Wright Image Group looks to the skies to stake Ohio’s Triumph of Flight monument

Photo: 3D rendering of America’s newest monument

By Karen Ander Francis

“It was little more than a powered glider,” says Curt Nelson, USAF Col. (Ret.), dismissing the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as an early attempt to gain recognition for their project—merely a public relations event. “There was no use other than for newspaper stories.”  What really set aviation on a flight path to the moon and beyond was the 1905 Wright Brothers airplane—the first practical flying machine. “It flew out there for 39 minutes in 1905 and landed in the same spot,” Nelson says. That flight took place at Dayton’s Huffman Prairie, now the home to Wright Patterson Air Force Base. “That was the world’s first practical flight,” Nelson says. “After that they packed up their suitcase and went out to sell it.”

The 1905 powered flight ranks as the first time an aircraft not only took off, but executed a controlled landing at a predetermined site and proved that humankind had finally “‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth,’” Nelson explains, quoting from the opening line of Jack Gillespie McGee, Jr.’s famous poem “High Flight.” Nelson goes on to underscore the achievement: “It was a major turning point in human history… and somewhere there needs to be a celebration of that.”

America’s Newest Monument

Since retiring “for good” in 2008, Nelson has immersed himself in Wright Image Group (WIG), first as a board member, then pulling public relations duty for Triumph of Flight, the group’s proposed monument to the achievement of practical flight. Now as executive director, he will pilot the vision from the drawing board to reality. WIG is the nonprofit driving the movement to honor not only the Wright Brothers but the state of Ohio. “We’re going to brand Ohio as a powerhouse of industry and aviation,” Nelson adds.

Among those behind the original concept in the late 1990s were the late Walter Ohlmann and Judge Walter Rice*, along with several other Miami Valley business leaders, including Walter Hoy of Enon, Ohio, current WIG board chairman. WIGs earliest dream was to highlight the Wright Brothers’ invention around the time of its centennial in 2003, but since incorporating in 2005 the vision has grown to embrace a much larger perspective.  “It’s expanded to Wow, this is bigger than just the Wright Brothers. This is Ohio,” Nelson explains, pointing to the aviation and aerospace industry that began with that 1905 flight and now thrives in this state from Lake Erie to the Ohio River—from NASA’s Research Institute in Cleveland to General Electric’s aircraft engine plant in Cincinnati. In 2016 the group garnered $250,000 from the Ohio Capital Fund with the support of the Dayton Development Coalition. “That gives us credibility and it shows that the state has some skin in the game,” according to the Honorable Bob Doyle, former Greene County state representative, now a consultant to WIG.

Triumph of Flight, a larger-than-life-sized replica of the 1905 Wright aircraft, will rise above the intersection of I-70 and I-75, known as the “Crossroads of America.” The sculpture will serve as a symbol of the separation of man from the earth and the values of innovation and imagination that birthed an entire aviation industry—with more than 1,300 companies in the state, according to a Price Waterhouse study, and home of 21 astronauts.

According to the video posted on WIG’s website, Triumph of Flight is to be “America’s newest world-class monument,” ranking in status and stature with the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis Gateway Arch; and like those icons, symbolizing the significance of their respective locations to the larger American narrative. In this case, Triumph of Flight will indicate to passing motorists and visitors alike, Ohio’s key role in aviation and aerospace all the way to the moon and beyond.

America’s newest monument will rise 26 stories from a parcel of land in the southwest quadrant of the intersection of I-70 and I-75. The land is pledged to WIG by local developer Singer Properties. The Triumph of Flight, designed by Architect Steve Brown of Brown and Bills Group of Englewood, Ohio, will have a wingspan of 144 feet. A family project determined the actual height of the sculpture. Architect Brown drafted his two kids to incrementally raise a helium-filled balloon that had been tethered to the ground, until he could see it driving by the intersection. When the balloon ascended to a height of 220 feet, Brown was able to spot it from a significant distance. Eventually, additional engineering and design considerations have it set to rise 270 feet into the air and scaled larger-than-life. The dramatic design has been analyzed and scale models tested in wind tunnels at the University of Dayton and the Ohio State University.  The results have been validated by the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.  When a 6-foot mock-up of the Triumph of Flight was unveiled at the annual meeting of the Ohio Aviation Association last spring, “We got a great reception,” reports Doyle, whose efforts on behalf of WIG support statewide fundraising for the monument.

Like the St. Louis Arch and the Statue of Liberty, WIG’s dream emerges from the passions of private citizens, has been decades in the making, and relies heavily on private funding. Nelson and Doyle hope to create a consortium of major benefactors and private citizens to raise the projected $20 million cost of the monument. And with the state’s contributions, they are ahead of both the St. Louis and New York projects that failed to attract government financing.

The Statue of Liberty was conceived by a French law professor, Édouard Laboulaye, as a joint venture between France (picking up the tab for the statue) and the United States (providing the pedestal and the site), but fundraising on this side of the Atlantic presented a challenge, especially after New York Governor Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill from the state’s legislature for $50,000 in 1884, and in 1885 the U.S. Congress failed to allocate $100,000 ($23 million today). To complete the project, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer promised, in his New York World, to print the names of all campaign donors no matter how small the amount. With this incentive, funds were collected from around the nation, including $1.35 from a kindergarten class in Iowa, and the monument to America’s hospitality for immigrants was dedicated in 1886.

