That “hub of innovation” remains very much at work today, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio’s largest single-site employer, home to more than 30,000 military and civilian employees who are engaged in the design, acquisition and sustainment of Air Force airplanes, weapons and other equipment.
“The 75th anniversary is great, but I kind of see us as an organization that has been around way longer than that,” said Steve Byington, cultural resources manager for the 88th Civil Engineering Group at Wright-Patterson.
The U.S. Signal Corps bought the first airplane from the Wright Brothers in 1909, marking the U.S. military’s first airplane acquisition.
Acquisition of military aircraft has been happening here ever since. To this day, of course, Wright-Patterson is the heart of Air Force procurement.
But the history of what became Wright-Patterson goes back even further.
“If I’m doing a base tour or something, I like to kick things off with Huffman Prairie,” said Kevin Rusnak, chief historian for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which is headquartered at Wright-Patterson.
While construction of the first flyer happened in Dayton — and early flight testing was done at Kitty Hawk, N.C. for a variety of reasons — it was above Huffman Prairie in northwestern Greene County that the Wrights truly learned to be pilots.
“They didn’t assume knowledge; they went out and actively sought it,” Rusnak said.
After that first historic flight flight above a Kitty Hawk beach on Dec. 17, 1903, Dayton’s most famous brothers looked for a place to do flight-testing year-round.
They needed a place with open spaces — but also offering a measure of seclusion, Rusnak said. Family members had visited Huffman on school field trips, and Orville Wright may have recalled that, he said. The field was also accessible, a short jaunt away on an urban trolley stop.
The Wrights started the heady business of learning to fly at Huffman in 1904, with permission of the field’s owner, learning to turn, fly circles, figure 8s and much more, Rusnak said.
There the brothers established a school for people buying their planes. Part of the Army’s first contract involved the brothers teaching Army students how to fly the planes the military bought. Among those first students was future Air Force five star general Hap Arnold, in 1911 or 1912.
Dayton’s McCook Field became a second formative location in the process of building what became an Air Force base. Wilbur Wright died in 1912. Then World War I sparked the furtherance of aviation, inspiring the creation of flying schools across the country.
The nation realized it needed to expand its supply of planes in order to fly in a war. “We needed to build and buy a lot of airplanes; we needed to crank out thousands of pilots,” Rusnak said.
“We needed to create all that infrastructure to provide all of this,” he said. “These sites grew up around the country. Dayton happened to be one of those.”
Why Dayton? It was connected to the Wright Brothers — and also to another important local figure.
Edward Deeds, a classic early 20th century industrialist, became an Army Reserve officer in charge of supplying the nation’s early air service. Rusnak sees Deeds as someone protective of Dayton’s place as an industrial center.
A litany of familiar names quickly pops up in the history books: When Wilbur Wright Field began pilot training work in 1917 (near today’s Area A of Wright-Patterson), it helped form what became a trio of aviation-focused sites in and around Dayton, with McCook Field minutes from downtown and the Fairfield Aviation General Supply Depot, a logistics operation near Wilbur Wright Field.
That logistics function may have slowed between the first and second world wars. But the seeds of what eventually became Wright-Patterson were being planted.
McCook, a small triangle of land, was home to early aeronautical research on engines, propellers, lubricants and much else besides.
But soon enough, there was talk of moving those Wilbur Wright Field functions to bases in Texas and Alabama.
“You don’t really want brand new pilots learning to fly in the ice and snow and bad weather in Dayton,” Rusnak said.
So Dayton’s operations switched to training armorers and mechanics early in the First World War.
Still, the threat to local operations never went away. Schools devoted to training closed as the Great War ended.
Airplanes were getting bigger, faster and more dangerous. “Occasionally, they would have airplane crashes into houses,” Rusnak said.
As always, warmer weather climes elsewhere proved to be more inviting for yearlong training and other aviation functions.
By the early 1920s, the writing was feared to be on the wall for McCook Field and other operations. That’s when local residents sprang into action.
‘Build on what you have’
Like Deeds, National Cash Register founder John Patterson understood the importance of keeping engineering work in Dayton.
