Beyond Cincinnati: The Dayton Aviation Trail

dayton-aviation-trailCincinnati friends – let’s talk about that town to our north. No, not Columbus. Closer. Let’s talk about Dayton. Some of you are just like me – you grew up there and you are so grateful to have landed in a place with So. Much. More. To. Do. Some of you have no idea where Dayton is. Some of you have never left the west side.

So let’s talk about Dayton and the hidden gem that it is. I did grow up there, and after college, I fled in search of the amazing things the world had to offer. Logically, I landed in Cincinnati. Then, this previous summer, we sold our house in northern Kentucky and needed a place to crash – for a month – while we waited to close on our new home. So the kids and I moved in with my mom… in Dayton. Yes, that is absolutely what I envisioned when I planned out my future at age 18. And no, it wasn’t terrible. In fact, Dayton has tons to offer young families: the Booneshoft Children’s Museum, Wegerzyn Gardens, Young’s Jersey Dairy, John Bryan State Park, Carillon Park, and infinitely more playgrounds than I could list here. You could do a day trip every week and not scratch the surface.

But still, there came a day where I just wanted to get my kids out of my mom’s extremely breakable house before they destroyed a valuable Precious Moments figurine, and my mom suggested a tiny museum right next to the Air Force Base. “It’s a National Park devoted to the Wright Brothers,” she told me. “Maybe the kids will like the planes.”

That day, we discovered a tiny fraction of the gold mine of aviation history nestled in this tiny community, and I highly recommend you check it out with your own kids. The museum we visited that day is the Huffman Prairie Flying Field and Interpretive Center, and no, it isn’t in North Carolina. See, the Wright Brothers were from Dayton, OH, and while their first sustained glider flight took place in Kitty Hawk (hence, all the “First in Flight” license plates), most of their planning, design, and sustained flights took place in locations throughout Dayton.

This particular museum is literally right next to Wright Patterson Air Force Base; when you turn into the drive, it looks like you are headed into one of the base gates. Veer to the right, and you’ll find yourself at a small, uncrowded museum packed full of fun. The museum includes a showing of the film On Great White Wings that chronicles the Wrights’ rather long road to success (don’t skip it!) and a flight simulator that allows children and adults alike to “fly” the original Wright flyer. Based on my boys’ crash rate, I’d say they might get their driving temps at age 21. But, the ranger was super patient and clearly loved his job. My children walked out of that museum with their arms spread wide, like the wings of an airplane. They were hooked. This site includes a Wright Brothers memorial, a rather pretty park, and an overlook of Huffman Prairie, where the Wright Brothers perfected their craft. If you’re so inclined, you can take a short drive to visit the actual prairie where the brothers learned to fly without the aid of Kitty Hawk’s famous winds, but there’s this thing called nap time. We headed home.

However, the ranger at the Interpretive Center introduced us to the Aviation Trail, a whole network of sites in the Dayton area dedicated to the Wright Brothers and their impact on flight. At various points in the year, they actually offer an incentive (a teddy bear, water bottle, etc.) for visiting a certain number of sites. My budding aviators were hooked. Over the course of our month of exile, we visited one of the original Wright Cycle locations, we saw an original Wright Flyer at Carillon Historical Park (this is worth carving out a full day if you visit; there’s just so much to do, including an on-site brewery and restaurant). We sat in an air-worthy replica of the Wright Flyer, the Wright B Flyer in Springboro (you can actually fly in this if you are a) brave and b) willing to spend the money). We visited the Wright brothers’ grave in Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum, and we spent two separate days exploring the extensive exhibits in the National Museum of the United States Air Force. With the exception of Carillon Park, everything was entirely free. (And if you have a Cincinnati Museum Center Membership, you may be able to get some sort of reciprocity deal at Carillon Park; definitely ask.) Every site we visited had enthusiastic, dedicated rangers who engaged my kids (ages 6, 4, and 2) and basically convinced them to be pilots. All the sites offered hands-on activities (flight simulators, opportunities to explore planes, model planes they could sit in and play “pilot”…you name it, they had it). The Air Force Museum even had a model space shuttle! My Star Wars fans were positively overcome with emotion.

And now, here I am. We’ve closed on our new home; we are no longer temporary Daytonians. But I now have three children who regularly ask why Wilbur was older when Orville had a mustache, who have mastered the propeller toys that started Wilbur and Orville down their path to flight, and who inform me that if I just give them enough (unsupervised) time, they’ll build their own Wright Flyer and take me on a ride.  The sky is no longer the limit for them.

Most of the sites on the Aviation Trail are around an hour from Cincinnati. The smaller ones could be combined into a single day trip; the Air Force Museum merits a larger time commitment. None of them necessitate staying in a hotel, although there are plenty of overnight options in the Fairfield Commons area right next to the Air Force Base. As a side note: I would recommend printing hard copies of your directions for the sites near the base because the GPS on your phone will not work there; there’s this little thing called national security, apparently. Don’t ask me how I learned that.

If you have tiny (or not-so-tiny) plane fanatics in your household, the Dayton Aviation Trail is worth the drive. If you’re from Dayton and had no idea any of this existed, have no shame. Neither did I. You should still take advantage of it and be proud of Dayton’s history.

North Carolina may have claimed the license plate, but Dayton truly gave us our wings. Happy flying!

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