For a century, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s legend was being the birthplace of the military test pilot, where foreign aircraft and missile technology secrets were discovered, and of long denied rumors of space aliens and UFO captivity.
But what marks Wright-Patterson’s history in the Miami Valley more than anything else as it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, is the military installation’s decades-long output of discoveries and inventions that have had a revolutionary impact on the aerospace industry and technology used worldwide.
From stealth technology that turned military jets nearly invisible to radar to heat shields that protected a space capsule’s scorching plummet toward Earth, Wright-Patterson and its predecessors were the places where it happened, observers say.
“If you’ve ever flown on an airline or a commercial airplane there’s almost nothing on that airplane that was not affected by the labs or the technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base,” said Timothy Gaffney, a Dayton area aviation history author and expert.
The cradle of aviation
The genesis of Wright-Patterson traces to 1917, when the Army carved out two Dayton airfields, Wilbur Wright Field and later McCook Field, to push the boundaries of the new science of aeronautics and flying. Wright-Patt encompasses Huffman Prairie Flying Field, where Orville and Wilbur Wright perfected the airplane.
Today, the base has targeted cutting-edge hypersonic research to developing wearable bio-technologies for soldiers on the battlefield with a push to commercialize technology produced in Air Force Research Laboratory shops.
“It’s one of the important centers for aeronautical research in the United States,” said Janet Bednarek, a University of Dayton professor who teaches aviation history. “All throughout its history, very important, fundamental research and testing work has happened at what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the surrounding area.”
Wright-Patterson has evolved into the state’s largest single-site employer, with more than 27,000 employees and a more than $4 billion estimated impact.
“The base I think certainly has provided a lot of stability and carried us through those times where there has been a lot of upturns and downturns in industry,” said John Leland, vice president of research and the executive director of the University of Dayton Research Institute, which has a long history of joint technology development with Wright-Patt labs.
Thousands of inventions and research discoveries have bubbled over from Wright-Patterson for decades.
According to AFRL, among the most significant are advanced gas turbine engines, aircraft electronic controls, stealth, advancements in radar and composites, precision-guided bombs, advanced telescopes, and fuels.
Golf clubs to cell phones
Technology spin-offs out of Wright-Patterson research hubs have touched millions of people every day.
Wright-Patterson developed rare earth magnets that are in everything from cell phones, audio speakers, headphones to computers and cordless power tools, said Charles E. Browning, a retired Wright-Patt employee who once led the Materials & Manufacturing Directorate.
Composites, such as carbon fibers, discovered at Wright-Patterson form aircraft wings and shape sports equipment, he said.
The advancement of jet engine technology adapted in both military and civil aviation and laser-and satellite-guided bombs and missiles were two important technologies developed at Wright-Patt, said Morley O. Stone, chief technology officer at AFRL, headquartered at Wright-Patterson.
And to ggain an edge in war, Wright-Patt scientists helped create and perfect precision bombing to overcome an adversary’s advantage of more troops, tanks, planes and ships in combat.
“This is really the (Department of Defense) strategy that we had for closing the numerical superiority that this nation (faced) when we were looking at things like the Soviet Union on the battlefield of Eastern Europe,” Stone said.
Radar-evading stealth allowed the U.S. “to maintain air superiority for decades,” Stone said.
Birthplace of the right stuff
McCook Field was the “birthplace” of the earliest test pilots and “cradle of aviation” experiments that pushed the frontiers of early powered flight in the military.
Along with new airplane designs and engines, the field supported a U.S. Army Air Service around the world flight in 1924 and developed free-fall parachutes.
“Airplanes were new, they were brand new, and they were still just learning about the fundamentals of how to … fly higher, faster, farther,” Bednarek said.
Earliest test pilot pioneers Jimmy Doolittle at McCook Field and Chuck Yeager at Wright Field practiced the art of “the right stuff” in Dayton.
Both later gained international fame. Doolittle led the U.S. B-25 Mitchell bombing raid against Japan in April 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Yeager was the first pilot to break the sound barrier in level flight in the Bell X-1 rocket plane over California’s Mohave desert in October 1947.
Pioneer researchers often invented the technologies needed to reach higher, farther and faster.
McCook Field workers in the 1920s built the “Five-Foot Wind Tunnel,” used to design a new era of all-metal monoplanes from the earliest days of cloth and wood biplanes, according a historical narrative. . In 1995, the machine – then under the ownership of the Air Force Institute of Technology — was declared a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. It ceased operations in 2003.
“Almost every craft that was used during the Second World War and leading up to it was tested in that tunnel,” said Brady Kress, president and CEO of Dayton History. “The basics of aeronautical research and lift and drag and all of that – the core principles of modern aviation, were all conducted on that.”
In World War II, as the base workforce swelled to 50,000, Wright Field made historic progress in pursuit, bombardment, and observation planes and auto giros and helicopters, according to the book, “Splendid Vision, Unswerving Purpose: Developing Air Power for the United States Air Force for the First Century of Powered Flight.”
Operation Paperclip brought German scientists after the end of World War II to Wright Field, among other places in the United States, to advance U.S. air and space science which was in a Cold War contest with the Soviet Union.
Many with jet engine expertise headed to Wright-Patterson after the war, Gaffney said. “It was the go-to place for aviation technology,” he said.
From the skies to the stars, Wright-Patterson has a decades-long record in spaceflight. Candidates to become the first Mercury 7 astronauts, for example, underwent a battery of psychological, physiology and biochemical tests at Wright-Patterson, testing the would-be space travelers mettle to withstand noise, vibration and heat and endure exhausting exercises before they were chosen to climb aboard a flaming rocket to be the first Americans launched into space.
“When we started to look at what it takes to actually put a human being in space the crew systems support that was required to do that basically all had to be created and invented,” Stone said.
For Ohio native John Glenn, memories of the tests at Wright-Patterson were vivid when Stone met the late Mercury astronaut and former U.S. senator a few years ago.
“He looked at me, pointed that finger at me and says, ‘The worst week of my life was spent at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base,’” Stone said.
Wright-Patterson continues to lead U.S. military aerospace medical research. The 711th Human Performance Wing and the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine are headquartered at the base, which is set to launch a $34.4 million centrifuge that will test the limits of military pilots to withstand crushing g-forces.
Uncovering adversaries secrets
The dissection of adversaries technology in secret labs fell to the Foreign Technology Division, a forerunner of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson
Under Project Blue Book, Wright-Patterson was immersed in the 1950s and 1960s in investigating reports of Unidentified Flying Objects – or flying saucers. The Air Force has long denied aliens or UFOs were hidden at Wright-Patt or that investigators found credible evidence of alien technology or life on Earth.
More commonly, Wright-Patt scientists and engineers reversed-engineered foreign missiles and planes – a task that continues today at NASIC — to discover what made them work. In recent decades, researchers dissected Soviet-era missiles and a MiG-29, one of which stands outside the secretive agency.
“They weren’t chasing aliens,” Gaffney said. “They were worrying about whether these things were threats to national security.”