Some Aviation History Is on the Verge of Being Lost in Ohio

In the history of powered flight, few places are as significant as Dayton, Ohio, the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the brothers who invented, built and flew the first successful airplane.

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Some Aviation History Is on the Verge of Being Lost in Ohio
Christine Negroni
, New York Times

In the history of powered flight, few places are as significant as Dayton, Ohio, the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the brothers who invented, built and flew the first successful airplane.

Dayton is where they created the plane that they so famously tested during a 12-second flight from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Dayton is also where the first pilots were trained and where the country’s first airplane manufacturing factory was built.

The Wright brothers’ achievement was “a moment of evolution” said Tom Crouch, senior curator, aeronautics, at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the author of the biography “The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright.”

“We were no longer earthbound creatures, we were creatures who learned how to fly,” Crouch said. “That is a profound evolution.”

Yet despite the number of history-making events that happened in Dayton, the preservation of the brothers’ legacy here has been mixed.

In 1936, the Wright family home and one of the brothers’ bike shops were acquired by automaker Henry Ford and taken to Dearborn, Michigan. In the early 1940s, the flying school building at Huffman Prairie Flying Field was torn down.

The airfield, which also became the site of the brothers’ airplane factory, had been a pasture, owned by Torrence Huffman, where the brothers worked on perfecting their controlled, powered flying technique in the early 1900s.

In 1977, Orville Wright’s downtown Dayton laboratory, where he loved to experiment, was demolished to make way for a gas station that was never built.

With so many sites connected to the Wright brothers already gone, many aviation historians are alarmed at the uncertainty that now hangs over the factory, where from 1910 to 1916, Wright Flyers, as they were known, were built. The two white brick buildings are, Crouch said, “intimately a part of the Wright story.”

As the factory buildings decay, the owner of the property and preservationists who wish to buy and develop the land there are squabbling over financial and ethical issues.

The original buildings, along with three factories built later to accommodate automobile parts manufacturing and the 54 acres on which they sit, are owned by two related companies that cleaned up and prepared the land for redevelopment.

Brad White, a vice president with Hull and Associates and principal at Home Avenue, said he handled environmental issues on the property and soil contamination in the neighborhood as part of a $5 million public, private partnership agreement with the city of Dayton.

The work was done with an eye toward making the historic buildings the centerpiece of a new national park. That project was driven by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, known as NAHA, a local nonprofit composed of various groups with an interest in the city’s aviation legacy.

It was going well in the fall of 2016, when the alliance announced a plan in which the factory site would be purchased by the National Park Service and the alliance would buy the larger parcels, developing them for aviation-associated enterprises. On yet another parcel of the 54-acre site a $7 million library would be built. Shelley Dickstein, the Dayton city manager, said the projects could generate economic activity in the range of $20 million annually.

“Preserving the Wright legacy is important to the city,” Dickstein said then. “There’ll be tourist activity from folks — there’s a million folks who come to the Air Force Museum every year and flight enthusiasts who are interested in the beginnings of Orville and Wilbur Wright, and we think there’s opportunity there.”

But, according to the alliance, that all changed this year when White announced he would not indemnify the buyers of the property against environmental hazards to which nearby homeowners had been exposed through groundwater contamination.

Spills from chemically contaminated underground storage tanks belonging to Delphi, an auto parts maker and the previous owner, had leeched into the soil and White’s company has been operating cleanup systems for those homeowners. “I’m not the person who caused the contamination, that was the Delphi corporation,” White said. “I bought it ‘as is’ from Delphi and I’m going to sell it ‘as is.’ ”

To NAHA however, the whole deal was thrown into question.

“That was a gigantic change in information,” Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the alliance, said about learning of the seller’s position. The well-being of the neighbors was the seller’s obligation, Sculimbrene said. The alliance lowered the price it was willing to pay and the offer was rejected by the seller.

“It’s pretty straightforward; I have an idea of what I want to sell the property for,” White said in a recent interview. “I’m not preventing anybody from buying it.” While the details of the transaction are unique and complex, similar problems have been encountered by others who seek to preserve large historic structures according to Joseph J. Corn, a retired professor from Stanford University and author of the book “The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation.”

The SS Rotterdam, a steam-powered ship launched in 1959 and last used as a passenger vessel in 2000, was saved from the scrap yard by the efforts of a group of volunteers who formed the Steamship Rotterdam Foundation. “We only have one ship like this,” said Klaas Krijnen, the group’s chairman, of the largest ocean liner produced in the Netherlands. Still, the foundation had to pitch investors on a rehabilitation project that involved removing cancer-causing asbestos from the ship, finding a place to berth it and finding a revenue-generating purpose for the 748-foot vessel.

After more than a decade and four unsuccessful restoration proposals, the SS Rotterdam now operates as a hotel docked at Rotterdam Harbor. Artifacts from the ship’s glory days are on display. Various halls as well as the engine room are open for tours.

“It took a lot of time,” Krijnen said. “When initiatives collapsed we were keeping the flag high; we said, ‘We will find another one.’ We just kept on going.”

Saving the Rotterdam was originally projected to cost about 25 million euros (about $29 million), Krijnen said. Ultimately, it cost 10 times that, underscoring Corn’s conclusion that large historical artifacts pose large challenges.

“They are expensive to maintain and difficult to protect,” Corn said. “Even if they are built to work outdoors, if left in their native habitat they will crumble.”

This possibility concerns the Aviation Heritage Alliance. Recently it stopped offering tours of the factory buildings and the business offices once occupied by the Wrights because deterioration of the structure made conditions too hazardous, according to Timothy R. Gaffney, director of communications for the alliance and author of “The Dayton Flight Factory: The Wright Brothers & the Birth of Aviation.”

Meanwhile, the relationship between the would-be buyers and the property’s owner has grown increasingly antagonistic.

“I don’t think they’re being fair with us,” Sculimbrene said of the seller. White defends his right to do what he wishes with property he owns.

“Nobody else had the guts to do this,” White said. “I invested my money and my time and until somebody comes and develops the property I’m holding the bag and I have the NAHA folks talking trash about me.”

The impasse casts a shadow over what should have been good news for the factory’s future. This year, the federal government appropriated $450,000 so the National Park Service can buy the buildings. But just owning them will not be enough, said Michael Gessel, who has spent 30 years trying to save Dayton’s Wright family landmarks. The land around them has to be developed, too.

It’s an “urban industrial area and that makes it a particular challenge. It’s not going to be in the forefront of where people, where tourists visit,” said Gessel, vice president of federal government programs at Dayton Development Coalition. The factory buildings “will be expensive to restore and there is no established plan for their exhibition and use.”

Despite the difficulties, Kendell Thompson, acting superintendent of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, said he’s optimistic, having seen successful projects emerge from similarly acrimonious relationships.

“What happens with a lot of moving parts is things can go into hiatus, there are slowdowns as roles and capacities are negotiated and worked out.” It won’t be easy and it probably won’t be quick, but when it is over, Thompson said, visitors from around the world will enjoy the latest addition to the area’s aviation historic district. The lesson to those future park visitors may even be applicable to the present.

“We talk about the development of airplanes,” Thompson said, “but really the things we talk about at the park are the themes of innovation, resiliency and the ability to do the impossible with little resources. These are universal themes.”

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