(Aviation’s First Mechanic of Powered Flight)
When we think of the first powered flight we automatically think of Wilbur and Orville Wright; however, there was a third person involved whose skills were an essential part of the Wright’s success. Charles “Charley” Taylor was that man and without his help the Wright Brothers may have lost their place in history.
Charley was born in Illinois in 1868 and at the age of twelve quit school to find his place in life. He quickly learned that his hands, and tools, were almost one in the same, and America’s first aviation mechanic for powered flight started down a path in life that would have him working for the Wright brothers and building the first engine for the Wright Flyer.
Charley started to work for the Wright brothers on June 15, 1901, doing routine repairs on bicycles, so that the Wright brothers could pursue their experiments with gliders which included many trips to Kitty Hawk. After one of these trips, the brothers decided they needed more accurate information and decided they needed to build a small wind tunnel. With this, they would measure the amount, and direction, of air pressures on plane and curved surfaces operating at various angles and improve their theories based on their gliding experiences.
Building the wind tunnel was the first job that Charley Taylor did for the Wright brothers that had any connection with aeronautics. The wind tunnel was a rectangular box with a fan at one end driven by a natural gas engine. The Wright brothers did many experiments in their wind tunnel and from this data they began to make their 1902 glider with Charlie machining many of the parts.
On August 13, 1902, the brothers shipped the glider to Kitty Hawk. They did several flights with the glider and on October 31, 1902, the Wrights returned to Dayton to make plans for a powered airplane. Through their experiments, the Wrights were able to accurately predict the horsepower which was needed to produce and achieve powered flight. The next problem was where to get a light engine that would produce eight horsepower. The Wrights knew that a steam engine might suit their purpose, but a gasoline engine would be safer and more efficient.
In December of 1902, the Wrights sent letters to almost a dozen automobile companies, and gasoline engine manufacturers, asking if they could produce or modify an engine that would develop eight to nine brake horsepower, weigh no more than 180 pounds, and be free from vibration. Most companies replied that they were too busy to undertake building such a special engine. Falling back on their own mechanical experience, the Wright brothers decided to design and build their own engine.
They estimated they could build a four cylinders engine, with four inch stroke and four inch bore weighing no more than 200 pounds with accessories included, and by their calculations it would develop the horsepower necessary to power the glider in flight. Now the problem was who was going to build the engine; however, that problem was quickly solved when the brothers decided to give the task to Charley.
Charley was excited about his new challenge, and from his knowledge of mechanics, and design, he knew that the engine design was basic, straight forward, and simple. Charley had very limited knowledge about gasoline engines, but he used his craftsmanship, genius, and enthusiasm to tackle the task. Without any formal drawings available it was necessary for each part to be crudely sketched out by the Wrights, or Charlie, on a piece of paper, and after a thorough discussion with the brothers, Charley would pin the drawing above his workbench and go to work. Using these sketches, and specifications, he finished the engine in six weeks.
Now, you would think that Charlies accomplishments up to this point would be sufficient to satisfy most aviation pioneers but it wasn’t to be. After the successful flight of 1903 Wilbur and Orville decided to have Charley build a more powerful engine and they started work on an improved airframe. When the new Flyer was ready they received permission to fly it at a pasture near Dayton called Huffman Prairie. The flying was more difficult there and the Wrights crashed numerous times and Charley was heard to say, “Every time one of the brothers goes up I expect it to be the last time I’ll see him alive.” However, because Charley devoted most of his time to maintaining the airplanes and facilities at Huffman Prairie Charley actually became the first Airport Manager in US aviation history.
There were several other major accomplishments in Charlies career that I will notate at the conclusion of my story but for now I want tell you how this forgotten pioneer of aviation faded into obscurity and died a lonely man.
After Wilbur died in May of 1912, of Typhoid fever, the pioneering days of the Wright Brothers were finished. Charley traveled to California to look for work, during the Great Depression, and found a job as a factory mechanic. He invested what money he had in a few hundred acres of land near the Salton Sea and waited to make his fortune – nothing happened and he lost everything.
In 1937 he went to Greenfield Village and restored the Wrights’ bicycle shop, and home, to their 1903 condition and built a replica of the first engine. He later returned to California during the war and at the age of 73 went to work making cartridge shells but in 1945 Charley suffered a heart attack and was never able to work again. Now, all alone, the last of the original three men who had built the first successful airplane, he was almost destitute.
In November 1955, a reporter discovered Charlie in a Los Angles General Hospital’s charity ward. His income was his Social Security check and an $800 a year annuity fund belatedly established by Orville Wright before his death in 1948. The aviation community immediately started a campaign to raise funds for Charlie and he was moved to a private sanitarium where he died a few months later on January 30, 1956 at the age of 88. Having no close relatives Charles E. Taylor was buried in the Portal of Folded Wings Mausoleum dedicated to aviation pioneers, located in Valhalla Memorial Park, Los Angeles.
The Portal of the Folded Wings is located just south of the Burbank airport in beautiful Valhalla Memorial Park. Originally built in 1924, (6 years before United Airport/Burbank was built) it was once the grand entrance to the memorial park.
On December 17, 1953 (the 50th anniversary of powered flight) the Portal was dedicated as a “Shrine to Aviation” and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Bertrand B. Acosta, co-pilot with Admiral Richard Byrd in 1927
Walter R. Brookins, flew for the Wright brothers.
Mark M. Campbell, stunt pilot and aircraft designer.
Col. Warren S. Eaton, early pilot who also built airplanes for Lincoln Beachy.
W. Bertrum Kinner, built ‘Kinner’ airplanes. Amelia Earhart flew a Kinner.
A. Roy Knabenshue, balloon and dirigible pilot who flew in the Dominguez Air Meet in 1910.
Elizabeth L. McQueen, one of Los Angeles’s first women pilots.
John B. Moisant, won the Statue of Liberty Race in 1910; first to carry a passenger across the English Channel.
Matilde J. Moisant, the second licensed female pilot in the United States in 1911.
J. Floyd Smith, test pilot and instructor for Glenn Martin and manufacturer of parachutes.
Hilder F. Smith, aerial acrobat and parachute jumper.
Carl B. Squier, WWI aviator, barnstormer, test pilot, and salesman. As Vice President of Lockheed Aircraft he sold Charles and Anne Lindbergh their Sirius airplane in 1931.
Charles E. Taylor, machinist for the Wright brothers who helped design and build the first engine for the Wright Flyer flown at Kitty Hawk.
So, what were Charlies major accomplishments?
Charlie never sought notoriety from his work with the Wrights and few ever recognized his contributions. He was never a part of aviation’s inner circle nor was he ever invited to attend any of the big celebrations held in honor of the Wrights. It seems that if anyone had ever thought much about Charley they didn’t take the time to find him. Gone but not forgotten – Happy Friday Charley and thanks for making my world of aviation possible.
Have a good weekend, enjoy time with friends and family, and protect yourself as you would your profession.
November 6, 2014