More than a road: The story behind Wright-Patt’s Lahm Circle

  • Published
  • By Matthew Clouse
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — Lahm Circle on Area A, the road in front of the Wright-Patt Club and Dodge Fitness Center, honors aviation pioneer Brig. Gen. Frank P. Lahm.

Lahm was born on Nov. 17, 1877, in Mansfield, a city located between Columbus and Cleveland. In October, nearly 145 years after his birth, a museum honoring the Army’s first certified pilot opened in his hometown.

“My job as museum curator is to not only collect Lahm memorabilia, but also spread the word so people understand the importance of what he contributed to the history of aviation,” said Scott Schaut, curator at the Frank P. Lahm Aviation Museum in downtown Mansfield.

Lahm developed an interest in flying at a young age from his father, who was an acclaimed sports balloonist. He pursued his passion for aviation by joining the military and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1901. His illustrious military career spanned four decades as he served in the Army, Signal Corps and Army Air Corps until 1941.

His first major aviation accomplishment occurred in 1906. Lahm represented the U.S. in Paris at the inaugural Gordon Bennett International Balloon Race. He won by traveling nearly 400 miles in 22 hours and 15 minutes, more than 50 miles further than the second-place competitor.  

In 1907, while still in France, Lahm was introduced by his father to the Wright brothers. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

A year later, Lahm became the first military airplane passenger when he flew on a Wright Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia, with Orville Wright as his pilot.

“When you look at those early planes, the Wright Flyers, you had to be crazy to go in those things,” Schaut proclaimed. “You’re sitting out in the open, the engine is behind you and if you crashed, the engine goes forward and crushes you.”

In 1909, Lahm was trained to fly by Wilbur Wright and became the Army’s first certified pilot.

“His U.S. pilot’s license was No. 2,” Schaut said. “Five licenses were given out in alphabetical order, which is why Glenn Curtiss was No. 1 and the Wright brothers were four and five, despite being the first to fly.”

Lahm continued to have an impact in aviation as his career progressed. On July 17, 1926, he was promoted to brigadier general and assigned as commander of the new Air Corps Training Center in San Antonio. He was in charge of multiple training bases spread across town and determined it would be beneficial to have all of them at one location.

This led to the construction of Randolph Field. Today, the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command recognizes Lahm as the “father of Randolph Field.”

After retiring from the military, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base held several ceremonies to celebrate his career.

“Every time he would go to a military base, they would have ceremonies for him because of all of his contributions that he did for aviation,” Schaut said.

In 1960, he was recognized as the “father of Air Force flight training” in a ceremony attended by 600 cadets. It included an aerial demonstration by Wright Air Development Division pilots.

A year later, Wright-Patt held a World War I flyers reunion at the U.S. Air Force Museum. It was the first reunion in 43 years and attended by more than 400 aviators to include Lahm and Benjamin Foulois, two of the first three military pilots taught by the Wright brothers.

Lahm died July 7, 1963. He was cremated and his ashes were spread over Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport is named in his honor.