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Road Trip: An Ohio Prairie's Place In Aviation History

Huffman prairie does not look like much at first. There are no museums or monuments in sight, not many buildings either. In fact, it looks pretty much like a prairie. But this place oozes history in a way few places can. This is where powered flight became practical, where the plane could be controlled and flights didn’t end with faces full of dirt anymore. Huffman is also part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park and here we meet ranger Bob Peterson. "It was an 84-acre, seven-sided piece of land owned by Taurence Huffman. He was a banker on the west side, and a family acquaintance. He gave the wrights permission to use the field for their experiments provided they moved the horses and cattle out of the way first and brought them back when they finished." Orville and Wilbur Wright flew successfully at Kitty Hawk in 1903 but no one knew better than they that the Wright Flyer was not the best plane ever built. So they came home to Dayton to work on control issues including taking off and landing and being able to make turns. We hike out to the center of the field. "Many times when they are up making circles and turns, one of 2 things would happen; the turns would be too sharp and the engine would die out. They’d pull out as best they could and coast in for a landing. Other times they'd use this tree as a turning point. When they’d approach the tree and they wanted to turn in one direction, they'd find the plane slipping off in the opposite direction." It’s called adverse yaw – when you are preparing to turn and drop one wing you start to lose your lift and the plane slips off to the opposite direction. And Orville sees a big honey locust tree in his immediate future. "So, the honey locus tree is dangerous. It has thorns. I don't mean short thorns; they can be a foot, foot and a half." And he's not kidding – you could impale large vampires with these things. "Well one day Orville is practicing and wants to make a turn and it starts drifting in the other direction. He looks up and he's heading directly for the tree." He had options: He could crash the plane, he could jump out into the thorns and watch the plane crash or he could try something he had never tried before. What do you think a Wright brother would do? "He thought, all right I'm heading for the tree and I can't pull out of this. Maybe I can force the plane down and land before I get to the tree. He tries pushing the forward elevator, the nose of the plane, down. As he does so he finds he regains control, and he's able to fly on. So that tree helped solved the last real problem they had of controlling and maneuvering the plane in the air." He did end up with a few foot-long impalers in a wing. "And what you see on the field today are the descendants of that single tree that was here when Orville and Wilbur were flying," Peterson says. You also see a reconstructed hanger, a catapult, which helped launch the biplanes, and the old interurban stop where they brought their plane pieces out here from the bike shop in Dayton. I’m Aileen LeBlanc – don’t forget to let the cows back out when you are finished flying for the day. You can download an audio tour "From Bicycles to Moon Landings, Ohio’s Aviation Tour" at www.seeohiofirst.org. The New Ohio Guide is produced by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.