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A century of flight
As aviation looks back on its first 100 years, Midwesterners can be proud of the region's men and women who made great achievements in the history of flying machines
Published: Jan/Feb 2003
By Ruth Chin

A replica of the Wright Flyer, the first powered aircraft, at the Wilbur Wright Museum in Millville, Ind. (above). /Ruth Chin photo. Amelia Earhart, who set many early aviation records, on the nose of her plane (below). /©Purdue Research Foundation, reprinted with permission. All Rights reserved.
A father's love for his boys sparked inspiration of man flying through the air on an object that is “heavier-than-air.” The Rev. Milton Wright returned home from a business trip with a simple toy for his sons, Wilbur and Orville. Made by Alphonse Penauld, the toy, which resembled a helicopter, was the rage in France.

The toy soon was broken, but later as young adults, the Wright brothers remembered that precious gift from their father and joined others in the attempt to fly. Orville described the toy with a drawing in a letter now displayed at AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) Museum in Muncie, Ind.

As aviation and history buffs this year celebrate 100 years of aviation achievements, Midwesterners can be proud of the people from this region who have affected aviation for the greater good. Dotting the Midwest is a rich collection of aviation sites, waiting to be re-examined.

Wilbur Wright birthplace

The Rev. Wright and his wife, Susan, with their two small sons, Reuchlin and Lorin, moved around in Indiana before settling in a farmhouse near Millville where Wilbur was born in 1867.

The home was vacant when Indiana's Department of Natural Resources purchased the property in 1926 and turned it into a memorial site. The Wilbur Wright Birthplace Preservation Society, a private, non-profit group, purchased the home in 1995 to save its local history and restore the birthplace.

Several centennial events are planned, including a week-long celebration for Wright’s birthday in April and the Wilbur Wright Birthplace Festival in June.


The Wrights moved from Millville to Dayton where Orville was born in 1871. They moved the Wright Cycle Company to 22 S. Williams St. in 1895. Here, the brothers began flight experiments using their bicycle mechanical skills.

The cycle shop today is one of four sites in the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. Writer Paul Laurence Dunbar’s home, as well as Huffman Prairie Flying Field and the Wright Aviation Complex at Carillon Historical Park, are also located within national park. Adjacent to the cycle shop is a new museum that is scheduled to open March 15.

“The most asked question is, ‘Why is Kitty Hawk, N.C., the site of the Wright Brothers’ flight when Dayton is considered the historic aviation trail?’” said park officer Bill Yurdle. “The Wrights learned through the U.S. Weather Bureau that Kitty Hawk had constant wind, which they needed for liftoff, and sand for soft landing.”

Among Carillon Park’s 35 historic exhibits is Wright Hall, which displays the 1905 Wright Flyer III, a replica of Wright’s cycle shop and a print shop. The exhibit, “Orville’s Wing: 1912–1948” describes Orville’s life after Wilbur’s death in 1912.

Other Dayton aviation attractions include the U.S. Air Force Museum, Wright State University and the Wright family burial site at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum.

Midwestern flight hub

Quests for achievement in aviation's early years continued with Charles A. Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927. Lindbergh's life story is told in a well-documented exhibit at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park in St. Louis through Jan. 5. Following that, the exhibit will embark on a national tour. Aviation history buffs can see other Lindbergh-related items in the museum's permanent exhibit, “Seeking St. Louis.”

Amelia Earhart set many early aviation records, including the women's speed record of 81 mph in 1930. Earhart’s birthplace in Atchison, Kan., is now a museum. The annual Amelia Earhart Festival will be July 25 and 26 in Atchison.

Earhart’s legacy is also found in West Lafayette, Ind., and Purdue University, where she worked as a counselor and visiting instructor. The university recently received 492 of Earhart’s personal belongings, papers and memorabilia from Sally Putnam Chapman, granddaughter of Earhart’s husband, George Putnam.
More than 80 years of aviation history is told in the Boeing Company’s James S. McDonnell Prologue Room in St. Louis. Models, dioramas, paintings and photos describe everything from the company’s earliest biplanes to space travel.

Preserving aviation history from World War I and II is the mission for the Lost Squadron Museum in Middlesboro, Ky. In July 1942, six P-38 and two B-17 aircraft were forced to land in Greenland. Fifty years later, one of the P-38 planes was recovered under 268 feet of ice. “Glacier Girl” center attraction at the Lost Squadron Museum, in October was flown for the first time in 60 years, following a full restoration that took 10 years.

In Ashland, Neb., the Strategic Air and Space Museum preserves aerospace history and offers education programming for children. The museum has two aircraft display areas, an exhibit area, children's interactive gallery, theater and a shop for visitors to explore.

The Wright Brothers first made gliders based on known experiments by Octave Chanute. The Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum in Rantoul, Ill., is the largest aerospace museum in the state. More than 40 aircraft and missiles are on display, including replicas of Lindbergh's “Spirit of St. Louis” and Chanute Field's first biplane.

For aviation buffs who want to see planes of every size, shape, age and type, the place to go is Oshkosh, Wis., for the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture Fly-In. Set for July 29–Aug. 4, the event attracts 12,000 airplanes, including 2,500 show planes, said Dick Knapinski, EAA spokesman. AirVenture is the convention for EAA’s membership, now 170,000 worldwide, but many activities and displays are open to the public. There will be afternoon air shows presented daily, 700 exhibitors and much more.

Since Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flight, Dec. 7, 1903, men and women have taken to the skies for business, pleasure or adventure. This year, celebrate 100 years of aviation's achievements by remembering historic moments and looking toward the future.

Ruth Chin is a contributor from Muncie, Ind.

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