Wright Patterson AFB Community
The past, present and future at Wright-Patterson are inextricably linked with the
Wright brothers’ legacy. The stories of the brothers’ early years, their bicycle shop, their printing business and their early aviation efforts are in evidence throughout greater Dayton.
Wright-Patterson’s history as a military installation dates from World War I. Its aviation history, however, began around 1904 or 1905 when Wilbur and Orville Wright used an 84-acre plot of land, known as the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, for their experimental test flights. Here the Wright Brothers solved the final secrets of aerodynamics, learned to fly and developed the first truly practical airplane — their 1905 Flyer. They returned to the Huffman Prairie Flying Field in 1910 to operate a pilot training school — The Wright Company School of Aviation — and a flight exhibition company.
By the time they ended their operations in 1916, aviation had become a reality, and a rich tradition of invention, operations and education had been established on these 84 acres. The Huffman Prairie Flying Field was officially designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990 and became part of the newly created Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park two years later.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, three military installations were established in the Dayton area. Two of these would become part of Wright-Patterson AFB; the third was near downtown Dayton. Their original missions — logistics, research and development, and military education — remain the missions at Wright-Patterson to this day.
Wilbur Wright Field and the Fairfield Aviation General Supply Depot were adjacent installations on what is today Area A of the base. Wilbur Wright Field was on a 2,075-acre tract of land adjacent to the Mad River that was leased to the Army by the Miami Conservancy District. The lease included the Huffman Prairie Flying Field. The Signal Corps Aviation School established at the new airfield began operations in June 1917 as a training school for pilots. The field also housed an aviation mechanics’ school and a school for armorers.
The Fairfield Aviation General Supply Depot was constructed on 40 acres of land purchased by the Army from the Miami Conservancy District, next to Wilbur Wright Field. It provided logistics support to Wilbur Wright Field and three other Signal Corps aviation schools in the Midwest. Each day the depot received, stored and issued equipment and supplies to Signal Corps aviation schools in the region.
The third World War I military installation was McCook Field. This 254-acre complex, just north of downtown Dayton between Keowee Street and the Great Miami River, was named for the “Fighting McCook” family of Civil War fame who once owned part of the land. McCook Field was the temporary home of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Airplane Engineering Division. As an engineering and research facility, McCook Field has been described as “the single most influential agency in the early years of American air power.” McCook’s engineers and technicians researched, developed, manufactured, tested and evaluated military aircraft and all their associated components and equipment.
Cooperation between the two geographically separated flying fields began in 1918 when Wilbur Wright Field agreed to let McCook Field use hangar and shop space as well as a force of enlisted mechanics to assemble and maintain airplanes and engines. Wilbur Wright Field’s expansive and relatively isolated open flying field also proved ideal for testing the Air Service’s experimental aircraft and the larger, more powerful models developed during the 1920s.
Following World War I, the training school at Wilbur Wright Field was eliminated, and the field and the depot merged to form the Fairfield Air Depot, which was active until 1946.
McCook Field remained in operation only until 1927, doomed by its location; its limited size could not accommodate the larger, more sophisticated aircraft that quickly emerged after World War I. “This Field is Small — Use It All!” was painted atop the airfield’s hangars as a warning to pilots. When the Air Corps announced its intention to close McCook Field, local businessmen and citizens protested. The field offered a stable and expanding economic base for the community and was also a great source of pride to the city that considered itself the birthplace of aviation.
Under leadership of the Patterson family (who had founded the National Cash Register Co.), prominent citizens formed the Dayton Air Service Committee Inc. This organization mounted a massive public campaign that raised $425,000 in two days. It used the money to purchase 4,520.47 acres of land northeast of Dayton, including Wilbur Wright Field and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, and in 1924, the committee presented the deeds to President Calvin Coolidge to build a new aviation-engineering center there. The entire acreage (including the Fairfield Air Depot) was designated Wright Field in honor of both Wright brothers.
Between 1925 and 1927, modern facilities were built on the portion of Wright Field west of Huffman Dam to house all functions being relocated from old McCook Field. Orville Wright raised the flag over the new engineering center at the dedication ceremony Oct. 12, 1927, and the name “Wright Field” soon became synonymous with advances in aeronautical engineering, a reputation that Wright-Patterson retains. This new portion of Wright Field became headquarters of the Materiel Division, the main branch of the Army Air Corps responsible for developing advanced aircraft, equipment and accessories. The division also procured and provided maintenance for these systems and was charged with managing the extensive Air Corps depot system.
