Dayton is Ground Zero on The Aviation Trail

 - October 16, 2015, 2:00 PM
A general overhead view of the WWII Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

To say that I was amazed by all the aviation history that I saw during a recent visit to Dayton, Ohio, would be an understatement. The National Aviation Heritage Alliance (NAHA) invited a group of aviation writers to the first Aviation Writers Summit in Dayton and shared with us many stops on The Aviation Trail, a series of 16 historical aviation sites open to the public and centered around the activities of the Wright Brothers.

My reaction, which mirrored that of my aviation writer colleagues, is common for anyone interested in aviation who hasn’t yet visited Dayton, according to NAHA executive director Tony Sculimbrene. Before the trip, if anyone had asked me about Dayton’s significance to aviation, I would have answered that it was where Orville and Wilbur Wright began researching their airplane designs and where much of early aviation history took place. That barely scratches the surface, as our journey on The Aviation Trail soon revealed. We spent three days on the Trail, and there was a lot that we didn’t have time to see.

We started with a private tour of the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, given by museum curator Dr. Doug Lantry. Although the museum has an online virtual tour that gives a great view of the collection (including amazingly high-resolution Cockpit360 views that are the only way to see inside the collection’s cockpits), seeing the aircraft up close is far more involving. And the exhibits are set up to illustrate the technology in context, so the visitor can experience why each aircraft, engine, satellite and so on is important.

There are approximately 300 aerospace vehicles at the Wright-Patterson site, and more on loan at other museums and military bases. “We keep the record copy,” Lantry explained, “and try to focus on the most meaningful equipment.” He further explained the in-context display technique: “All of this is about people. While we have lots of technology here, technology doesn’t grow itself, make itself or direct itself. People direct technology, [but] that’s not to say we don’t find beauty in technology. There is a trend toward more cultural history illustrated by technology or vice versa. It’s not just airplanes lined up [in a museum].”

Some examples included a World War II Curtiss P-36A Hawk, depicted with a model of a ground crewman helping a pajama-clad pilot climb aboard. The idea is to show that this was a typical scene during the war, Lantry explained, when time was critical. Another display shows a nosed-over North American BT-14 in a tableau with an officer/instructor yelling at a cowed student pilot while two mechanics look over the damage. “It’s a ground accident with some learning going on,” he said. “Not everything goes to plan, and we thought we should show that.” Older visitors to the museum often comment about these kinds of displays, he added, saying, “Yeah, that really happened.”

The National Museum of the United States Air Force is full of too many gems to mention, and we were lucky to see a few, including the museum’s restoration center. Here, there were many projects under way by dedicated volunteers, including restoration of the original Memphis Belle B-17F and a brace of massive Titan 4B rockets.

After dinner under the wings of museum airplanes, we were introduced to Amanda Wright Lane, the great grandniece of the Wright Brothers, at the National Aviation Hall of Fame adjacent to the museum. “You are on sacred ground,” she told the assembled writers and Dayton-area aviation history preservationists.

 Restoration Track

The next day, those of us who chose the Restoration Track traveled to Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio, to visit the Champaign Aviation Museum. This is no ordinary museum: executive director David Shiffer, a former corporate jet pilot who also flies the museum’s B-25, welcomes visitors into the hangar to talk to volunteers who are restoring Champaign Gal, a B-17G Flying Fortress. The Shiffer family started the project in 2005 and it is expected to take another seven years to get the old bomber flying again. Admission to the museum is free, and visitors can even try their hands at bucking some rivets and, hopefully, turn into volunteers themselves.

During the visit, I met mechanical engineer and volunteer Bill Heater, who is repairing cracked chords in the B-17’s wing spars. The chords are square tubular aluminum extrusions that have a taper, and the tooling is long gone. But fortunately, the museum was able to get all the original blueprints and Boeing repair schemes, one of which is how to fix a cracked chord. The repair involves cutting out the old chord, matching it up with a new piece, and riveting on a reinforcement. An inventive facet of Heater’s work involved riveting the chords back onto the spar caps. The only way to buck the rivets many feet inside the hollow chord is to shove an inflatable rubber bladder attached to a solid bucking bar deep inside the chord. Inflating the bladder to 30 psi holds the bucking bar tightly enough against the inside of the chord, allowing Heater to pound on the thick three-sixteenth-inch Type E hard rivets with a rivet gun from the outside.

