Taylor, Charles “Charley”
InventorEnshrined 1965 1868-1956
Charley Taylor, the “Unsung Hero of Aviation,” built the engine that powered the Wright Brothers’ first airplane. But the Wrights’ numerous crashes prompted Charley to gloomily tell friends, “Every time one of the brothers goes up, I expect it to be the last time I’ll see him alive.” Taylor was the first aviation mechanic, the airport manager at Huffman Prairie, and the man behind construction and maintenance of the early aircraft engines.
- He was the first aviation mechanic in powered flight.
- He was one of the three men responsible for the “first flight.”
- He was Calbraith Perry Rodgers’ mechanic on his monumental transcontinental flight in 1911.
Born in a log cabin on the banks of the Sangamon River in the heart of Illinois in 1868, Taylor moved with his family to Nebraska. He quit school at the age of twelve and went to work in the bindery of the Nebraska State Journal. There he worked with tools and found that his hands and tools were truly fashioned for each other.
In 1892 at the Jolly Young Men and Girls Club in Kearney Taylor met Henrietta Webbert from Dayton, Ohio, and after their marriage they moved to Dayton, where Taylor perfected his mechanical skill. In 1896 he opened his own tool shop. One day two brothers asked him to make some parts for them and they were highly pleased. In 1901 they asked him to work in their bicycle shop and he accepted. Two weeks later, the brothers left for a place just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to fly a glider, leaving Taylor in charge of their shop. When they returned Taylor helped build a wind tunnel and its delicate force balances to measure a wing’s lift and drag. This was his first aeronautical work. For months Taylor helped them test all kinds of shapes in the wind tunnel until they indicated they were ready. Then he helped the brothers build another glider and they took it to Kitty Hawk.
When they returned, the brothers had an air of confidence about them, for they had solved the basic problem of lateral control by warping the wings of their glider. The Wrights were now ready to build a powered airplane. Unable to find a suitable engine, they made rough sketches of their own on brown paper and gave it to him to build. Taylor carefully studied the design and realized that success would depend upon his own craftsmanship and ingenuity. Using only a lathe and drill press plus his hand tools, he built every part of the engine with the meticulous care of a jeweler cutting a gem. He cut and fit, removing bits of metal to bring every working part into perfect harmony. No detail was too trivial for Taylor’s careful scrutiny. He gave his full effort to make the project work. When it was finished, it delivered an amazing twelve horsepower. It was simple, dependable, and highly capable of doing its job all because of his craftsmanship. He also made the metal parts for the airplane while they built the wings and framework. When they completed the framework, the Wrights took it to Kitty Hawk and by mid-November had finished asssembling the airplane. Difficulty, however, developed with the propeller shafts. With winter approaching fast, the Wrights became dismayed. In desperation Orville headed for Dayton and, without enough money for street car fare, trudged the last wintry mile and a half to the bicycle shop. Quickly he made new shafts out of tool steel and Orville took them back to Kitty Hawk.
By mid-December the Wrights were ready to pit their lives against the unknown. Orville lay in the cradle as the planets engine roared. He released the holding wire and as the plane gathered speed, Wilbur ran alongside, steadying the wing. At the moment it became airborne a photograph was snapped. The flight lasted a mere twelve precious seconds but it freed Man forever from the bonds of earth. The date was December 17th, 1903. The engine and the highly ingenious test equipment he so carefully constructed for the Wrights were significant factors in making possible the first successful powered flight. The world yawned at the news and went back to sleep, but not the Wrights. They asked him to build a more powerful engine while they started work on an improved airplane.
When it was accomplished they received permission to fly it at a pasture near Dayton called Huffman Prairie, as long as they didn’t kill any cows. The flying was more difficult there and the Wrights crashed numerous times. Taylor gloomily told friends, “Every time one of the brothers goes up I expect it to be the last time I’ll see him alive.” In a real sense, he became an airport manager as he devoted most of his time to maintaining the airplanes and facilities at Huffman Prairie.
The Wrights had tried without success to interest the U.S. government in their airplane. Discouraged, they opened negotiations with the French and British. Taylor accompanied them on their visit to Europe in 1907 to demonstrate their airplane. Finally, the Army Signal Corps awarded a contract for an airplane to the Wrights and he helped build it and went to Fort Myer, Virginia, with Orville to assemble it. When Orville flew it from the parade grounds the crowd went wild as he made flight after flight, setting one world’s record after another. However, tragedy struck when the plane crashed, killing Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge and seriously injuring Orville. The following year they returned to Fort Myer and met all performance specifications and the airplane was accepted by the Army.
The Wrights now went into airplane production and Taylor was placed in charge of engine manufacture. However, he continued to assist the Wrights in their flights, going with Wilbur to the Hudson-Fulton Exposition in New York in 1910, and later to Montgomery, Alabama where Orville established a flying school. After Orville took him up on his first flight he asked if he was scared. “No, Orv”, he replied, “if you weren’t, why should I be?” Orville thought it was very funny.
In 1911, Calbraith Perry Rodgers decided to make a flight coast to coast in a Wright biplane. Unable to dissuade Rodgers from attempting the almost impossible flight, Orville said, “We will lend you our best mechanic and, oh, God, how you will need him.”
Rodgers named the plane the Vin Fiz and took off from New York, heading west, followed by a special three-car railroad train loaded with spare parts. The next morning the plane suffered the first of sixteen major crashes that were to mar the flight. In twenty days they reached Chicago, in thirty, Texas. Every time Rodgers crashed he would say, “Fix her up, Charlie, I’ll be ready.”
It took two weeks to cross Texas. Rodgers said, “I don’t know which is wearing out the faster, me or the plane.” Rodgers reached Pasadena on the 49th day and received a hero’s welcome. Only the vertical rudder and engine’s drip pan were left of the original plane, testifying to the magnitude of the task of his mechanics. Leaving Rodgers, he worked briefly on the West Coast before returning to Dayton and rejoining Orville. He worked in Dayton until 1928 when he moved to California. At the age of 67, and almost penniless, Taylor obtained a job in the tool room of North American Aviation. He never told them of his association with the Wrights. “Why should I?” he asked.
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 returned to California during the war and at the age of 73 went to work making cartridge shells. At 77 he retired. Now all alone, the last of the original three men who had built the first successful airplane, he was almost destitute and lived only on an annuity which Orville had provided for him in appreciation for his faithful service 50 years before. Taylor died on January 30th, 1956 at the age of 87.
He never sought notoriety from his work with the Wrights and few ever recognized his contributions. He never was in touch with the important aviation personages 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 him,they didn’t take the time to find him.
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