On the west side of Dayton, Ohio, a group of old white buildings topped with arched parapets sits in a cleared lot just off U.S. 35. For nearly 85 years these buildings produced everything from firearms to auto parts. But what makes them special was their function during the thirteen years prior, as the first airplane factory in the United States.
Originally erected by flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1910 and ’11, the buildings helped shape the dawn of the aviation era. For nearly 100 years these factories produced parts that kept America in the skies, in the war, and on the road.
But with no tenant today, the buildings’ future is less certain. If a push from the National Aviation Heritage Area and its partners is successful, the oldest airplane factory in the world just might be preserved for future generations.
cover photo courtesy Timothy Gaffney
The Wright Company
It is widely accepted that Wilbur and Orville Wright completed the first sustained heavier-than-air flight in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina with the Wright Flyer (except for those who believe the accounts of Gustave Whitehead’s achievements).
Less well-known is the history of the buildings which Orville and Wilbur Wright used to become the first airplane factory in the United States and the world.
After the successful flight, the Wright brothers spent several years designing different iterations of their flyer until they were able to perfect their design.
In 1909 the brothers founded the Wright Company, occupying part of the Speedwell Motor Car Company factory in the brothers’ hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
[ Did you know? A piece of fabric and wood from the Wright Flyer was taken to the surface of the Moon by the crew of Apollo 11 during the first lunar landing mission, in July 1969. Separate portions of original wood and fabric were taken aboard the space shuttle Challenger, which was destroyed on liftoff. The portions of wood and fabric were recovered from the wreck of the shuttle and are on display at the North Carolina Museum of History. ]
The design and prototype construction took place in two specially-erected hangar-factories (pictured below), established by the Wright Brothers in 1910 and 1911.
The hangars – known then to the Wright Company as “plant 3” and today as Buildings One and Two – were purchased for $4,950 and occupied a 2.5-acre farm field. Their first mission: To churn out parts for the Wright Model B Flyer, the first mass-produced airplane ever built.
For the next several years the buildings were used to create and test various versions of aircraft (including the aeroboat and hovercraft – see below). When Wilbur Wright died in 1912, Orville sold his interest in the Wright Company – but the shop continued to produce airplanes.
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
original photos courtesy Wright State University
The buildings of the Wright Company were busy; between 1910 and 1915, the factory designed and researched thirteen different models and turned out approximately 120 aircraft.
The Dayton Wright Company
Kettering was a creative engineer and inventor while Deeds was a well-connected executive with National Cash Register (NCR).
[ Deeds & Kettering: Their association begins at the dawn of the twentieth century, when Deeds asked Kettering to produce a motor to improve cash registers for NCR. Kettering finished developing his cash register motor at the same time Deeds was building a kit-car, which happened to come with a poor ignition system. The two realized Kettering’s cash register motor could be adapted for use as a vehicular ignition, removing the necessity of the onerous manual crank-start common on motor coaches of the era. Deeds and Kettering founded Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO) in 1909 after Cadillac ordered 5,000 of Kettering’s new electric starter. ]
The Dayton Airplane Company was reorganized as the Dayton Wright Company upon the declaration of war between the United States and Germany, and the former Wright Company buildings were leased to the newly reorganized Dayton-Wright.
“Problems are the price of progress. Don’t bring me anything but trouble. Good news weakens me.”
– Charles F. Kettering
Dayton Wright production occurred across three separate facilities: Moraine (plant 1), Miamisburg (plant 2), and the acquired Wright Company Buildings 1 and 2 in Dayton (plant 3).
[ Coming Full Circle: DELCO was eventually sold to United Motors, a vertically-integrated holding company for a conglomerate of domestic automotive suppliers. United Motors was eventually acquired by General Motors in 1918. By 1960 the division had been re-named “United Delco” before merging with GM’s AC spark plug division in 1974 to become “AC Delco.” In 1994 GM created Automotive Components Group (ACG) to run Delco & take over its operations. In 1999 ACG was spun-off from GM and renamed “Delphi,” although GM retained the “AC Delco” name. Delphi was the final tenant of the Wright Brother’s factory buildings in Dayton, Ohio, when closed in 2008. ]
World War I & GM
At the onset of World War I, Edward Deeds (pictured at right) joined the US Army as a colonel and became Chief of Aircraft Production.
Once in post Deeds would spark controversy over perceived favoritism in awarding a contract for 4,000 of the De Havilland DH-4 aircraft to Dayton Wright Company.
