Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Rise of Military Aviation R&D in Dayton

Since military aerospace R&D is the bright spot in the regional economy perhaps it would be interesting to see how that came about.

Aviation in Dayton starts, of course, with the Wright Brothers. After Kittyhawk the Wrights returned to Dayton and perfected basic flying control at Huffman Prairie, which was later the site of their flying school. The Wrights also made improvements to their flyer, and in 1910 started to build planes.
The first factory was in the old Speedwell motor car plant in the Edgemont neighborhood/ The Wrights built planes there for less than a year. Operations were relocated to west side factory in the fall of 1910 (the building is still standing as part of the Delphi -Inland factory).
Building planes in the west side factory. I’m not sure when this plant was closed, but a 1918 Sanborn map still shows this an aircraft-related plant. The WSU library website has a gallery of pix of the manufacturing process.
The US entered WWI in 1917. With entry the US military needed an expanded air arm, and support bases. The Dayton area hosted two of the new bases, McCook Field just northeast of downtown and Patterson Field /Fairfield Air Depot to the east of the city , sited on flat land in a flood control retention basin.
Patterson did maintenance work and also hosted a training squadron, Fairfield was a supply point, and McCook did R&D.

WWI drove aviation manufacturing activity, too. A factory south of the city, in the industrial suburb of Moraine, was converted to fighter production (using a British design), and an experimental test field was set up near the fighter factory for research on things like flying bombs. This factory was the last attempt to actually build planes in Dayton.

McCook Field was the predecessor to today’s military R&D sector, located on bottomland adjacent to Old North Dayton.

The base was cramped and didn’t have enough space, and the research activity, like testing parachutes, happened over a fairly built up area. The base property was leased which meant an annual rent payment from the government.

This postcard shows how close the base was to downtown and other built up areas. If a test went awry and something dropped out of the sky there was a risk it would hit a populated neighborhood, industrial district, or even downtown.

So the push for relocation came quick after WWI. The first plan was to move to the old fighter factory, now vacant after the war. This fell through, and McCook remained in operation through most of the 1920s as there was no money for a replacement base (defense spending having reverted to pre-WWI levels).
Later in the 1920s local funds were raised to purchase and offer land to the military to keep the R&D activity in Dayton at a new base. This was the critical decision point as the military was planning on closing McCook and relocating the R&D function to Virginia. If the gift of land hadn’t occurred the Dayton area wouldn’t be the big aerospace R&D center it is today.

The result was Wright Field, opened in the late 1920s.

When McCook was closed some of the research apparatus was relocated, like this wind tunnel, still at the base.
Wright Field in the late 1920s or early 30s

Wright field in 1945, looking down roughly in the same direction, but higher up, illustrating the massive WWII expansion. This expansion pretty much cemented the bases’ roll as the (at that time) Army Air Force’s aerospace R&D center.

Most of this was built 1940-45. One has to admire how much was built in so short a time.

The base retained its research function into the postwar era, and WWII facilities were replaced through time with modern laboratories and offices. In contrast to the Building 26 debacle at UD the old 1920s/early 30s era buildings that survive are being renovated as part of an ongoing reinvestment program.


metromark said...

Jeff, thanks for the post! As you know, Huffman Prairie Flying Field, which is smack dab in the middle of Areas A & C of Wright-Patt, is a part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. The Wright factory buildings, which are still operational for Delphi, are being considered as a part of the national park in the near future. Orville's office is still in tact in one of the buildings. The Wright Company was sold to the Martin Company in 1916 after Orville sold his interest in the company in 1915 for $1.6 mil. After that, he basically retired, never significantly adding to the advancement of aviation technology. Martin removed the company from Dayton, but the business continues as the Curtiss-Wright Company, which is now headquartered in New Jersey. Interestingly, Curtiss-Wright recently opened an office in Dayton and is planning to expand its presence here. What goes around comes around.

McCook is, in my humble opinion, the great "untold" story here in Dayton. I put the untold in parenthesis, because there is an excellent book by Marianne Johnson on the subject. It's just that most Daytonians know nothing about it, and the only thing left of the field, which was off of Keowee St., is a wayside sign recently posted by the National Park Service.

McCook was the first research and development facility in this country solely devoted to aviation. Some of the products that came from this 264 acre complex were the parachute, early helicopter technology, advances in propeller and engine technologies, and the turbosupercharger which allowed planes to rise into the thin atmosphere without the engine quitting.

Apparently, Billy Mitchell, one of the greats in early military aviation, was a friend of NCR President Fred Patterson (son of John H. Patterson who died in 1922). Billy caught wind that the government was pulling McCook out of Dayton and alerted Fred about it. Fred was able to galvanize the Dayton business community into the Dayton Air Service Committee which was able to quickly launch a two-day campaign to raise $400,000 to buy up approximately 7,000 acres which surrounded then Wilbur Wright Field and offer the land to the government for $1.00 with the understanding that the military aviation R & D facility would remain in Dayton. It did, and the result was the formation of two new air fields: Wright Field, which took over the functions of McCook; and Patterson Field, which was the expanded version of the old Wilbur Wright Field and the Fairfield Air Supply Depot. Patterson Field, by the way, didn't come into existence until 1931. Wright Field was dedicated in 1927.

One last comment, which deserves at least one more post by itself, is the contribution of Edward Deeds. We talk about the Wright Brothers, we talk about Charles Kettering, and we talk about the Pattersons . . . all movers and shakers, without a doubt. But the real broker of what Dayton came to be in the 20th century was Colonel Edward Deeds. He was a colonel in the Army Signal Corps during World War I; but before that, he was a vice president of NCR under John Patterson and hired Kettering to be the head of the company's Inventions Department. Kettering would start his illustrious career by inventing the electric cash register.

Deeds would be the creative genius behind Kettering's inventions. He was the genesis of the Barn Gang in Deeds' carriage house where the auto electric self-starter was invented. That led to Deeds and Kettering founding DELCO. Kettering was the inventor, Deeds was the financier and marketer for making the invention commericially viable. More on this later in another post.

When World War I was looming, Deeds became a Colonel in the Army Signal Corps and the chairman of a very influential wartime board called the Aircraft Production Board. This board, under Deeds, brought McCook Field to Dayton as well as Wilbur Wright Field which trained pilots and air crew members and the Fairfield Air Supply Depot, which supplied all the air fields in the United States during the war.

One of the major holders of rights to land around the Mad River after the 1913 flood was the Miami Conservancy District. Colonel Deeds was the president of the MCD in the 1920s. When the question of the future of the R&D facility came to fruition in the 1920s, the MCD was a major player in invoking eminent domain for securing the farm land that eventually became Wright and Patterson Fields. Think about it. There's much more to discuss concerning Edward Deeds, but there's no doubt that he is THE major player in the formation of modern Dayton.

Jeffrey said...

Excellent detail! Thank you for the additional info!

I especially like the background on Deeds' connection the military aviation, which explains the location of these early bases here, and how the R&D work was kept in Dayton.

Deeds also was behind Pratt & Whitney becoming a an aircraft engine producer, being a big contributor to the Hartford, Conn. economy.

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