A Century of Aviation History in Dayton {Ohio}

Most people would probably not know that Ohio has some major claims to fame when it comes to all things aviation. Ohio is home to the astronaut Neil Armstrong and the Wright Brothers but it is also where the country’s largest museum dedicated to aviation is located. Our visit to Ohio began in the city of Dayton where we walked along the path of aviation history beginning in the late 1800s and moving into the present day through two places that really put Dayton Ohio on the map.

Aviation Heritage National Historic Park

We started our day at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. It was here in the city of Dayton that two young brothers took their mechanical skills to the skies and began to develop a new kind of airplane.

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park

Wilbur and Orville Wright were 2 of the seven children. Their father was a bishop and because of this the family moved many times before finally settling down in Dayton Ohio. At one point their father brought home a small helicopter toy that the brothers played with until it broke. But not to be deterred, they then built their own replacement adding some additional things to it. This was what would spark their interest in flying.

the young Wright Brothers

Though the Wright brothers attended high school, neither one of them would graduate. After dropping out of high school the brothers built their own printing press and set up a print shop. They began a weekly newspaper which was so successful that it became a daily newspaper. Then in 1892 they joined the bicycle craze and opened up a repair and sales shop. Four years later they built their own bicycle and began to manufacture them to sell in their shop.

That same year that the bicycle shop was opened, there were some significant aeronautical advances happening and the brothers were deeply impacted by the inventions that were being produced. In 1899 they wrote the Smithsonian Institute requesting information and publications on aeronautics so they could begin their research and experimentation. They set out to build on the ideas of those before them to create a plane with better control and maneuverability.

The Wright brothers would go on to build and test their planes and land themselves in the pages of history. Admirers of the brothers will begin here in Dayton at their beginnings and then go to North Carolina where the Wright Brothers Museum and Memorial is. Part of the historical park includes their childhood home and the final resting place in the local cemetery.

National United States Air Force Museum

Our next stop in Dayton was to the National United States Air Force Museum. This museum is massive and takes visitors through the development of different aircrafts by the periods of history that they came about in. This museum has no entrance fee. All around the museum are retired military members who act as guides providing and incredible understanding about the aircrafts and the history of the time.

National Museum of the United States Air Force

The museum is broken into a series of hangers filled to the brim with different aircrafts and memorials to those who flew and worked on them. The first hanger had a small section about the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers. There was an example of one of the inventions of the Wright Brothers where you can see the influence of their time in the bicycle shop.

Then it moved to World War I and what was used . It was really amazing to see how far aviation had come from those early flights to the aircrafts used in the war only a few decades later. There were short videos throughout giving the history of the war through the perspective of the military members who served there. There are walls covered in pictures of those who served. Every day at 11:00am they call for a moment of silence to honor the end of that war.

WWI planes and medic vehicles in Hanger 1

Hanger 2 is full of aircrafts and vehicles of World War II. This hanger especially offers some incredible history lessons and talks about mechanical engineering from those who work here. One of the few remaining veterans of that war talked about being 17 and working on the planes while he was in the South Pacific in the later part of the war.

WWII planes in Hanger 2

One of the most notable planes in the WWII hanger is the ‘Memphis Belle’. This was a Boeing B-17 flying fortress plane that was the first heavy bomber planes to complete 25 combat missions throughout the war. The name came from the pilot’s sweetheart who lived in Memphis. This plane would feature in a couple of documentaries. The Memphis Belle was almost resigned and dismantled but with the help of the mayor of Memphis it was preserved and then later sold to the museum.

the Memphis Belle

My favorite part of this hanger though was the display about the Women’s Army Corp that was created during WWII. My grandmother was in one of the first groups of women to go to the factories that were manufacturing war supplies. The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter came from these factory working women. But for my grandmother, she wanted to do more and so she joined the Women’s Army Corp. She served in many different capacities in many different places during the war. At one point she was serving at an army hospital as a nurse where she went to take care of a handsome naval officer. The two would go on one date and then write letters back and forth for the next few years. They met up again after the war, got married, and raised 10 kids who would all go on to serve in some branch of the military. I got a little emotional as I thought about my grandmother being one of these incredible women and how they served during the war.

Women’s Army Corp

The next hanger brought us to the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The hanger was set up for a memorial dinner to be held that evening. These wars represented a great shift in regards to the military and the public perception of them. Where those from WWII were heralded as the greatest generation, those in Korea and Vietnam were made out to be monsters. The media found the extremists and made it out that all the military members were like that. Instead of parades and fanfare, they came home to jeers and garbage being thrown at them. For this reason, many veterans who served during these wars are less inclined to share their experience.

Korean War and Vietnam War planes in Hanger 3

Hanger 3 however provides more of an up close look at some of the planes. Visitors can sit in the cockpit of many planes and imagine what is like to fly them. There is also a supply plane large enough to carry a tank that visitors can walk through.

The last hanger was divided into different sections. The first section held the aircrafts and history of the Cold War. Planes used during this time were designed to be smaller and have more stealth than before. This area also talked a lot about how the military began changing during this time to be more inclusive to a wider population.

