Air Force 75th Anniversary: See How Wright-Patterson Played Pivotal Role

September 18 – Although the Air Force is celebrating its 75th anniversary today, the story of what led to that milestone in 1947 arguably began in Dayton.

And without the efforts of generations of Daytonians, the Air Force and its arsenal could look very different today.

In the early days of aviation, there were innovators scattered from Los Angeles to Buffalo. But it was Dayton’s Wright Brothers who laid the foundation for everything that followed.

“They have created a center of innovation that has a longer tradition than any other place in the United States,” said Loren Thompson, defense industry analyst.

This “center of innovation” continues today at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio’s largest single-site employer, where more than 30,000 military and civilian employees are involved in the design, acquisition and maintenance Air Force involved aircraft, weapons and other equipment.

“The 75th anniversary is great, but I kind of see us as an organization that’s been around much longer,” said Steve Byington, manager of cultural resources for the 88th Civil Engineering Group at Wright-Patterson.

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Huffman Prairie

The US Signal Corps purchased the first aircraft from the Wright brothers in 1909, marking the US military’s first aircraft purchase.

Since then, the acquisition of military aircraft has taken place here. Of course, Wright-Patterson remains at the heart of Air Force procurement to this day.

But the history of what became Wright-Patterson goes back even further.

“When I do a base tour or something, I like to start with Huffman Prairie,” said Kevin Rusnak, chief historian for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which is headquartered in Wright-Patterson.

While construction of the first aviator was taking place in Dayton – and for various reasons early flight testing was being conducted in Kitty Hawk, NC – the Wrights really learned to be pilots over Huffman Prairie in northwestern Greene County.

“They didn’t assume knowledge, they went out and actively looked for it,” Rusnak said.

After that first historic flight over a Kitty Hawk beach on December 17, 1903, Dayton’s most famous brothers searched for a place to conduct flight tests year-round.

They needed a place with open spaces — but also with a degree of seclusion, Rusnak said. Family members had visited Huffman on school trips, and Orville Wright may have remembered it, he said. The field was also accessible, just a short walk from a city tram stop.

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The Wrights began the heady business of learning to fly in Huffman in 1904, with permission from the owner of the field, and learned how to turn, fly circles, fly figure eights and more, Rusnak said.

There the brothers started a school for people who bought their planes. Part of the Army’s first assignment was for the brothers to teach Army students how to fly the planes that the military purchased. Among those early students, in 1911 or 1912, was future five-star Air Force General Hap Arnold.

Dayton’s McCook Field became a second defining site in the process of building what later became an air force base. Wilbur Wright died in 1912. Then World War I sparked the promotion of aviation and inspired the establishment of flight schools across the country.

The nation realized that in order to fly in a war, it needed to expand its stockpile of aircraft. “We had to build and buy many planes, we had to recruit thousands of pilots,” Rusnak said.

“We had to create all this infrastructure to provide all of this,” he said. “These sites have sprung up all over the country. Dayton happened to be one of them.”

Why Dayton? It was linked to the Wright Brothers — and another important local figure as well.

Edward Deeds, a classic early 20th-century industrialist, became an Army reserve officer responsible for providing the nation’s early air service. Rusnak sees Deeds as someone who will protect Dayton’s place as an industrial center.

A litany of familiar names quickly makes its way through the history books: When Wilbur Wright Field began pilot training in 1917 (near what is now Wright-Patterson’s Area A), it helped establish a trio of aviation-focused locations in and around Dayton, with McCook Field minutes from downtown and Fairfield Aviation General Supply Depot, a logistics company near Wilbur Wright Field.

This logistical function may have slowed between World War I and World War II. But the seeds of what would eventually become Wright-Patterson were sown.

A small land triangle, McCook was home to early aeronautical research on engines, propellers, lubricants and more.

But soon there was talk of moving those functions from Wilbur Wright Field to bases in Texas and Alabama.

“They don’t really want brand new pilots learning to fly in the ice and snow and bad weather at Dayton,” Rusnak said.

At the beginning of the First World War, Dayton’s business switched to training gunsmiths and mechanics.

