Dayton Aviation Heritage NHP, Ohio, consists of several units around Dayton which are significant to three of Dayton’s most famous past residents, Orville and Wilbur Wright, inventors of the airplane, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first widely acclaimed African American authors.
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ILNP Park Review
Our Visit I visited Dayton Aviation Heritage NHP in June in conjunction with a brief trip to Dayton.
Our Weather Over three days, it varied between stormy and sunny with temperatures in the 80s and high humidity.
Overall Impression You’re not going to see anything amazing at this park. It’s physical makeup consists of just a few buildings and a big field. What makes this park special is the chance to walk where some of the most creative, ingenious and inventive minds of the turn of the 20th century walked. In these places, the Wright Brothers worked tirelessly and endured failure after failure before they perfected a working airplane. In this place, Paul Laurence Dunbar penned the words that gave a vibrant voice to the plight of black Americans after the Civil War. To stand where these men stood and contemplate how they shaped the world forever makes this a great place to visit.
Visiting Visiting Dayton Aviation Heritage NHP requires a little planning. Because it consists of several units, visitors should determine which areas best fit into their time and interests. Visitors interested in seeing how the Wright Brothers and Dunbar lived would be more interested in the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center area in West Dayton while those more interested in aviation would probably find Huffman Prairie more to their liking, especially since the National Museum of the United States Air Force is just down the road. Because the hours of the park and Air Force Museum are fairly short, visitors need to plan their stops carefully if they are limited on time. Below are descriptions of each area to help you plan your visit.
Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center
The Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center is home to one of two main visitors centers, a small museum and the Wright Cycle Company. Plan on spending at least 1-2 hours to visit everything. The museum has a theater several displays depicting life in West Dayton around 1900 when the Wrights and Paul Laurence Dunbar were hard at work. Included are many artifacts from the Wright’s printing business and early aviation work. A section of the museum is dedicated to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life. Dunbar was a contemporary and friend of the Wrights, and his poems, first those written in “dialect” and later plain English, were the first by an African American to gain worldwide acclaim. Even if you’re only interested in aviation, I recommend spending at least a few minutes listening to his words on the looped video. The rest of the museum is full of aviation displays helping visitors understand the challenges and principles of flight through the air. I recommend watching the 20 minute video about the Wright Brothers first, but check with the Park Ranger first to see when the Cycle Shop will be open. My only complaint about the museum is that there is no clear flow to it. Visitors are left to chart their own path which might have them flitting back-and-forth between Wright History, Dunbar and aviation science.
The Wright Cycle Company is only opened periodically when a Park Ranger is available to take a group of visitors from the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center. Check with the Ranger as soon as you arrive to see when the shop will be open. While this is only one of five bicycle shops owned by the Wright Brothers, it is the only one left standing in its original location, and it was the shop where their interest in aviation turned from a hobby into their life’s work. The shop is small and contains a few bicycles, some machinery and a few aviation displays.
Also nearby is the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial. This memorial, located in the house in which Paul Laurence Dunbar died, remembers Dunbar’s life and works. It is run cooperatively with the National Park, though it has its own fees and hours (I did not visit this memorial because it was not open during my time in West Dayton).
Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center
The Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center and Wright Brothers Memorial share a small campus on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Plan on at least an hour to visit. The center has its own gate and is open to the public during operating hours. The memorial is the centerpiece of this section of the park, and its obelisk is surrounded by a lush and shaded park, a perfect place for a picnic. The memorial overlooks the Huffman Prairie Flying Field (you can see a corner) and Wright-Patterson AFB. Inside the Interpretive Center is a small museum with a 20-minute film (same film as Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center) and a series of exhibits on aviation. Most of the exhibits are interactive and geared toward kids though adults will find them interesting as well. This is a good starting point for a visit to the nearby Huffman Prairie Flying Field. One note about getting into the interpretive center. The entrance is well marked with signs along the roadways, but they appear to point you to a locked gate. The roadway to the center goes through a smaller gate just to the right of the locked gate.
Huffman Prairie Flying Field
Huffman Prairie Flying Field is located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It remains virtually unchanged from its 1905 configuration. While this was not the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight (that honor belongs to Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk, NC), it is the place where they turned their experiment into a practical flying machine and later a flying school that trained many of the world’s first pilots. This section of the park consists of the field and hangar and is surrounded by a small wood. You can walk through the hangar and all through the field. Although the site is contained within the Air Force Base, when I visited, the field was accessible to the public through the well-marked Gate 16A. This section of base is currently fenced off from the main base. The route is marked on the map above. The signs take you on a loop around the field to a parking area on the north side of the field. From the parking lot, the hangar is a quarter-mile walk through the field. There are a couple of smaller parking areas closer to the hangar for those not able to make the walk, but the parking capacity is limited. Plan for at least 30-60 minutes to visit.
Wright Brothers Aviation Center
The Wright Brothers Aviation Center is part of Dayton’s Carillon Historical Park. Inside the center are several exhibits including the restored 1905 Wright Flyer III, the aircraft the Wrights flew extensively in Dayton and was their first truly practical aircraft. This center has a separate entrance fee (I did not visit this part of the park).
General Recommendations If you have one full day in Dayton, you can see most of the park and the National Museum of the Air Force. I would recommend visiting the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and Wright Cycle Shop first. From there, drive to the Air Force museum near Wright-Patterson AFB and spend a few hours there (be sure to catch the shuttle to see the Presidential Hangar). After the museum, drive over to Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center to watch the movie about the Wright Brothers and see the Wright Brothers Memorial. Finally, end your day at Huffman Prairie Flying Field. This sequence will best allow you to take advantage of the later closing times of the Huffman Prairie sites. If you have more time or don’t want to go to the Air Force Museum, you will have time to visit the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial and Wright Brothers Aviation Center at Carillon Historical Park.
Nearby Towns Fairborn, Beaver Creek, Dayton (Ohio)
Other Nearby Attractions National Museum of the United States Air Force.
Official NPS Website Dayton Aviation Heritage NHP
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