On June 12, 1941, a diminutive man with white hair and a white moustache drove alone from his Hawthorn Hill mansion near downtown Dayton to the massive Wright Aeronautical piston engine factory in Lockland, north of Cincinnati, Ohio. The new complex, an hour’s drive away, was celebrating its grand opening as one of the country’s largest and most modern defense factories, even though the United States was still months away from joining the Allied war effort.
Looking sporty in his suit and Panama hat, the elderly gentleman arrived early at the badging area where he quickly made the rounds, shaking hands and chatting with Wright Aeronautical execs and local dignitaries clearly thrilled to meet him. With good reason: his name was on the company they had assembled to honor.
The man was Orville Wright. Only 38 years earlier, he and his brother Wilbur had introduced powered flight to the world. Wilbur died in 1912; four years later, Orville sold their airplane company to the Glenn L. Martin Company of California. The merged entity was eventually swallowed up into the massive Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which operated a Wright Aeronautical division as a world-leading producer of piston engines.
By 1941, Orville, who never married, had largely withdrawn from public life. At 69, he spent his days tinkering in his small “laboratory” on Dayton’s West Side in the same neighborhood where he and Wilbur first invented airplanes. Orville was soft-spoken and reserved but he was not a recluse; he made a point of attending events that celebrated him or significant aviation milestones.
The Wright Aeronautical grand opening was one such occasion. The new factory complex in Lockland was billed as an industrial wonder on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. In the ensuing years, the complex would produce piston engines for the C-47 transport as well as B-17 and B-29 bombers. The complex was shuttered within weeks of the war’s end, and GE took occupancy three years later. It eventually became GE Aviation’s world headquarters.
For decades, the urban legend has been that Orville got lost that day, wandering through what GE calls Building 700 (once heralded as the world’s largest single-story building) and delayed the Wright Aeronautical ribbon-cutting ceremony. That is likely a myth. By all accounts, Orville’s fascination with the long assembly lines of Wright Cyclone pistons slowed up the formal tour organized for him and area reporters. This briefly delayed the formal festivities.
While not physically lost, Orville did appear to get lost in his thoughts that day. Though he never spoke during the formal ceremony, his offhand comments to reporters caused headlines across the country.
In one news account, Orville whimsically caressed the cylinder heads of a 1,700 horsepower piston engine and remarked, “Just to think, Wilbur and I flew behind a little thing [engine] of four cylinders that developed all of 40 horsepower, maybe 44.”
Then, he grew serious: “In a sense, I guess we didn’t know what we were doing when we built our first plane. We never envisaged a plane as a terrible engine of war, certainly. But there will always be someone who will abuse anything. That has always been my answer when people ask whether I would have attempted our early experiments had I been able to foresee all of the terrible destruction that has come from the air.”
His comments inspired sensational newspaper headlines across the country: “Inventor of Plane Saddened Because World Misused It”… “Uses of Airplane Sadden Pioneer”… “Wright Looks Sadly On Use of Airplane”… “Wright Sad as Airplanes Spread Death”… “Inventor’s Anguish”… “Wright Views Modern Plane with Tinge of Sadness”… “Inventor Now Views Plane with Sadness”…
It was not the message that Wright Aeronautical hoped to amplify at its grand opening ceremony. The irony is that Orville and Wilbur became wealthy men in 1909 through large U.S. military contracts to produce the Wright Flyer, considered the world’s first military aircraft.
After the Lockland event, Orville gave a Dayton reporter a drive home and went back to tinkering in his lab. The Wright Aeronautical plant boomed over the next four years. At peak production, the factory operated around the clock, employing more than 30,000 people and pumping out more than 3,000 radial engines a month. When operations were suspended on August 17, 1945, with the end of World War II, 27,000 employees worked in the complex. Final paychecks were issued a week later, and the massive plant was mothballed.
In early 1948, Orville died at age 76 from heart disease. He had lived long enough to experience the dawn of the jet age. In fact, eight months after his death, GE Aviation employees from the Lynn, Massachusetts, plant began moving into the empty Wright Aeronautical plant in order to produce the GE J47 fighter jet, which would become the most produced jet engine in aviation history.
In the last decade, GE Aviation has invested more than $500 million in the complex, now called GE Evendale. The site, among the nation’s most impressive aviation facilities, has hosted numerous aerospace luminaries over the years, from Charles Lindbergh and John Glenn to Neil Armstrong. But none were more significant than the elderly man from Dayton who arrived in 1941, reflected upon his life, and spoke from his heart.