The team of volunteers has been working on wings for the past eight years, and the project will take another two to complete. “A lot of it was making gussets and pieces to assemble it,” he said. “We started assembly two years ago.” Heater’s team works on the project only two days a week. “I’ll be lucky if I’m alive when this flies,” he said.

Also at Grimes Field is the Grimes Flying lab, a restored C-45H (Beech 18) used as a flying test bed for aircraft lighting. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for more than a drive-by of this airplane.

We next traveled to Troy, Ohio, and the Waco Air Museum, where we were treated to a tour by historian Val Dahlem. This is another museum that pilots can fly into as it is located on Waco Field, a 2,000-foot grass strip on 78 acres.

Most pilots know that the name of the company is pronounced “Wah-ko,” but might not know that it originates from Buck Weaver, founder of predecessor Weaver Aircraft Company. While the company is known for its classic biplanes, during World War II Waco designed and built nearly 1,000 Waco CG-4A troop-carrying gliders (of a total of almost 14,000). The glider was towed by C-47s (DC-3s), then released during night assaults behind enemy lines. What many people might not know is that thousands of the CG-4As were landed intact and recovered, using a snatch mechanism where the C-47 would fly over at 100 mph and catch a hook attached to a looped 1,000-foot line. The line would pay out gently enough so that the glider and its pilots weren’t harmed.

For Waco, the end came shortly after the war when it tried out an odd-looking general aviation airplane, the Francis Arcier-designed Aristocraft. Equipped with a tail-mounted propeller driven by a driveshaft running all the way to the nose-mounted 215-hp Franklin engine, the ungainly looking airplane flew terribly, according to Dahlem, and was a maintenance nightmare.

 Restoration Central

A highlight of the trip–truly every location was a highlight–was a visit to the Air Force Museum’s Restoration Center, where a team of volunteers is restoring the original B-17F Memphis Belle, which famously completed 25 missions with the same crew. There was a key difference between the work done at the Air Force Museum’s Restoration Center and the Champaign Aviation Museum. The Air Force team’s work is intended to make the Memphis Belle look as original as possible, but even though the volunteers manufacture many parts in-house, this B-17 is never going to fly again. But everything about it, even parts that can’t be seen, has to look correct. An example is the wiring, which was originally cloth-wrapped, and in the restored version is done in the same fashion using the same materials and even the correct-size wire. “We’re going to great lengths to make it as historically accurate as possible,” said volunteer Tom Gardner. The Belle’s engines won’t be overhauled, but they are cleaned up and any worn parts replaced so they look original.

The Champaign B-17, however, is going to fly, and when the volunteers at Grimes Field make a part, it has to meet FAA standards.

Another B-17, a D model, is under restoration, too. This is named The Swoose and is the oldest B-17 in existence and was flown by actress Swoosie Kurtz’s father, hence her unusual first name.

 Wright Sites

Although there is plenty of non-Wright Brothers-related aviation history on The Aviation Trail, we were treated to a deep-dive into the brothers’ Dayton activities. We next visited Carillon Historical Park, where the John W. Berry, Sr. Wright Brothers Aviation Center houses an original 1905 Wright Flyer III. Orville Wright helped assemble this Flyer for display at the park. “We call this the world’s first pilot’s last project,” said Alex Heckman, director of education and museum operations.

I couldn’t help wondering why two men who made their living manufacturing bicycles didn’t think of mounting wheels on their early airplanes, including the Flyer III, considered the first practical airplane. Heckman explained that the rail-launch mechanism that the brothers used was much more reliable because few flying fields were perfectly flat; after all, there were no airports. If you wanted to guarantee a clean launch, he said, “with the rail every time you could get in the air.”

