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Friday, November 21, 2008

PART VIII: AMAZING RACE, AN ASIDE

I guess you could say that Charlie Taylor was the first member of the “Final Destination Club”. On September 17, 1908 Charlie was set to take his first flight with Orville Wright when an officer asked if an Army observer could go up next, instead. It was in Charlie’s character to defer to the request and he gave up his seat.

So Lt. Thomas Selfridge was the one aboard when the Wright biplane crashed to earth (above). Selfridge was killed on impact. Charlie was the first to reach the crash. He pulled the injured Orville out of the wreckage. Charlie then broke down sobbing. But it was also in Charlie’s character that he tore the wreckage apart until he found out exactly what had caused the crash. He was a painfully shy mechanical genius, who maintained the “Vin Fiz Flyer” all the way across the continent. Without Charlie Taylor there would have been no transcontinental flight, and no Wright Brothers either - and they all knew it.

Charlie went to work for the brothers in 1901 at $18 for a sixty hour week in their bicycle shop, and he stayed because their personalities fit so well together. Explained Charlie, “The Wrights didn’t drink or smoke, but they never objected too much to my cigar smoking….Both the boys had tempers, but no matter how angry they ever got I never heard them use a profane word…I never let go with anything stronger than heckety-hoo.”

Charlie and the brothers sketched out the world’s first wind tunnel on scrap pieces of paper, and then Charlie built it (above). Without that testing device, powered flight would have been impossible. After letters to automobile manufactures failed to find a suitable engine, Charlie built the first aircraft motor (and only the second gasoline engine he had ever built) from scratch, in just six weeks, using only a drill press, a lathe and hand tools. At every step of the Wright Brothers innovations Charlie Taylor was vital to the process.

In 1911 Cal Rogers approached Charlie and offered him $70 (plus expenses) a week to travel with the “Vin Fiz Flyer” across country and keep it in the air (above, Charlie & Cal repairing the Flyer.). “At the time my wages were $25 a week. I told him I'd go; then I told ‘Orv ‘about it. He asked me not to quit. I told him I had already given my word to Rodgers and couldn't very well back out. He told me to make it a sort of leave of absence, and to be sure and come back.” And that was how Charlie began what he later called “…my adventures”.

Charlie sent his wife and three children ahead to California. But he was no diarist. He left behind no impressions of what it was like to be cooped up with Mable Rogers and Maria (Rogers) Swietzer for all those days and nights. But I am not surprised that Charlie quit not long before matters came to a head between Lucy Belevedere and Mable. The drama and the emotion would have made Charlie very uncomfortable. He jumped the train in Texas and hurried on to meet his family in Los Angles. He took his wages from the trip and bought several hundred acres along the Salton Sea. But then Charlie’s wife fell ill in Los Angles and it was almost a year before he could get back to Ohio.

While he was away Wilbur had died of typhoid fever, in May of 1912. Orville made sure Charlie had a job, but, “I found it wasn’t like old times….the pioneering days seemed over for me.” Finally, in 1919, Charlie left the Wright Company and returned to California. He opened his own machine shop on his property on the Salton Sea. “I waited for something to happen there,” Charlie said later, “and nothing did.” Except that his wife died and the depression drove him out of business and he lost the land. He moved to Los Angeles and found a job working for North American Aviation for 37 cents an hour. He told no one about his past. He was just another mechanic on the production line. None of his fellow workers knew that he had helped invent the entire industry. And that was where Henry Ford found him.Ford was rebuilding the Wright Brothers workshop in Dayton as a memorial, and had hired detectives to track Charlie down. They brought him back to advise and reconstruct the wind tunnel and put the 1903 Flyer back together. In 1941, his work for Ford finished, Charlie quietly went back to California and returned to work in a Defense plant. In 1945 Charlie suffered a heart attack. He was never able to work again. When Orville Wright died in 1948 he left Charlie an annuity in his will of $800 a year. By 1955 inflation had reduced that to a pittance, and when a newspaper reporter found Charlie he was surviving in the charity ward of a Los Angles hospital. Immediately the aviation community raised funds, and Charlie was able to spend his last months in a private hospital. He died at the age of 88 in 1956. He is buried in the Folded Wings Mausoleum, in Valhalla Memorial Park, directly under the approach to Burbank Airport runway 15-33.Charlie Taylor lived for 48 years after he gave up his seat to a young Army Lieutenant. And he never did learn to fly. And that too was typical for Charlie Taylor, the unsung hero of powered flight.

NEXT TIME; COLLISION!

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