Still, the threat to local operations never went away. Schools dedicated to education closed with the end of World War I.

Airplanes got bigger, faster and more dangerous. “Occasionally planes crashed into houses,” Rusnak said.

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As always, warmer climates elsewhere proved more inviting for year-long training and other flight functions.

In the early 1920s there was concern that the writing would be on the wall for McCook Field and other operations. Then the residents got active.

“Build on what you have”

Like Deeds, National Cash Register founder John Patterson recognized the importance of keeping the engineering work in Dayton.

Community leaders banded together to form the “Dayton Air Services Committee” to persuade the federal government not to delay these operations.

In 1924, the group conducted a two-day fundraiser that raised well over $400,000 to purchase land from the Miami Conservancy District — the area’s flood control project — to give to President Calvin Coolidge and the government.

“I actually have the copy of President Coolidge’s letter that says, ‘Thank you for donating this,'” Rusnak said.

“It’s definitely a significant amount considering they did it in just about 48 hours,” said Byington, cultural resource manager for the 88th Civil Engineer Group. “That was really where the Dayton business community realized that aerospace was going to be a long-term investment of sorts for the City of Dayton.”

“They really put their money in the bucket to want this industry to stay in the region,” he added.

“The Dayton people don’t want to lose McCook Field if it closes,” Rusnak said. “So, through donations, they’re buying the area that now makes up most of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, including a good portion of Area A and the original portion of Area B.”

Most of what became Wright-Patterson was bought by locals and donated to the government in 1927 to be known as Wright Field—not confusingly Wilbur Wright Field.

If that work hadn’t started, “that could have been pretty much anything for military aviation at Dayton,” Rusnak said.

There were wise reasons to keep this work at Dayton. Many of the experts have already been here. “It was easier to keep these things than to take them somewhere else,” Rusnak said. “It’s easier to continue building where you have the experts.”

The local protective instinct regarding 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 the Chamber of Commerce stuff — it probably would have gone completely and disappeared somewhere on the east coast,” Rusnak said.

“Dayton had already adopted this mindset back then that Dayton was the birthplace of aviation,” Byington said.

Federal funds were allocated in 1926, with the groundbreaking ceremony on today’s Area B.

Area B (Wright Field) was home to engineering functions. And Area A (Patterson Field) focused on logistics. Some of that rough division can still be seen today — Air Force Material Command headquarters is in Area A, while the 711th Human Performance Wing and other Air Force Research Lab functions are in Area B.

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Today’s State Route 444 became the dividing line between the two areas.

“Oldest airfield in the world”

Extensive research into sustainable flying has been done here in Dayton. Actually, that has never changed.

Byington, Rusnak, and others emphasize that Wright-Patterson and its predecessor sites predate the Air Force’s formation in 1947.

“Wright-Patterson and his ancestors predate the founding of the Air Force,” Thompson said. “Much of the early flight research happened before the Air Force even existed.”

“When you look at the variety of missions and the complexity of all the different components that go on at the base, it still basically boils down to aeronautics research and development,” Byington said.

“We’re looking at a base originally dated to around 1917,” Byington added. “Or if you want to go all the way back to…the Wright brothers, it’s the oldest airfield in the world.”

“If you look at Wright Patterson himself, we have over 300 cultural-historical structures and sites that predate the founding of the Air Force,” he added.

Some historic buildings, such as Buildings 11 and 16, are still in use.

Sites known in the 1940s as Patterson and Wright Fields were officially consolidated as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on January 13, 1948, not long after the birth of the Air Force.


Anniversary of the Air Force

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Air Force, which had much of its early beginnings here in the Dayton area 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 Wright-Patterson’s key role in Air Force history.

Monday: The history of the Air Force is not just a story of battles won, technology invented, and military bases developed. It’s a story about people. The newspaper features six local residents who served in the Air Force.

Tuesday: Check out our special edition e-paper on the history of Wright-Patterson and its impact on the Air Force.

Wednesday: Join our online community call with a panel of military, community and business leaders to discuss how Wright-Patterson Air Force Base 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


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