Community leaders banded together to create the “Dayton Air Services Committee” to convince the federal government not to move those operations.
In 1924, the group had a two-day fundraising campaign, raising well over $400,000 to purchase land from the Miami Conservancy District — the area’s multi-county flood control effort — to give to President Calvin Coolidge and the government.
“I actually have the copy of the letter from President Coolidge saying, ‘Thanks for donating this,’” Rusnak said.
“It’s definitely a considerable amount, considering they did it only in about 48 hours,” said Byington, the 88th Civil Engineer Group’s cultural resources manager. “That was really where the business community of Dayton realized that aeronautics and aviation was going to be sort of a long-term investment for the city of Dayton.”
“They really put their money where their mouth was in terms of wanting that industry to stay in the area,” he added.
“The people of Dayton don’t want to lose McCook Field when it’s going to close,” Rusnak said. “So they buy, through donations, the area that is now most of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, including a good chunk of Area A and the original chunk of what’s Area B.”
Most of what became Wright-Patterson was bought by local people and and donated to the government, to be known as Wright Field — not Wilbur Wright Field, confusingly — in 1927.
If that work had not been taken up, “That might have been pretty much it for military aviation in Dayton,” Rusnak said.
There were smart reasons to keep that work in Dayton. Many of the experts were already here. “It was simpler to keep those things rather than move them somewhere else,” Rusnak said. “It’s easier to keep building on where you have the experts.”
The local protectiveness around military functions and history — seen today in organizations like the Dayton Development Coalition and the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce — was present early on.
“Without that critical piece — without that chamber of commerce stuff — it likely would have left entirely and gone somewhere on the East Coast,” Rusnak said.
“Dayton even back then had adopted this mindsight that Dayton was the birthplace of aviation,” Byington said.
In 1926, federal money was allocated, with a groundbreaking on today’s Area B.
Area B (Wright Field) was the home of engineering functions. And Area A (Patterson Field) focused on logistics. Something of that rough division is still seen today — Air Force Materiel Command headquarters is found on Area A while the 711th Human Performance Wing and other Air Force Research Lab functions are found on Area B.
Today’s State Route 444 became the dividing line between the two areas.
‘Oldest flying field in the world’
Substantial research into sustainable flight happened here in Dayton. In a real sense, that has never changed.
Byington, Rusnak and others emphasize that Wright-Patterson and its predecessor locations long predate the formation of the Air Force in 1947.
“Wright-Patterson and its antecedents long predate the creation of the Air Force,” Thompson said. “Much of the early research on flight occurred even before the Air Force existed.”
“When you look at the diversity of the missions and the complexity of all the different components that go on at the base, it still basically boils down to research and development in the aviation field,” Byington said.
“We’re looking at a base that dates originally to about 1917,” Byington added. “Or if you want to go all the way back to ... the Wright Brothers, it’s the oldest flying field in the world.”
“If you look at Wright Patterson itself, we have over 300 cultural historic structures and sites that predate the founding of the Air Force,” he added.
Some historic buildings, such as buildings 11 and 16, are still utilized.
Sites well known by the 1940s as Patterson and Wright fields officially came together as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on Jan. 13, 1948, not long after the birth of the Air Force.
Air Force anniversary
Today is the 75th anniversary of the Air Force, which got a lot of its early start here in the Dayton region and continues today at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with many important missions, including research, national security, procurement and development.
Today: The Dayton Daily News examines how Wright-Patterson play a pivotal role in the Air Force’s history.
Monday: The story of the Air Force is not just a story of battles won, technology invented, and military bases developed. It’s a story of people. The newspaper profiles six local residents who have served in the Air Force.
Tuesday: Check out our special e-paper edition on the history of Wright-Patterson and its impact on the Air Force.
Wednesday: Join our online community conversation with a panel of military, community and business leaders to discuss how Wright-Patterson Air Force base has shaped our region’s past — and will shape its future.
Sign up for the latest military and Wright-Patterson news in our daily Wright-Patt Today email at DaytonDailyNews.com/newsletters