Today marks the 110th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk. On this anniversary, let’s not just look north to honor Dayton and its achievements in aviation. The Cincinnati area has played a critical role in the development of flight. Here are some little-known facts that put Cincinnati on the aviation world’s map:
The first “unofficial” air mail happened here. Cincinnati’s first “aeronaut” soared over the Queen City more than 60 years before the Wright Brothers’ famous Kitty Hawk flight. Cincinnatian Richard Clayton, an English-born clockmaker, climbed aboard his hydrogen-gas balloon Star of the West and carried a package of letters from Cincinnati to Waverly, Ohio, on July 4, 1835. Three months earlier, Clayton became the world’s first balloonist to travel more than 500 kilometers (320 miles) in a single flight with his journey from Cincinnati to southeast West Virginia. Along the way, Clayton had to dump weight to maintain altitude. That included a dog which was traveling with him. Clayton lowered his canine friend by a rope and released him to the wild.
Cincinnati: Home of Embry-Riddle/American Airlines. On Dec. 17, 1925, barnstormer John Paul Riddle and entrepreneur T. Higbee Embry founded the Embry-Riddle Co., becoming the first commercial aviation company to move into Lunken Airport. The company’s advertising slogan was “If it’s Flying we do it. If it’s Airplanes we have them.” They sold planes and airplane rides, boasted one of the biggest flying schools in the country and hauled airmail and passengers to different cities. Embry even donated a Waco biplane to the Cincinnati Police Department, saying he “hoped that whenever the plane went up, crime would go down.” In 1929, the company carried 79,751 pounds of air mail and 692 passengers. Embry-Riddle later became Aviation Co. (AVCO), one of the largest aviation holding companies in the world. A decade later, Riddle opened the Embry-Riddle School of Aviation in Florida. Today, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is considered the best aviation and aerospace university in the world. As for AVCO? The company branched off its airlines company to form American Airways, which today is American Airlines.
First in baseball, first in flight. On June 8, 1934, the Cincinnati Reds became the first professional sports team to charter a flight. Two Ford Tri-Motors carried 19 players from Cincinnati to Chicago for a three-game series with the Cubs. Six other players decided to travel by train. Reds General Manager Larry McPhail believed air travel would reduce time between cities, allowing his team more rest. Cincinnati took two out of three games from the Cubs that weekend.
Wright before GE. Before General Electric took over in Evendale, as many as 27,000 employees were employed at the government-owned plant, producing Wright Cyclone piston engines for B-25 bombers and other war planes. When GE came to town in 1948 to start assembling the company’s new J47 jet engine, Orville Wright attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony and got lost in Building 700, which was the world’s largest single-story building under one roof.
Rookwood’s round engine. The smokestack that stands above Rookwood Commons in Norwood still displays the crest of the R.K LeBlond Machine Tool Co., one of the premiere tool companies in the world (now owned by Makino in Mason). In the late 1920s, LeBlond entered the aviation industry, building small five- and seven-cylinder radial aircraft engines ranging from 60 to 120 horsepower. Their aircraft engine was the first design produced in this country for commercial use without the assistance of the military. LeBlond engines powered some of the top light plane manufacturers in the U.S. in the late ’20s and early ’30s before the company sold their assets to a Kansas City firm in 1937.
General aviation’s first commercial success. That would be the Aeronautical Corp. of America (Aeronca), whose roots began Nov. 11, 1928, at Lunken Airport. The company’s first aircraft, the Aeronca C-2, was nicknamed the “Flying Bathtub” because … well, it looked like you could suds up in one. Everything was bare minimum. In one, with a two-cylinder Aeronca engine that generated 37 horsepower, even brakes were optional. But the plane gained popularity as the Great Depression gripped the U.S. as a low-cost way for private aviators to fly. Aeronca built the aircraft at Lunken, along with two new models, until the Great Flood of 1937, which destroyed the factory and sent parts of Aeronca airplanes floating down the Ohio River. Aeronca moved its headquarters to Middletown and continued its successful line of aircraft – by 1951, Aeronca had sold 17,408. Aeronca is still in Middletown as a subsidary of Magellan Aerospace.
The largest municipal airport in the world. Believe it or not, Lunken Airport claimed that title in 1930. During its formal dedication that year, Cincinnati threw a big party. The three-day celebration included stars of the air and motion pictures including Howard Hughes, U.S. Air Force Lt. James H. Doolittle and Jean Harlow.
Cincinnati’s big air race. In September of 1928, Embry-Riddle sponsored an air race from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. A total of 19 aircraft entered. During festivities for the race, Doolittle performed aerobatics over Cincinnati. Arthur Gobel claimed the $3,000 first prize, his Lockheed Vega finishing in 15 hours, 17 minutes, with an average speed of 129.47 mph. In the smaller-motored division, the Vulcan American Moth – a plane built in Portsmouth – took first place.
Before Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, there was Boyers’ Airport. According to historian Charlie Pyles, the first airport in Northern Kentucky was in Newport on land belonging to hotel owner Jacob Martz in 1929. The airport was named after Albert S. Boyers, who was recognized as one of the best aviators in the area. CVG opened on Feb. 11, 1942, and was used by the Army Air Corps until after World War II. The first commercial flight at CVG took place on Jan. 10, 1947.
Coming Wednesday: The Cincinnati Aviation Heritage Society is doing its part to preserve the city’s aviation past. In November, it acquired one of their most historic pieces yet – a 1938 Stinson Reliant SR-10C aircraft. This particular airplane was once owned by All-American Airways and was part of the air mail route to Cincinnati.