[ Sidebar: The Dayton Wright DH-4s were the only American-built aircraft to see action overseas during World War I. ]
In 1918 “plant 3” (former Wright Brothers buildings 1 & 2) was used by Dayton-Wright to make fittings for the aircraft built in Moraine. Altogether, the Dayton Wright facilities employed 12,000 people and produced 38 planes per day. By the end of the war the site manufactured more wartime aircraft than any other U.S. plant.
General Motors Corporation noticed the rapidity of aircraft advancements and the public’s love affair with flight. In addition, the Dayton area was quickly becoming an industrial hub with a bustling infrastructure with existing factories and workforce. Rather than start from scratch, GM decided to purchase the Deeds & Kettering companies of DELCO-Light, Dayton-Wright Airplane, and Dayton Metal Products to increase its production footprint and improve supply lines.
The 1919 deal was completed for 100,000 shares of GM stock; however by this time the war was ending and orders for additional aircraft waned. GM would ultimately sell off the aircraft business and focus on automotive parts. At the same time, a former Wright Company engineer invented a new manufacturing process for a superior wood steering wheel that absorbed impact and did not splinter. It was so successful GM formed a unique manufacturing division – housed in the former Wright Company buildings – to harness the technology.
Airplane parts manufacturing in the Wright Brothers’ original Dayton, Ohio buildings ended in 1923 when GM sold its interest in Dayton Wright Airplane Company to the Consolidated Aircraft Company of Buffalo, New York.
The former Wright buildings were not included in the sale, and instead became the new production facilities for the new Inland Manufacturing Company.
Inland Manufacturing was formed on January 6th, 1923 to produce laminated wood steering wheels for automobiles. It was the only division created by General Motors and not acquired by purchase.
Inland Manufacturing’s mission changed early and often. Within years of opening production shifted from wood working to rubber processing when the auto manufacturers switched from wood to rubber-based steering wheels.
As production demands expanded, the factory grew in size. Inland combined the former Wright Buildings (which together occupied about 20,000 square feet of space), and surrounded them with an additional 80,000 square feet of factory space in the form of buildings 3 through 5, each molded in a similar architectural style.
[ Sidebar: Inland Manufacturing’s first president, Harold E. Talbott, was the former president of Dayton Wright and in 1925 became a director of the Chrysler Corporation. ]
During the early 1940s Inland shifted manufacturing from automotive supplies to armaments and weaponry as the company supported the United States production requirements for entry into World War II. Inland was one of the first businesses to adopt the “buddy shift,” a concept which augmented factory production by employing high school students. After the day’s school finished, boys could work for Inland Manufacturing until 7 p.m. – at which time the adults would return and begin their second shifts.
Under the direction of General Motors, Inland Manufacturing produced over two and a half million M-1 carbines during World War II (or 43% of total production).
The M-1 was designed by Winchester and produced by a diverse group of subcontractors including General Motors and IBM.
Watch: 1942 General Motors sponsored video for Inland’s Dayton employees (Gets Dayton-specific around 4:30)
Inland was also responsible for nearly 20 million tank shoes, tank tracks, the “Little Monster” pistol, helmet liners, gun sights, shoulder rests, and countless other small parts such as bushings, gaskets, and sleeves.
[ Did You Know? On December 31, 1943 Inland had 6,339 employees producing 581 different products for the war effort in 756,193 square feet of factory space. ]
Postwar production at Inland Manufacturing witnessed a migration back to automotive parts. By the 1950s the Inland operation was utilizing the former Wright buildings to produce brake linings, bumpers, defroster hoses, clutches, gravel shields, ice trays, motor mounts, radio cabinets, refrigerator door seals, and turn signals.
[ Did you know? The physical shape of the original Wright Brothers Company Factory was the inspiration for the Inland Manufacturing Logo. ]
Decades of Decline
Production expanded further into the 1970s, unfortunately timed with the oil crisis of the era and forcing a reversal of the previous decade’s growth.
However this did not stop the 50th anniversary celebration in 1973, which acknowledged the company’s 224 products produced by over 7,000 employees.
Still, the dampened demeanor was obvious. In response to the declines, General Motors and Delco products released a video in 1972 directed to their labor force:
“There have been layoffs… closed doors… empty rooms… and silent machines. They’re moving out the equipment that was once used to build appliance motors. And this equipment is only two years old. It’s expensive machinery, designed to help us do better work. Make better motors. But it didn’t work out that way. These machines were bought so we could be more competitive. Now, they’re moving them out. Selling them to the competition. Why? Because the machines didn’t work? Nuh-uh. Not really. We just couldn’t compete in the marketplace.”
