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Postcards: Birthplace of Aviation: Southern Ohio

Where the magic of flight began

As we walked to her car, my tour guide, Liz, was indignant. "We have a terrible feud going with North Carolina," she explained. "They just happen to have a windy beach—that's all." North Carolina license plates carry the moniker, "First In Flight." At the car I noticed the slogan on Liz's Ohio plates: "Birthplace of Aviation."

Which is why, of course, I had come to the greater Cincinnati-Dayton metroplex in the first place—to see where the magic had all begun almost 100 years ago; to walk the ground where the pioneers of our passion toiled, sweated, innovated, and sacrificed; to marvel at their creations, their methods, and even their madness.

From this greater ground sprung the companies that would spawn not only an industry, but also a new way of living: Wright, Waco, McCauley, Martin, Lear, Hartzell, Kettering, and Goodrich among them. This is where Hap Arnold, Jimmy Doolittle, Gus Grissom, Bob Hoover, Bill Lear, Curtis LeMay, Charles Lindbergh, Marjorie Stinson, the Wright brothers, and Chuck Yeager intersect. It is to aviators what Cooperstown is to baseball fans—and infinitely more important.

Without even cracking a book, one glance at the Cincinnati Sectional hints at a rich history in an aviation-friendly environment. Not that one should, but you could climb to 5,000, pull the power, and probably make a runway from anywhere on a straight line between Cincinnati and Dayton. About every five miles there's an airport, among them Barnhart, Blue Ash, Brookville, Clermont, Hamilton, Hook, Lebanon, Lunken, Moraine, New Lebanon, and Stewart. At Stewart, artisans still carefully stretch canvas over wood, taildraggers predominate, and pilots still prefer to land on the grass.

Mark Twain called Cincinnati "The Queen City of the West." This heritage lives on, exemplified by the remaining stately Victorian architecture; the Taft Museum's impressive collection of Chinese porcelain, old masters, and old forgeries; the Krohn Conservatory's exquisite orchids; and the city's famous Tall Stacks convocation and celebration of paddle-wheel riverboats. Arriving in Cincinnati, none of this interested me. My immediate goal was more basic: food.

For flying gastronomes, here is a cornucopia of $100 hamburgers and other foods with strange names such as cheese Coneys and goetta, an oats-and-pork sausage that tastes better than it sounds. Over in Blue Ash (ISZ), Watson Brothers Brewhouse, named for a local pair of 1920s barnstormers, serves up "Aviator Red Ale." In downtown Cincinnati, the self-proclaimed "chili capital of the world," they do to that dish downright curious things no self-respecting Texan would tolerate, like putting chocolate and cinnamon in it. The city's unofficial insignia is a winged pig, which is displayed prominent on the Junior League's cookbook titled I'll Cook When Pigs Fly.

Four of the winged pigs, perched atop towering pedestals along Pete Rose Way, guard the city's Bicentennial Commons along the riverfront. William Howard Taft, America's fattest president, hailed from Cincinnati. It's no coincidence.

One of the best on-airport venues to sample all this caloric excess is Lunken Field's Wings Café. On the Friday night I was there the Café featured a live lobster boil and a competent lounge band. Weather permitting, you can dine al fresco and watch the traffic on the runways. Inside, there is all manner of fascinating aviation memorabilia.

Sustenance is necessary before hitting the Aviation Trail, past the aforementioned covey of small airports northbound to Dayton. The Aviation Trail Inc. is a nonprofit organization formed in 1981 to preserve and promote the state's rich aviation heritage. From Kettering to Troy it encompasses 47 sites and 11 major stops of historical aviation significance in Ohio's Miami Valley.

The National Park Service has designated four of them—the Wright Cycle Company, the Carillon Historical Park, the Wright B Flyer, and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field—as parts of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park.

While operating the cycle shop between 1897 and 1899, the Wright Brothers studied the work of German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal and formulated their wing-warping theory after examining birds in flight. The work done at 22 South Williams Street in Dayton directly translated to that famous flight on a windy beach in North Carolina in 1903. The shop is open for public tours throughout the year, but is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

The original Wright Flyer III is housed at the Carillon Historical Park in Dayton. Restoration was personally overseen by Orville. The complex includes several buildings and multiple exhibits. A flyable model of the Wright "B" Flyer, built in the late 1970s, is housed at the Dayton-Wright airport in Miamisburg. Admission hours are limited to 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

The Huffman Prairie Flying Field, adjacent to the sprawling 8,000-acre Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is where the Wrights established their flying school in 1910 and launched the nation's first exhibition flying team, the Model B, and the country's first commercial flight—all the way to Columbus. Enter through the base's visitor gate and obtain a pass.

Pass the fields of Huffman Prairie and continue to the United States Air Force Museum, which houses 5,000 pieces of flying history unlike those found anywhere else on Earth. The giant bronze statue of Icarus in the lobby foretells the human risk associated with some of these magnificent aircraft, the breakneck pace of their development, and the aerodynamic barriers that, fueled by Cold War urgency, were conquered by unbreakable national will.

This is the largest and oldest military museum in the world. Within these walls is housed everything from Hap Arnold's 1930s-vintage B–10 twin radial piston bomber to the behemoth B–36J 10-engine nuke dropper and the XB–70 Valkyrie, a sleek Mach 3 bomber prototype. There are other prototypes here as well, including the YF–22, the forerunner of what may become our nation's next air-superiority fighter.

Winged oddities abound. My personal favorite is "Tacit Blue." The Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency, and Northrup spent $165 million on a single copy of the airplane. It looks like a squared-off Oscar Meyer Weinermobile with wings and was used to evaluate stealth technologies in the 1980s.

Former presidential aircraft dominate an entire building. Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Sacred Cow" (Douglas VC–54C) is here. So is SAM 26000, the Boeing 707 that took John F. Kennedy to Dallas—and brought his body back.

The museum is more than just aircraft. A display case contains the report card and other personal effects of Maj. Richard Bong, America's most prolific World War II fighter ace. He survived combat only to be killed test-flying a jet. Bong and a long list of other aviators who passed through the Miami Valley before and since had the dream, the discipline, and the courage to embrace aviation when it was a far riskier venture than it is today. To remember that alone is worth the trip.

Links to additional information on flying destinations may be found on AOPA Online. More information on these and other historically significant Ohio sites can be obtained by calling 937/443-0793. Mark Huber is a marketing executive and an occasional contributor to Pilot. He lives and flies in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

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