From inception to dedication the St. Louis Gateway Arch took over three decades to complete. It began in 1933 as the brainchild of local businessman Luther Ely Smith to revitalize the waterfront and stimulate the local economy. A local bond issue to raise a quarter of the $30 million cost failed to garner support, as did a Congressional bill. Then began a labyrinthine path through government committees and commissions that finally resulted in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 7253 in 1935, allocating an 82-acre site on the banks of the Mississippi River for the monument. Still years of local and federal taxpayer lawsuits delayed the monument, but finally in 1967, the St. Louis Gateway Arch, commemorating westward expansion, was completed.

The Heart of Ohio’s National Aviation Heritage Area

Triumph of Flight is the proposed centerpiece of Ohio’s National Aviation Heritage Area that includes eight counties with Dayton and Montgomery County at its core. The monument climbs skyward from a reflecting pool, surrounded by graceful curved walls that Nelson calls “a huge blank canvas for public art,” it depicts milestones in aviation history such as the 1903 Wright Kitty Hawk flight as well as that of Icarus and Daedalus, the mythical father-son duo that attempted to escape imprisonment on the isle of Crete by crafting wings of feathers and wax.  Also in the plans for the grounds is a freestanding bronze statue of Ohio native astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and a second bronze statue honoring another Ohio-born astronaut, John Glenn, who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the earth.

At the base of the Triumph of Flight, a 10,000 square-foot indoor learning center will be built to house a small presentation theatre and an exhibition area, as well as an environment for interactive learning for all ages, especially STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, Math). There are plans that include the Ohio Aviation Hall of Fame, according to Doyle. Ohio, the undisputed birthplace of practical flight, is one of only 16 states that does not have its own aviation hall of fame honoring home-grown aviation pioneers and aerospace achievements. Many think that role is filled by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but that is exactly what it claims to be—a “national museum.”

There is solid statewide, bi-partisan support for the Ohio Aviation Hall of Fame. In September, Rick Perales, Beavercreek state representative, hopes to introduce a bill establishing a nine-member volunteer board of governors, appointed by the governor to oversee the creation of the Ohio Aviation Hall of Fame. HB183, as it is known, was recommended for passage unanimously by the House Armed Services, Veteran Affairs, and Public Safety Committee, shortly before the summer recess began. Nelson testified on its behalf last spring, along with Doyle who authored the bill. Perales is optimistic that HB183 will be approved by the House. “I have no expectations for it to fail because it doesn’t have dollars attached to it,” Perales says. But it will require Senate endorsement before landing on the governor’s desk, sometime around spring 2018, he predicts.

Triumph of Flight and the Ohio Aviation Hall of Fame plan to “co-locate” at the Vandalia site; however, each is separate and distinct from the other, Nelson says. “We welcome the Ohio Aviation Hall of Fame, but its operation and funding are separate from ours.”

Calling Aviation Aficionados and Buckeye Boosters

Meanwhile, WIG is in the midst of a campaign to attract new board members who will launch Triumph of Flight by 2022, when the site will revert to its current owner. Estimated cost of the monument, the land, and learning center is $21 million. In addition to a $2 million endowment, WIG has raised other cash, pledges, and donations, along with the quarter of a million dollar from the state, but is still shy of the goal of 80 percent that must be reached before construction can begin.

To that end, WIG will kick off a capital campaign before autumn and “we’re looking for a single major donor, someone who will step up to be as passionate about this as we are and agree to underwrite about half of the cost of the project,” Nelson explains. This prospective donor, as well as new board members, will possess passion for aviation and aerospace history and Ohio’s ongoing innovation in those industries. He says the role of president has remained vacant since Ohlmann’s death in 2016 so they could take the time to fill the role with someone with “the same kind of community stature and reputation.” The group is seeking additional board members who are “fueled by passion, common sense, or altruistic motive,” leaders with the know-how and drive to get things done.

“It’s a funny thing, people react to this project in one of two ways. They are either completely uninterested, or all of a sudden they’re just passionate about it…those are the kind of donors we have to find—they’re harder to find that the average bear,” Nelson observes.

Col. Nelson, admittedly “not an aviation nut” but rather a man whose most cherished memories are of flight, is thoroughly committed to his latest mission. “Nowhere in the world is there a monument to … the achievement of flight. When humans separated from the earth, it was the beginning of so many things.”

For more information on Triumph of Flight, please visit WrightMonument.org. For more information on Ohio’s National Aviation Heritage Area, please visit AviationHeritageArea.org

*Editor’s note: In the print version of this story, Judge Walter Rice was referred to as “the late” Judge Walter Rice. We regret this error.

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About Karen Ander Francis

View all posts by Karen Ander Francis
Reach DCP Freelance writer Karen Ander Francis at KarenAnder@DaytonCityPaper.com

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