The video espouses a level of doom and gloom not typically seen in the earlier domestic mid-century propaganda videos. (Watch the rest of the video here)
A noteworthy product for which Inland Manufacturing was responsible in later years was the fiberglass rear leaf spring. The composite leaf spring was the first non-metallic leaf spring to be installed on a passenger car, and reduced weight from 41 pounds for the steel version (below left) to a comparatively lithe 8 pounds for the composite (below right).
Originally developed in the 1960s by Inland, the composite leaf springs began to appear on Corvettes in 1981.
Demise under Delphi
By the late 1980s the former Wright buildings were still being used by Inland Manufacturing, but they were about to embark on a twenty-year voyage of turmoil via acquisitions, mergers, and spin-offs.
First, Inland merged with Fisher Guide to form Inland Fisher Guide (IFG) in 1989. Then IFG was combined with other General Motors divisions to form the Automotive Components Group (ACG).
In 1995 the ACG was renamed Delphi Automotive Systems, and later spun-off from General Motors in 1999.
Under Delphi, buildings 1 and 2 would face minor modifications as the structures were truncated for the addition of a steam plant (pictured below).
Delphi’s Dayton plant composite spring line – known as Liteflex – was spun-off into its own business in 2001 as Liteflex, LLC. The new company vacated its Dayton operations at the plant on Home Avenue just two years later, in 2003.
[ At its peak under Delphi, the “Home Avenue plant” – which incorporated Wright Buildings 1 & 2 – spanned 54 acres and offered 1.2 million square feet of manufacturing space. ]
By 2003 the writing was on the wall for Dayton plant employees. That year Delphi created its Automotive Holdings Group (AHG) to serve as a management focus tool for its poorest-performing divisions. The goal was to return the divisions to profitability, but often being placed into the AHG meant closed plants.
Four Dayton-area plants were placed into the AHG – including the Home Avenue plant which contained Wright Brothers buildings 1 and 2.
In December of 2004 Delphi announced it would cut 8,500 jobs; the following year the automotive supplier merged the Home Avenue plant operations with the energy and chassis operations in Vandalia.
The consolidation and shutdowns created a ripple effect felt throughout Dayton. Thousands lost their jobs and the city – including its schools – lost $2.5 million in annual tax revenue. At the time Delphi owned $24 million worth of tax-generating property in the city, the loss of which would cripple Dayton.
[ From October 2003 until December 2004, Delphi cut 9,175 workers. ]
Bankruptcy & Closure
In March of 2006 Delphi disclosed in court documents the company’s need to close the plant at 2701 Home Avenue in Dayton Ohio. Within five months nearly 84% of union members had accepted buyout or early retirement offers ranging from $40,000 to $140,000.
Delphi filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on October 8th, 2008; at the time the company had 5,700 Dayton-based workers.
In the bankruptcy filing Delphi reported a net loss of $4.8 billion in 2004 and $2.8 billion in 2005. The supplier claimed its cost obligations per worker (including health & pension) were $78.63 per hour.
The four hundred workers who stayed at the Home Avenue plant in Dayton were kept in purgatory until November of 2008, when Delphi finally announced the plant’s closure by the end of December of that year.
When it closed, the Home Avenue plant was making Engine Mounts, Transmission Mounts, Strut Mounts, Steering Wheels, Liteflex Springs, Brake Linings, Brake Hose, Brake Pads, Ball Joints, and Ice Cube Trays.
As the first American factory built for the purpose of producing airplanes, the former Wright Company Buildings 1 and 2 are recognized by the National Aviation Heritage Area (NAHA) as the birthplace of America’s aerospace industry and the oldest airplane factory in the United States.
There is a movement underway to preserve and protect the buildings headed by an alliance of activist groups. The goals are to finish cleaning up the land, establish 20 acres as a National Historic Park, and convert the former factories into an interpretive center.
Congress has approved the site designation for the first American plant to manufacture airplanes, but it has not provided funding.
In 2011 an entity named Home Avenue Redevelopment, LLC was created to acquire the former Wright Brothers site from DPH Holdings (the group in control of the former Delphi properties during bankruptcy), and to pursue a Clean Ohio Fund grant.
In May of 2012 the Clean Ohio Fund approved $3 million toward remediation of the property. DPH Holdings had spent over $500,000 and pledged to commit another $1 million to the cause.
Demolition of the old Inland & Delphi buildings at the site began in early 2013, with work finally being completed in October of 2014.
For the first time in over fifty years, the original Wright Company buildings re-emerged into public view.
[ link to photos taken during demolition. ]
Fly over the Wright Company factory! Aerial drone video courtesy Andy Snow & NAHA:
Museum & Visitor Center
Artist renderings give us an idea of the vision the NAHA and its partners have for the site, which is anticipated to open in 2016:
(images courtesy NAHA)