A Flight Path Through History in National Parks

Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Tuskegee Airmen pilot preparing plane for war
National Park Service

The heavens have long captured our imaginations — a place where ideas could not be contained, where hope and possibilities stretched as far as the eye could see. And throughout our history, the skies have been the stage where dreams could take flight. From the birth of modern aviation to the first crew of African American airmen and beyond, the last 150 years have shown how determination, ingenuity, and tenacity could lift bold aspirations. Today, several national parks pay tribute to these transformations in aviation history.

Two Brothers, One Dream

View of Dayton Aviation National Historical Park sign and visitor center
National Park Service

Dayton, Ohio played an essential role in the lives of 3 influential men, all born in the late 1800s: Laurence Dunbar and the Wright brothers. Orville and Wilbur Wright were born into a large family, frequently moving until the Wrights finally settled down in Dayton in 1884. Today, Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park continues to tell their stories.

The brothers had a printing business before starting their famed bicycle shop, Wright Cycle Company. It was their skills in manufacturing bicycles that enabled their later success with aviation. Visitors to the park can still tour one of the original Wright Cycle shops in addition to stopping at some of the other aviation sites in the area.

Getting Off the Ground          

Plane exhibit at Wright Brothers National Memorial
NPS Photo / Eden Saunders

Despite their planning and research in Dayton, the Wright brothers did not have true success until December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Today, Wright Brothers National Memorial marks the spot where the first successful airplane flights took off. The sibling duo had spent years experimenting before finally perfecting their flying machines.

The Outer Banks provided the open space, privacy, and wind needed for flight, but their living conditions were less ideal. The remote location made it perfect for experiments, but once they succeeded, the brothers returned to Dayton to continue their work.  Visitors today can see exactly where the first machine flew to and from, experience reconstructed camp buildings to understand their living conditions, and enjoy a visitor center filled with new exhibits.

Firsts at the Fort

The 321st Observation Squadron at Pearson Field in 1926. From the Lt. Noel B. Evans collection at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site museum.
National Park Service

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site preserves many culturally significant stories, including those from Pearson Field. The area’s tie to aviation began at the start of the 20th century, as aviation enthusiasts would gather at Vancouver banks to fly, or even try out aerial acrobatics. As the United World War I, the interest became more functional out of necessity: a new mill opened, manufacturing spruce logs from the region for aviation-grad lumber used for military planes.

Eventually, the mill closed and the area once again became an airfield. As such, it served as a landing spot for such notable flights as the Douglas World Cruisers, which completed the first aerial circumnavigation of the world in 1924. Take a self-guided tour through the visitor center and Fort Vancouver before walking along the Spruce Mill Trail to Pearson Air Museum.

An Airfield on the Pacific

Pilots families standing in front of plane at Golden Gate Recreation Area circa 1920
National Park Service

As aeronautical technology advanced, planes were engineered to be increasingly more nimble. Many of the pioneers of flight, pilots and airmen bent on proving the planes were safe and reliable, worked and flew at Crissy Field at the Presidio of San Francisco. Even before the military built an airfield at the Presidio, aviators like Lincoln Beachey, known as the “Father of Aerobatics,” would perform stunts in the air over the area now protected as part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  

Crissy Field was also the destination for the 1919 First Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test. Sixty-one planes took off from Long Island, but only nine completed the three-day flight across the continent. Right beside Crissy Field, you can find world-class board sailing, prime kite surfing areas, and even nearby rocks and a pier for fishing and crabbing.

Airmen in Alaska

ohn Pletcher and his crew on October 28, 1942 at Adak, Alaska in the Aleutian Islands.
National Park Service

Many Americans are familiar with Pearl Harbor National Monument, which interprets the stories surrounding the attacks on December 7, 1941. Meanwhile, Alaska’s Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area tells the story of airmen in the Pacific during this time. Amaknak Island was attacked 6 months after Pearl Harbor, resulting in almost 900 native Unangax̂ people being forced to leave the island and live in internment camps in Southeast Alaska for three years.

The U.S. military had built airfields along the remote island in anticipation for the war in the Pacific. Today, the park preserves the stories of many of the servicemembers and native Aleuts. Visit the park to explore the ruins of the army’s fort and other remaining structures. Partake in a self-guided driving tour and stop in the visitor center to learn more about the military events that took place on the islands.

African-Americans Take Flight

Tuskegee Airman posed inform of plane in 1942
Wikipedia Commons

Some of the most socially impactful service during World War II can be traced to the courageous airmen in Tuskegee, Alabama. During World War II, Moton Field became the only flight training facility for Black pilot candidates. Nearly 1,000 African-American pilots were trained here, and over 10,000 African-American men and women worked at the site to support them.

Considered an experiment by military and government leaders of the time, the airmen and other men and women who served at the air base proved that African-Americans were skilled pilots, courageous fighters, and committed workers. Their valor and skills changed the U.S. military forever. At Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, visitors can visit the park’s two hangar museums to learn more about the daily life of the men and women who served here.

Launching into Space

View of evening rocket launch from Canaveral National Seashore
Jill Bazely / Flickr

The sea turtles, sand, and sun draw visitors to Canaveral National Seashore each year. In addition to serving as a beach-y getaway, the park offers visitors the opportunity to watch rockets as they launch from the Kennedy Space Center. Those hoping to watch the spectacle should come prepared with sunscreen, water, and snacks. Then sit back and get ready to see how far aeronautical engineering has come since the Wright brothers first took flight!

The National Park System preserves countless fascinating aspects of our past, including the history of aviation in the U.S. These special sites tell the stories of the remarkable people who dared to look to the skies and dream of the yet unknown. The transformations in aviation enabled humanity to move from longing to take flight like birds to sending rockets into space. Delve into these powerful stories when you #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque.

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