My family took a driving trip from Washington DC to Yellowstone and back this summer. We always try to find at least one interesting place to take the kids a day, both to break up the drive and to add something to engage their minds. We chose to end our first day and start our second with the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
The first thing to realize is that this park is broken up into multiple sites to see and I'm kind of confused as to how many there actually are as depending upon which park publication you check, the number varies. I know that we started at the Huffman Prairie Interpretive Center and also went to the Wright Memorial and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field our first day. The next morning, we visited the Wright Cycle Complex which included the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, the Aviation Trail Museum (which includes the Parachute Museum), the Wright Cycle Company and the Paul Dunbar House which was the only site we did not visit.
The two main areas (Huffman Prairie and the Wright Cycle Complex ) are well separated and you will need a car in order to visit them. There is plenty of free parking at the sites. We did find the signage for the Huffman Prairie area to be confusing and ended up at two different gates for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I guess we should have just listened to the GPS!
Huffman Prairie was where the Wright Brothers turned the airplane from a curiosity into a practical mode of transportation. In the visitor center, we were able to see a film and a bunch of exhibits about early airplanes, air shows and technological advances. Unfortunately, the simulator exhibit where you could "fly" the first airplane was not operational the day we were there. My daughters loved doing the Junior Ranger program which was one of the more interesting programs of this type they have done. The projects involved included a timeline, kings of the air about exhibition flying, a U.S. Army patent specifications, models of airplanes produced by the Wright Company, a word find, aircraft spotting among the model planes hanging overhead in the visitor center, history of Huffman Prairie, bingo and a scavenger hunt. The girls were given a choice of either plastic pilot wings or a patch - they chose the wings.
The other things we saw the first day were the flying field at Huffman Prairie, Huffman Dam and the Wright Memorial as well as many planes taking off and landing at Wright-Patterson. I particularly liked seeing Hap Arnold's name on the list of pilots trained at the Wright School of Aviation as would anyone who used to be in the Arnold Air Society!
The next morning, we visited the Wright Cycle Complex and toured the Wright Dunbar Interpretive Center first. My daughters were particularly entranced by the toy helicopter which inspired Orville and Wilbur Wright when the were children, the "scary" talking figures in the general store area and the Parachute Museum exhibits. They did the other half of the Junior Ranger booklet here which had activities including a timeline, designing an invention, the Wright brother's childhood, writing a poem, learning about artifacts and historical documents, the properties of flight, learning about printing presses and actually walking out the length of the first flight, counting the steps and figuring out how long it was. Neither girl came up with 120 feet as their steps were not the "right" length but they were close. Here, they were given the choice of a Junior Ranger badge or a patch and they chose patches.
The interpretive center here is sort of split between the Wright Brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar who was a classmate of Orville's. It seemed a bit schizophrenic to me. I'm not saying that Mr. Dunbar is not worthy of recognition but he seemed pasted on to be included along with the Wrights. There is a separate Dunbar house you can visit which has its own Junior Ranger program but we did not visit this trip.
The interpretive center building was getting new carpeting while we were there so it would be easy to overlook the wonderful Parachute Museum and the printing presses on the second floor.
Outside the visitor center and across the courtyard is the Wright Cycle Shop. There was a ranger inside who gave us a tour and explained about how the bicycle craze enabled the Wrights to become aviation pioneers. It was also interesting to see how bicycles changed over the years and how the Wrights had to manufacture their own machinery. It was diappointing that this museum does not have an actual Wright bicycle to display.
Neither site was particularly crowded when we visited and we came across only a few other groups during each visit. We also felt that way about driving through Dayton, even during rush hour. The entire city seemed eerily deserted, almost post-apocalyptic. That said, even if no one else is there, it's worth visiting for yourself. Plus, there's no admission fee!
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