Cold War planes in Hanger 4

Another section of this hanger was looking forward to the space program and all the advances that came with that. Visitors can walk through a recreated space ship and marvel at the rockets that have gone to space and returned. Because we use to live on the Space Coast of Florida we felt a certain fondness at the sight of the rockets.

The last part of this hanger took us through some retired planes of significance like a former Air Force One that was used by the president. After pausing on the steps with the Nixon gesture of ‘I am not a crook’, we went in to see how the president flies. There are plastic walls on each side of the isle so you can’t actually sit in any of the chairs. The space between was barely wide enough for my shoulders to go through, so if you struggle with tight spaces then you may just want to admire it from the outside.

The last part of the museum is the Memorial Park where monuments and statues are set up everywhere honoring those who have served throughout the different wars. Beautiful tributes to friends and family can be found all through the park and each one is a tender reminder of the cost of war.

Memorial Park

The museum is massive though so be sure to give yourself a few hours to see it. We were there over three hours yet we didn’t read hardly any of the information boards along the way. If you really want to understand the history or are interested in the engineering aspect of the aircrafts then I would suggest making your visit a day long event. But no matter the time you spend here, this museum is an incredible walk through history and how far we have come in terms of aviation knowledge and mechanics.

For more places on aviation history you may want to check out:

Aviation Museum of Kentucky

Sand’s Space History Center

Thanks for joining me on this tour of the aviation history of Dayton, Ohio. May you harness the wind and achieve great heights.

19 responses to “A Century of Aviation History in Dayton {Ohio}”

  1. Super interesting post, Meg! I wonder if the Wright Brothers ever imagined having one of their own inventions in the Smithsonian after the Smithsonian gave them aeronautical information all those years ago! Mike and I would love to visit both of these museums someday when we finally get to Ohio. My grandmother was a Rosie the Riveter. She worked building ships in California. If you haven’t read it, “The All-Girl Filling Station” by Fannie Flag is a novel about some (fictional, I believe) sisters who were WASPs during World War II. That was a tough time to live through but I loved the book.

    • How amazed they would be to see their work in the Smithsonian. They probably wouldn’t believe it. I will definitely check out that book. It really gives a tender pride to think of our grandmothers and how they served during that time. I think you will really love these museums, especially the Air Force Museum. They are both packed to brim with history 🙂

  2. Really interesting information here. The husband would love the Air Force Museum. On a different note, I wish I had half the drive of even just one of the Wright brothers. Clearly they had some skills as well as some get-up-and-go.

    • my get up and go has got up and left as my dad says 🙂 How great it must be to have a brain like theirs that can create, build, and then move it all forward. I think your husband would really enjoy the Air Force Museum. But definitely give it a few hours to really see it.

  3. I adore anything to do with air travel and found this post so interesting. I’d love to visit both these museums. About 20 years ago I visited the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington DC which was amazing and a memorable experience. Have a great weekend. Marion xx

    • I think the Smithsonian is somewhere I will need at least a few days to visit because there is so much there. I think you would really love these museums- it was so fascinating to see the progression in the aircrafts over a relatively short time period. I hope you have a great weekend 🙂

  4. Wonderful post, Meg. Dayton sounds like my kind of place and I’m sure I’ve heard of the National Air Force Museum before. Love the fact that they have a daily moment of silence. And love the connection with your grandmother – what a generation! If you are ever in the UK, you’d probably enjoy a visit to Duxford (it also has a Memphis Belle!) – there’s a bit about it here https://bitaboutbritain.com/a-visit-to-duxford/

    • I think you would really love the museum! And I know that I would love a visit to Duxford to see that Memphis Belle as well. The moment of silence and getting to talk to my daughter about my grandmother were both really tender moments of our visit. I hope you have a great weekend 🙂

  5. Really interesting Meg, I didn’t realise Ohio had such weighty claims to fame re aviation. I’ve often thought about looking into The Wright Brothers a bit more, as I didn’t know much beyond he basics. Your piece has done much to fuel that loved the bicycle section of the museum! World War II brings me to more familiar territory but whoa, those hangars are really something, what a collection! Would be such a thrill to see the Memphis Belle, I remember being mesmerised by that movie as a kid. Harry Connick Jr. anyone? The memorial park at the end is a nice and necessary touch and a good counterpoint to all the interior exhibits. Would love to visit both these museums.

    • Thanks Leighton 🙂 When I saw the Memphis Belle, my first thought was that movie too. What a fantastic movie! It really could be an all day event wandering through those hangers and trying to grasp all the history that is there. And for the Wright Brothers, I’m all the more anxious to get to North Carolina to learn more about the rest of their story since that is where most of their planes were made and tested.

  6. We drove through Ohio last fall and stopped at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. It’s wild just how huge this place is. You could spend the entire day there! We didn’t have enough time to visit the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park though, so it was nice to see what we were missing.

    • The docents in a place like this are so special
      and important as they really are the heart of the museum. How sad that it closed, hopefully it was reopened somewhere else and your friend found a new way to share his experience and understanding.

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