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Published: Friday, 10/7/2005

Ohio in flight

VIRTUALLY everyone knows that Ohio's Wright Brothers made mankind's first powered aircraft flight on Dec. 17, 1903, off a windswept sand dune near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. What is less well known is that it took the bicycle mechanics from Dayton two more years to produce a practical airplane, one that could take off, maneuver through the air, and land.

And they did it back home in Ohio 100 years ago this month, cementing the Buckeye State's historical claim as "the birthplace of aviation."

The site for their testing was an 84-acre pasture northeast of Dayton known as Huffman Prairie. After a 39-minute flight there on Oct. 5, 1905 - the biplane finally ran out of gas - the brothers decided that they had achieved their objective: "to devise a machine of practical utility, rather than a useless and extravagant toy."

Besides being inventive, the Wrights were budding American capitalists, who feared that someone would steal their new-fangled technology and cash in on it before they could. They immediately offered to sell the "Wright Flyer III" to the U.S. government but were turned down.

The next year, they were issued U.S. Patent 821,393 for a "flying machine," then set about marketing the plane - sight unseen and unsuccessfully at first - in Britain, Germany, and France. Eventually, in 1908, the U.S. War Department agreed to pay $30,000 for one aircraft, built to the Wrights' specifications.

Not surprisingly, the early history of the aircraft industry in this country revolved around government contracts, not to mention patent infringement lawsuits, in which the Wright Brothers were major players.

Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912 and Orville sold their company and retired in 1915, but history's initial chapter on men and their flying machines had been written with Ohio as a backdrop.

It would take another half century before two other distinguished Ohioans - John Glenn and Neil Armstrong - advanced the science and industry of manned flight to even greater heights, without wings and literally out of this world.

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