Huffman Prairie


It seems that people have always wanted to soar through the air like the birds. There is a Greek legend about Icarus whose father Daedalus was a great inventor. He made wings of feathers and wax for he and his son but cautioned the boy not to fly too high. The young man ignored his father, flew too close to the sun when the wax melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. Then of course, there were the hot air balloons which are still very popular today.

Still powered flight was desired. There were several men who were trying to produce some sort of device which could fly, but the first to succeed were Dayton’s own Wilbur and Orville Wright. The dream became a reality when they took their invention to Kitty Hawk, N.C. and managed on Dec. 17, 1903 to achieve a few seconds in the air.

Back in Dayton, they needed a place where they could attempt more trials. Less than four months later, they contracted with Dayton banker Torrence Huffman for the use of his pasture at no charge provided they would keep the gates closed so the cattle and horses would not escape their boundaries.

In April 1904 they built a rough wooden shed to house their plane and with this, the Wright Flying Field was established in Greene County,

The next year a better hanger was constructed and then a third was built in 1910.

Without the high winds of Kitty Hawk, they had trouble getting the plane into the air on the 60 foot track they used in North Carolina. Even a 120 foot track was challenging, so they devised a derrick and drop weight catapult which was used to stimulate the take off.

By September 1904, after 50 tries, they managed to be in the air for two seconds more than the Kitty Hawk trials.

The big day was September 20, 1904 when they were able to make a complete circle of Huffman Prairie and soon they recorded two to five minute flights. By the end of the year they had logged 45 minutes of air time in Greene County.

By the end of the next year, they could boast of a flight of twenty-four miles in thirty-eight minutes. The Flyer III developed the ability to do banking with circles and figure eights.

It was on Huffman Prairie that the Wright B flyer was developed.

Little notice was taken about those early flights. The men traveled from Dayton to Simms Station near present Fairborn by interurban to work on their invention. Fred Marshall became one of the leading biographers of the Wrights at a later date, but when he heard about the trials, gave little notice.

The Yellow Springs News was the only newspaper which reported an event in the June 2, 1904 edition, “Wright brothers, of Dayton, have been experimenting with their flying machine in a field south of Fairfield. It was given a trial and flew close to the ground for 25 feet, then fell and broke its propellers. The Wright flyer has no gas bag or balloon attachment, but is supported by a pair of wings that measure 40 feet from tip to tip. The machine weights about 800 pounds and is propelled by gasoline.”

The actual flight, which was the first powered, controlled flight in the heavier than air machine took place right here in Greene County on May 26, 1904.

Perhaps the lack of attention for this most historic venture was largely ignored at the time because the original date selected was May 23. The press had been invited to view the event, but it rained that day, so the test was cancelled. The brothers announced they would try again the next day, but it rained once again, thus postponing the exhibition. When the weather finally cooperated, little notice was given to what was one of the most historic events ever to take place in the United States.

The Wright Exhibition company flew airplanes at county fairs aero shows and exhibits and participated with speed races in order to interest potential buyers. They traveled to Europe in 1906, and then in 1909 they made their first important sale when they sold the first plane to be used for military purposes to the U. S. Army Signal Corps. Plane Number one was sold for $30,000.

From that point, airplanes were manufactured at a plant at a factory in West Dayton then transported to the hanger at Huffman Prairie for the school which had been opened to instruct potential pilots.

One of their most famous students was Henry H. Arnold “Hap” who became commander of the Army Air Force in World War II. He was the first Five Star General in the Air Force.

After Wilbur’s death, Orville sold the company, and in 1916, the flying school was closed. In 1917 the Miami Valley Conservancy District purchased the Huffman Prairie site along with additional acreage. The property was leased to the U. S. Army Signal Corps for Wilbur Wright Field.

Tomorrow is National Aviation Day. If you have not journeyed on the Aviation Trail, now would be a good time to visit some of the sites including Huffman Prairie where you can view the place where flight began – right here in Greene County.

By Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is a resident and longtime historical columnist.