 Dinner that night was at Orville and sister Katherine Wright’s home, Hawthorn Hill, now part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. He lived there for 35 years before his death in 1948. Wilbur, sadly, never got to enjoy Hawthorn Hill, having died in 1912 of typhoid fever. The house is in its original condition and still shows some of Orville’s inventive genius, especially the fascinating showerheads in one upstairs bathroom.

On the final day, we toured the Wright Company factory in Dayton, which NAHA is negotiating to purchase and preserve. It was oddly compelling to stand in the factory where, more than 100 years ago, the Wrights oversaw an outfit that employed hundreds of people who ultimately produced 120 Flyers. The factory most recently was a Delphi automotive parts plant, but it shut down in 2008 and has been empty since. “This was the first factory in America for the production of airplanes,” said NAHA’s Sculimbrene. “This was the birthplace of America’s aerospace workforce.”

One of the plans for the Wright factory is to use part of it for construction of a new Wright B Flyer replica. The Wright “B” Flyer organization built the first replica in the 1970s, and that one still flies, but it suffers from marginal performance because of its weight. The only way to bring the existing replica to airshows is to ship it, and that is a costly and time-consuming activity, according to Wright “B” Flyer president Jay Jabour. “The new one will be much lighter,” he said, and it will be designed for disassembly and shipment in a standard shipping container.

The plan is to involve local kids in building the new Flyer. Aviation companies such as Dassault Systemes (SolidWorks design software) and Lycoming (engine) have already signed on to help with the project.

During a tour of the Wright-Dunbar neighborhood in Dayton, we saw the restored Wright bicycle shop. We then headed back towards Wright-Patterson AFB, where the Huffman Prairie site of the Wrights’ early Dayton flights has been preserved, adjacent to one of the base’s runways.

At the Huffman Prairie site, a replica of the Wrights’ hangar is the sole building, although there is also a not-to-scale replica of the rail-launch system. Here it’s easy to see why wheels wouldn’t have been a good fit; the prairie is often boggy and way too rough, especially for such a lightweight vehicle. And it’s easy to position the rail into the wind.

I also wondered why the Wrights built narrow hangars, which meant they had to take the airplane partially apart to put it in the hangar. Obviously there was no precedent back then for hangars that would fit a full airplane, but the building also illustrates the brothers’ famous frugality; the smaller hangar used less wood, in exchange for a little extra work.

Standing in the prairie next to the Wrights’ building and watching military jets taking off and landing right next door highlighted the incredible changes in aviation during the past 100-plus years.

We had two final stops on the Writers Summit tour; the first was back to Wright-Patterson AFB and the new Building 4 at the Air Force Museum, where a “roll-in” event was held to highlight the first airplane to move into the new hangar. This was the collection’s North American X-15 hypersonic rocketplane, notably equipped with bulky auxiliary fuel tanks. What made this event even more special was the presence of Maj. Gen. Joe Engle, the last living X-15 pilot.

Although Engle never flew this particular X-15–the second of three–because it was damaged, he did fly the other two and has fond memories of those rapid but short sub-10-minute high-altitude flights. “It was a really rewarding experience,” he told AIN while standing in front of the X-15. Asked about how it felt to see the X-15 again, he said, “It’s a good feeling, it’s really good to see it; a lot of good memories coming back. I’d love to get back in and go through this again!”

For the final visit on The Aviation Trail, we returned to Grimes Field for a flight in the Champaign Aviation Museum’s B-25. With Shiffer in the left seat and Bill Weidenhammer flying copilot, we took off for a brief but enormously satisfying flight over the Ohio farmland. The B-25, a J model, weighs about 22,000 pounds empty and burns about 150 gallons during the first hour and 130 gph for subsequent hours, he said. Shiffer spends most of his time at his family’s manufacturing company but every afternoon heads over to the museum. And while he has thousands of hours in Citations, flying the B-25, he enthused, “is way more fun.”