Ask anyone about the Wright Brothers and for sure, they’ll mention flight and maybe even that before inventing their famous airplane, Orville & Wilber Wright built bikes. Even though they are arguably history’s most famous bike builders it still seems like an aside. But look closely at a Wright Brothers airplane and you’ll see the brothers borrowed chains and sprockets and incorporated the geometric shapes from bike frames to construct and test their flying machine.
“We marvel at the airplane while overlooking the bicycle,” Ryan Qualls a National Park Service Ranger told me. At the time, the bike was, “one of the simplest machines with the most pronounced results. The bike was a machine that could take you anywhere.”
While the Wright Brothers designed a few bikes, the more famous manufacturer of the day was Dayton’s George Huffman who founded Huffy Bikes.
In the 1960s, Huffman’s son, Horace started the Greater Dayton Bikeway Committee, to create safe places to pedal. Today, Ohio has 340 miles of paths and claims the nation’s largest paved network. These trails, mapped and available online, are marked like highways though mostly they run through bucolic areas lined by flowers and populated with birds. They connect more than a dozen of the state’s most notable aviation sites. Even better, there are few hills.
This was a siren call for me and so this Spring, with an assignment from Air & Space to write about the trip, I set out on a week-long ride to visit 13 places related to the Wright Brothers and all that their invention inspired.
For two of my seven days I was accompanied by Qualls, who manages the bike-with-a-ranger program. Check it out if a multi-day trip doesn’t suit your schedule or fitness level.
You can read about each stop I made along the way in the Air & Space article which appears in this month’s print issue and online here. Read on for more of my impressions from the trip and stories of some of the special people I met on my journey.
Of all the places I visited, Huffman Prairie was most suited to bike riders, located at the south west end of Wright Patterson Air Force Base runway 23. It is encircled by woods and cars rarely appear on the pavement. At the shed where the Wrights worked you can stand in the shade while four-engine C-17 cargo planes lumber overhead. I was there in the company of Steven Wright, the brother’s grand-nephew and an avid biker. While we were there one of the Presidential Boeing 747s flew by, which was awesome.
After conquering the air, the Wright Brothers immediately realized how useful their invention would be for war. That’s abundantly evident at The National Museum of the USAF, which is a quick bike ride from Huffman Prairie.
I was lucky to have Doug Lantry, museum historian as my guide because there are five hangars full of aircraft and other memorabilia displayed in tableaus that Lantry explained are intended to place the machines in context.
In keeping with that sentiment I have to say that my ride along the aviation trail was also only partly about the machines. I also got a sense of how the flight has affected the people who live here.
In Yellow Springs, I’d been urged to get in touch with Jim Hammond, a lifelong resident of the village who runs a family business selling desiccants. He told stories all afternoon but drying agents never came up.
Instead, Hammond was eager to show me the two hangars on his grass airstrip which are full of antique airplanes. Six are intact. (Watch his Aeronca C-3 fly here) His Hatz biplane earned him a Lindbergh Trophy from the Experimental Aircraft Association. Another six vintage planes are awaiting restoration including a P-19 he found in a barn in 1988.
“Doing these things, I meet a lot of like-minded folks,” he told me. But he’s also hoping to inspire the next generation as a volunteer with the Young Eagles program.
“I show them my collection and give them an airplane ride and then 10 years down the road they’re flying in the military or commercial. They’ve chosen an aviation career and I like to think I had a part,” he told me.
The next day, on a cold ride against stiff headwinds on the trail between Yellow Springs and Urbana’s Champaign Aviation Museum, I stopped to warm up at the Cedar Bog Nature Preserve and thawed my hands under the dryer in the bathroom. Then I struck up a conversation with Carol Spitzer, a volunteer at the center.
She’d been a quality control engineer with Grimes, makers of aircraft and airport lighting, and she stayed on after Honeywell acquired it. There were not a lot of women in the field at the time but Carol enjoyed being a pioneer. Now, she proudly told me, her grandsons are aeronautical engineers carrying on a family tradition started by their grandmother.
Three miles from where I’d reluctantly surrender my rented wheels, I stopped at a park to talk to Matthew Johnson and Danny Chen, free-style racing drone pilots. Where the Wright Brothers took the transportation innovation that was the bicycle and pushed it into the air, radio-controlled airplanes and quadcopters take advantage of advances in communication, optical, digital and radio technology.
Wearing goggles that give them the point of view of the tiny cameras mounted on their aircraft, Matt and Danny fly remotely but see as if they were actually on the drone. Danny handed the goggles to me and flew the quadcopter around the obstacle course, looping and spinning through the air. How different is this from last century’s barnstormers who latched on to that newfangled airplane with a suicidal enthusiasm?
Whether Orville and Wilbur could have imagined this outgrowth of their invention is difficult to say. Matthew, who grew up within biking distance of their home, said he can’t predict what might come next.
“Being from Dayton you can’t help but think of the connection, obviously but it’s hard to see where the future of this is going to go.”
I share that curiosity about the future. And I know now that sometimes the best way to anticipate tomorrow is by looking backward, which is another reason to hop on yesterday’s wonder vehicle and take a ride through the past.
Logistics – If you go
I rented my bike, panniers for carrying my things, a lock, water bottle and helmet for eight days from the cheery folks at K&G Bike Center in Kettering for the entirely reasonable price of $119. I’m not saying we’re like-minded or anything but hearing of my plans, one of the store employees asked if he could come along.
I used a variety of accommodations during my stay including Airbnb. But I highly recommend Springs Motel in Yellow Springs. It’s not just the sixties summer-of-love vibe, the full breakfast and 24-hour coffee/cocoa bar, but manager Robyn Smith provides just the right balance of mothering care and privacy. 3601 US Rte 68 N, Yellow Springs, OH 45387
The Simon Kenton Inn is a lovingly restored historic home from the 1800s. After 4 days of biking, the modern whirlpool tub in my room and generous made-to-order breakfast in the family home were both well-appreciated. 4690 Urbana Rd, Springfield, OH 45502
After getting caught in a torrential rain I ducked into Al Basha International Foods where the Iraqi-American proprietress set about making me a delicious, filling, authentic Arabic meal while I wandered the aisles picking up exotic food items to stuff in my panniers. 1721 Woodman Dr, Dayton, OH 45420
A visit to the Carillon Historical Park should include a meal at the park’s restaurant, the Carillon Brewery. At a museum with an emphasis on structures, this is the largest and the best-smelling exhibit you will enter, a fully restored brewery from Dayton’s 19th Century golden age of beer. The menu reflects the meals of Dayton’s English, German, and Irish immigrants. 1000 Carillon Blvd. Dayton, Ohio 45409
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.