On the cutting edge: Wright-Patt reaches a century of innovation

Before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a rocket-powered plane and before any of the Mercury 7 astronauts climbed into a space capsule, their journeys started at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

From flying captured enemy fighters to popular lore of hidden UFOs and aliens, Wright-Patterson has captured the public’s imagination and brought the right stuff in pilots and aerospace innovators to the Miami Valley for a century.

Monday is the 100th anniversary of when the Army Signal Corps signed a lease for 2,075 acres of Miami Conservancy District land near the Mad River for what would become Wilbur Wright Field, a pilot training base, according to base historian Henry Narducci. Soon, Fairfield Aviation General Supply Depot, a logistics site, and McCook Field, an aircraft engineering center in Dayton, would follow and consolidate years later into Wright Field.

Wilbur and Orville Wright had perfected the first practical airplane and launched a flying school at nearby Huffman Prairie Flying Field, part of the base through its earliest history to today. The Wright brothers taught Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of Army Air Forces in World War II, to fly at the field.

One hundred years since those first planes and people populated Wilbur Wright Field, the sprawling installation with a workforce larger than anywhere else in Ohio or the Air Force worldwide has evolved into a super base.

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While core missions have stayed the same, the scope of what the base and its workforce do has expanded exponentially over the decades.

‘Center of gravity’

Wright-Patterson is a “center of gravity” in the Air Force, said Richard V. Reynolds, a retired lieutenant general and past commander of the former Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson.

“It’s hard to overstate its importance,” he said.

Among its biggest players, Wright-Patterson is headquarters to the Air Force Materiel Command and Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which test, buy and manage weapon systems.

Also located at the base are:

• The Air Force Research Laboratory, which employs thousands of scientists and engineers.

• National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which provides air, space and cyber threat analysis to the nation’s highest-ranking political and military leaders.

• The Air Force Institute of Technology is a post-graduate school focused on research science and national security-related studies.

• And an estimated million visitors a year trek to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, one of the most popular attractions in Ohio. The 445th Airlift Wing flies troops and cargo around the world aboard C-17 transport jets.

“Wright-Patterson AFB may be the most important site in the entire Air Force basing system,” Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said in an email. “It hosts so many vital functions that it can accurately be called indispensable to the Air Force mission.

The Great Wright Brothers Aero Carnival will mark the Wright-Patterson centennial on Saturday, Sept. 9 at Huffman Prairie Flying Field, a National Park Service site and a National Historic Landmark.

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“Because Wright-Patt contains the Air Force’s weapons-buying command and its main research lab, the base is a hub of aerospace innovation,” he added. “In fact, it is one of the most important concentrations of aerospace technical expertise in the world.”

A super-sized base

Starting with more than 6,600 mostly military personnel by 1918, today the base has more than 27,000 personnel and indirectly supports nearly 35,000 outside the fence, base estimates show.

Wright-Patterson has a $2.2 billion annual payroll and a $4 billion regional economic impact, base economic estimates show.

“With more than 27,500 employees, it’s larger than the second, third, and fourth largest employers in the Dayton region combined,” said Michael Gessel, vice president of federal programs at the Dayton Development Coalition, which has made Wright-Patterson the number one priority. “There are a large number of jobs inside the fence but it generates even more jobs outside the fence.

“Over the years, it has always been important but as manufacturing and automobile jobs have declined, Wright-Patterson and related defense and aerospace jobs have loomed even more important in the economy of the Dayton region,” Gessel said.

In a 2005 Air Force wide base closure round, Wright-Patterson gained hundreds of new workers with the addition of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine and AFRL’s Sensors Directorate.

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At times, Wright-Patterson’s influence has extended outside the fence locally and internationally. It donated a former housing area in the 1950s to the state for land that became Wright State University.

In November 1995, Wright-Patterson made international headlines as the site of the Dayton Peace Accords, which forged a peace agreement to end years of ethnic warfare in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia, according to Ohio History Central.

