The first American airplane factory, a 1910 structure built for Orville and Wilbur Wright, caught fire early this morning in Dayton, Ohio throwing into doubt, long-sought plans to turn the buildings into a historical park under the management of the National Park Service.
Firefighters battled the fire for 14 hours but aerial footage from WHIO television shows that the two adjoining brick buildings built by the Wrights along with three others built later, have been badly damaged. Sections of the roof over the Wright factory area appear to have collapsed.
In November 1909, Orville Wright announced his Dayton plans to reporters telling them, “We propose to have the first and largest airship factory in the country — to have it here at home and to conduct it for the manufacture of aeroplanes.”
One hundred and 20 airplanes were produced there, but the brothers did not occupy it for long. Wilbur Wright died unexpectedly in 1912, and his brother Orville sold his share in the business in 1915.
Over the past 13 years, aviation and history aficionados in Dayton including the National Aviation Heritage Area have been campaigning to preserve and restore the factory and add it to a lengthy list of significant sites in aviation history in the region.
In 2019, the factory was placed on the National Historic Register. The National Park Service recently completed an assessment of the structure which it described as “the birthplace of American aviation history.”
Relatives of the Wright brothers, Steven Wright and his sister Amanda Wright Lane have been heavily involved with the preservation efforts. They visited the scene on Sunday.
“The most heavily damaged sections are the first and second of the five identical buildings,” the brothers’ grandnephew told me this evening. “These were the two that Orville and Wilbur built and occupied.”
I visited the factory in 2016 and again in 2018 reporting for The New York Times on the fiercest part of the struggle to preserve the factory.
Plans had been drawn up, big ideas were being tossed around about how to use the cavernous hangars where ladies once sewed fabric for wings and gentlemen in ties assembled parts so that an industry could take flight. Sketches displayed ideas for exhibition space and STEM-focused classrooms, facilities for conferences were discussed, too. But progress was slow.
This did not surprise Tim Gaffney, who worked with the National Aviation Heritage Area during that time.
After Dayton’s heyday as an incubator for new technology and ground-breaking engineering, so many Wright Brothers’ artifacts had been lost or squandered starting with the original Wright family home and bike shop which were sold to Henry Ford in the thirties. Not long after that, the Wright brothers’ flying school built on a pasture near where Wright Patterson Air Force Base is now located, was demolished. Gaffney, an amateur historian and author reminded me of these episodes when I called to ask about the fire.
Dayton never did seem to value what it had, he told me.”Between the city and the state, $4 million in public money has gone into those buildings,” he said. Learning about the fire was “so disheartening,” he could not bring himself to visit the factory to see the destruction.
In a statement, NAHA director Mackensie Wittmer said the extent of the damage was not yet clear but added that she was “deeply saddened.”
During my visit in 2018, I interviewed Kendell Thompson, who at that time was the superintendent of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
He told me then that while the subject of aviation history is ostensibly airplanes, the underlying subjects are not tangible. Aviation history is about “innovation and resiliency.” As they discover the scope of the damage to their one-of-a-kind artifact, the qualities Thompson describes will be required in Dayton in the days to come.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.