Patterson Fields to form the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. And that is what it remains today.

National Recognition

The Huffman Prairie survives today in its original state. It escaped the construction activity of the rapidly expanding air force facilities. The site has the distinction of being the only Wright Brothers’ site that still appears much as it did when they used it. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.

The Prairie is also listed as a State Natural Landmark. The prairie contains many rare species of native grasses and flowering plants and is home to several rare or endangered species of birds.

In 2000, a moth species new to science was discovered at the prairie. Following verification by the Smithsonian Institution, the moth was named Glyphidocera wrightorum in honor of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

A partnership consisting of the Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Defense today manages Huffman Prairie. A new modern visitor center located at the Wright Memorial on Wright-Patterson AFB greets visitors to the Prairie. From the high hill on which the Wright Memorial is located, the Huffman Prairie can be seen in the distance.

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