Article

Huffman Prairie Flying Field Cultural Landscape

Path cut through tall prairie grass in a level field
Today, the Huffman Prairie Flying Field is mostly pasture, as it was in 1904.

Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress

Introduction

Huffman Prairie Flying Field, located at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, served as the world’s first aerodrome. Its use proved integral in the development of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first practical airplane: the Wright Flyer III. After the Wright brothers received a patent for the machine and started airplane production, Huffman Field then became the location for the Wright School of Aviation that trained civilian and military pilots from 1910-1916. The following year, the US Army began leasing land surrounding Huffman Field, which eventually merged to become the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In 1990, the Huffman Prairie Flying Field was designated as a National Historic Landmark, and it was put under the administrative control of the National Park Service in 1992.

Landscape Description

Huffman Prairie Flying Field is 84 acre site in Ohio’s Bath Township. Although part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park, the location of Huffman Field is geographically separate from the rest of the site. Due to its designation as a part of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and recurring flooding issues, the area remained relatively resistant to commercial development. It is one of Ohio’s few remaining prairies and is listed as an Ohio Natural Landmark. The interior of Huffman Field lacks tree and shrub vegetation, which provides it an open meadow character although the terrain is somewhat uneven with “hummocks,” or small hills. Woodlands compose the edges of the prairie and the interior contains predominately native and exotic grasses. Historically, during the Wright Brothers use of the prairie, big bluestem and Indian grasses were most prevalent.
Long-range view of machine on launching track, showing hangar nearby and hummocky ground of former swamp at Huffman Prairie, Dayton, Ohio
Long-range view of machine on launching track, showing hangar nearby and hummocky ground of former swamp at Huffman Prairie, summer 1904.

Photo by Wilbur and/or Orville Wright. Library of Congress.

The overall integrity of Huffman Field, or its ability to convey historical significance, is acceptable. Although the Huffman Field location and association, or direct connection to a historical event or individual, are both highly relevant to its integrity it lacks many original historic structures. Dominate elements include commemorative features outside the periods of significance, including hangar and catapult replicas, a pylon building, and concrete sidewalks containing commemorative markers.

Here we must depend on a long track, and light winds or even dead calms. It is skirted on the west and north by trees. This not only shuts off the wind somewhat but also probably gives a slight downtrend. However, this matter we do not consider anything serious. The greater troubles are the facts that in addition to cattle there have been a dozen or more horses in pasture and as it is surrounded by barbwire fencing we have been at much trouble to get them safely away before making trials. Also the ground is an old swamp and is filled with grassy hummocks some six inches high so that it resembles a prairie-dog town.

-- Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, June 21, 1904, cited in the Huffman Prairie Flying Field Cultural Landscape Report (pg. 13)

Historic Use

Long before the recorded periods of significance in the 20th century, the landscape held special meaning to ancient peoples. Archeological evidence suggests the presence of Paleo-Indians around 11,000 BCE and remnants of the Adena Culture 1,000 BCE burial mounds. The Miami, and later, Shawnee tribes also settled in the area around the 18th century.
Pyramid shaped catapult in an open field, dimly lit and bathed in fog.
Replica model of the launching catapult used for the aircraft to reach maximum flying speed.

NPS

Later, in the early 1900s, Huffman Field was selected by the Wright Brothers for its accessibility and privacy from the public to improve their airplane design. After the first controlled, powered, and heavier-than-air machine flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17th, 1903 the Wright brothers decided to “avoid costly and lengthy trips” by working on improvements closer to home in Dayton. Torrence Huffman, the owner of the property, agreed to let the Wright brothers use the land, a cow pasture at the time, rent free.

The improvements the Wright brothers made at Huffman Field to their original invention provided the machine better maneuverability and durability. In addition, it required less reliance on the weather—the prairie lacked both the hills and wind of Kitty Hawk, so the Wright brothers constructed a launching catapult. A replica model exists on the site. The years of experiments and changes culminated in the first practical aircraft that the Wright brothers patented in 1906. They successfully negotiated two contracts to “manufacturer, sell, or license” with a French syndicate and the United State Army.
Wilbur and Orville Wright with their second powered machine beside a hanger; Huffman Prairie, Dayton, Ohio
Wilbur and Orville Wright with their second powered machine at Huffman Prairie Ohio, May 1904

Photo by Wilbur and/or Orville Wright. Library of Congress.

Rear view of flight 46, Orville flying at a high altitude over Huffman Prairie
Rear view of flight 46, Orville flying at a high altitude over Huffman Prairie

Photo by Wilbur and/or Orville Wright. Library of Congress.

In 1910, the Wright Company started manufacturing airplanes and established a flying school in Dayton to promote their product. A nonextant hanger at Huffman Field approximately 60 by 100 feet housed up to three airplanes supported flight school operations. Both civilian and military pilots trained at Huffman Field, as well as members of the Wright Exhibition Team. The uneven and sometimes marshy terrain contained only a few unobstructed areas for take-off and required a set course.

Corresponding to the start of the First World War, the United States government sought to expand its aviation capabilities. In 1917, the Army selected the land surrounding Huffman Field and initially leased 2,074 acres to start a Signal Corps Aviation School. Named Wilbur Wright Field, this installation continued to expand over the years to include McCook Field. The War Department renamed the installation Patterson Field in 1931, which again changed to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base when the Wright Field was added. In the 1940s, the Air Force used the airspace above Huffman Field to calibrate the speed of new planes.
Huffman Prairie Flying Field provides a tangible reminder of origin and development of the aviation industry. Visitors can explore the location of world’s first aerodrome and test site for its first practical airplane.
Pyramid shaped catapult in an open field, with a wooden hanger and white flag in the background
Replica hangar and catapult device at the Huffman Prairie Flying Field.

Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress

Quick Facts

  • Cultural Landscape Type: Historic Vernacular Landscape
  • National Historic Landmark
  • National Register Significance Criteria: A, B
  • Period of significance:
1904-1905 First practical airplane, Wright Flyer III

1910-1916 Wright company flying school

Last updated: December 17, 2019