The Wright Field name covered the entire installation, but many local residents believed that part of the field should honor the Patterson family to recognize their leadership in keeping the engineering center in Dayton. This happened July 1, 1931, when the portion of Wright Field east of Huffman Dam was redesignated Patterson Field in honor of Lt. Frank Stuart Patterson. Patterson enlisted in May 1917 and was commissioned in September 1917 as a first lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corps with the aeronautical rating of pilot. The following May, 1st Lt. Patterson was assigned to the 137th Aero Squadron as a test pilot at Wilbur Wright Field. On June 19, 1918, little more than a month after his arrival, Patterson and his aerial observer, Lt. LeRoy Amos Swan, went aloft in their DH-4 to test newly installed machine gun synchronizers. They completed two trials successfully, but, during a steep dive on the third test, the airplane’s wings collapsed and the aircraft crashed, killing both crewmen.
Patterson Field is known today as Area A of Wright-Patterson AFB. It includes the Fairfield Air Depot and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field. Patterson Field soon became the Army’s center for aviation logistics, maintenance and supply. Although Wright Field and Patterson Field were now two separate installations, their missions continued to be intertwined.
Both fields experienced dramatic expansion during World War II, in real estate as well as structures. Employment at the fields jumped from approximately 3,700 in December 1939 to nearly 50,000 by mid-1945. Wright Field grew from a modest installation with approximately 30 buildings to a 2,064-acre facility with some 300 buildings and the Air Corps’ first modern paved runways. The Hilltop area, acquired from private landowners from 1943 to 1944, provided housing and services for the thousands of troops assigned to Wright Field. Office and laboratory buildings and test facilities crowded the original part of the field.
The outbreak of World War II provided a crucial test for the Materiel Division, which since 1926 had managed its experimental, engineering and procurement functions with limited peacetime appropriations. To accommodate the massive wartime Air Corps expansion program, the division’s functions were ultimately broken into two separate commands: the Materiel Command and the Air Service Command.
The Materiel Command, headquartered at Wright Field, was responsible for procuring airplanes and equipment in production quantities and for sustaining an accelerated program of testing and development. The Air Service Command, at Patterson Field, assumed responsibility for all logistics functions, including maintenance and supply.
The separation proved cumbersome and confusing. The Army Air Forces addressed this problem in August 1944 by inactivating the two commands and reuniting their functions in the newly established Air Technical Service Command. This action made Wright Field subordinate to the new headquarters at Patterson Field and had a psychologically divisive effect on the installation.
To solve that problem, the portion of Patterson Field from Huffman Dam through the Brick Quarters (including the command headquarters in Building 262) was reassigned from Patterson Field to Wright Field. To avoid confusing the two areas of Wright Field, the former Patterson Field portion was designated “Area A” of Wright Field and the original field became “Area B.”
Patterson Field likewise saw the addition of hundreds of barracks and their supporting mess halls, chapels, hospitals, clubs and recreational facilities. Two densely populated housing and service areas across Highway 444, Wood City and Skyway Park, were geographically separated from the central core of Patterson Field and developed almost self-sufficient community status. (Wood City was acquired in 1924 as part of the original donation of land to the government but was used primarily as a radio range until World War II. Skyway Park was acquired in 1943.) They supported the vast numbers of recruits who enlisted and were trained in the two fields as well as thousands of civilian laborers, especially single women recruited to work at the depot. Skyway Park was demolished after the war. Wood City was eventually transformed into Kittyhawk Center, the base’s modern commercial and recreation core.
Patterson Field and Wright Field remained separate installations throughout WWII, but as the war drew to a close, base leaders recognized to make the most efficient use possible of their facilities. In 1945, they integrated the master plans for both fields and increasingly administered the functions and services of the two as a single installation. This practice was formalized in December 1945 with the establishment of the Army Air Forces Technical Base in Dayton, which provided base operational support to the combined bases.
On Jan. 13, 1948, the newly created U.S. Air Force officially merged Wright and Patterson fields to create Wright-Patterson AFB. To facilitate daily management, Patterson Field became “Area A” and Skyway Park became “Area D” of the installation. Area D was donated to the state of Ohio in 1963 for the creation of Wright State University.
Today, Wright-Patterson AFB is one of the Air Force’s largest installations. This is where America’s Air Force aircraft of tomorrow are conceived, developed and acquired. Wright-Patterson’s age and history coupled with its vital air power missions also make it one of the Air Force’s most historically significant bases. The heritage of a legendary past spurs aerospace acquisition specialists, scientists and engineers, and logisticians, educators and trainers to “keep ’em flying” faster, higher, farther and safer than man has ever flown before.