Wartime record employment

Dayton industrialist Edward A. Deeds had a key role in helping his hometown acquire McCook and Wilbur Wright fields and the Fairfield depot, historical accounts say.

The three were consolidated into Wright Field years later. In a bid to keep the Army’s aviation engineering center in Dayton, the community purchased and donated land that would become Patterson Field, named in honor of Frank Stuart Patterson. He was an early military aviator who died in a plane crash and the son of Frank J. Patterson and nephew of John H. Patterson, co-founders of National Cash Register.

Patterson Field would merge with Wright Field to become Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1948, shortly after the Air Force became a separate military branch.

Wright and Patterson Fields reached the highest employment levels in World War II at a peak of 46,500 personnel in 1942. Two years later, half the employees at Patterson Field were women, according to an Air Force historical account.

“Wright-Patterson forged the air arsenal of democracy,” said Narducci, a historian at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. “Basically, the air war is fought with what they researched and developed at Wright Field and armed the Army Air Forces for the war.”

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Through the decades, Wright-Patterson researchers have pushed development of the jet engine in the United States, and supersonic flight technologies that directly led to the Bell X-1 famously breaking the sound barrier with Chuck Yeager at the controls over the California desert.

They’ve also pursued technologies that led to stealth jets, electronic flight controls, and hypersonic flight, among other innovations, researchers say.

“There’s been very fundamental Air Force missions that began here and are still carried out or managed from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base,” said Timothy Gaffney, an aviation history author and former Dayton Daily News reporter who covered Wright-Patterson for two decades.

“A lot of what you see today at Wright-Patterson and a lot of what the people do out there today are missions that began 100 years ago.”

Stealth and sound-barrier breaking technology

Wright-Patterson researchers had a role in the Bell X-1 to war fighting jets that evade radar and in recent hypersonic air vehicle test flights over the Pacific Ocean.

“We wouldn’t have stealth fighters and bombers without the programs at Wright-Patterson,” Gaffney said. “Now we’re in the age of hypersonics.”

Under Project Blue Book, the base was ground zero in the investigation of reports of UFOS in the 1950s and 1960s. Investigators attributed many reports to sightings of secret spy planes of the era. And the Air Force has long denied UFOs or aliens are hidden on the base.

“It captured everyone’s imagination,” said Robert Young, NASIC historian.

RELATED: Wright-Patt was ground zero for UFO investigation program

Up through the 1950s, Wright-Patterson flew captured German and Russian fighters to find out their capabilities, he said. It was part of the foreign material exploitation mission division of the base.

“We were flying German World War I fighters over the skies of Dayton at one time,” Young said.

In World War II, Wright Field tested 191 different aircraft, a “hugely under appreciated fact,” said Reynolds, who commanded a test wing Wright-Patterson of transport-sized aircraft in the 1990s.

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The base also was once home to fighter jets guarding the nation’s airspace and nuclear-armed bombers.

Famous names at Wright-Patterson

Pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a plane, journeyed to Wright Field in June 1927 on a personal visit to meet Orville Wright in Dayton, archives show.

Before he broke the sound barrier in a jet, Yeager was a pilot at Wright Field, as was fellow pilot and aviation legend Bob Hoover. Yeager flew planes coming out of the maintenance hangar to test their airworthiness after repairs.

According to an Air Force account, Col. Alan Boyd, then commander of the Flight Test Division at Wright-Patterson, handpicked Yeager for the test pilot school in 1946 and to be the aviator who would fly the rocket-powered Bell X-1 beyond the sound barrier for the first time in powered flight over the California desert on Oct. 14, 1947.

In 1959, military aviators vied to become part of America’s first astronauts had their fates at the Wright Air Development Center in a barrage of physiological and psychological tests.

The lab’s recommendation of the final chosen few became the Mercury 7 of “The Right Stuff” lore: Gordon Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton and Ohio native John Glenn, who died in December.

All began their journey to space at Wright-Patterson.

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