Saturday, November 22, 2008
Friday, November 21, 2008
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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Thursday, November 20, 2008
I would say there are really four truly amazing things about Cal Rogers’ transcontinental flight of late 1911. The most amazing thing is that Cal smoked 19 cigars a day during the 49 days it took him to cross America: that's 931 cigars in total. Where did they get them all? How was he still breathing when it was all over, after inhaling all those engine exhaust fumes and all that tobacco smoke? The second most amazing thing is that he burned 1,230 gallons of gasoline to cover 3,220 miles, for an average of 38 miles per gallon; not bad! Detroit can’t match that a hundred years later. The third most amazing thing about the flight of the “Vin Fiz Flyer” is that during those 49 days Cal had been airborne just three days, ten hours and four minutes of actual flying time, giving him an average air speed of about 53 miles per hour. That means that he was “grounded” for forty-five days, sometimes because of bad weather, but mostly because of mechanical problems and crashes. And that brings me to the fourth amazing thing about Cal Rogers’ flight. Despite all the bandages he had adorning his body and the leg cast he was wearing after his crash in Arizona, Cal had survived. He even survived when his engine exploded less than 200 miles from the finish line.
It happened on November 3rd, the day after Cal’s brief meeting with Bob Ward in Arizona. Cal had just left a refueling stop in the desert at Imperial Junction, California, (meaning he had crossed his last state border!) and was climbing out over the expanse of the Salton Sea. Without warning the Number One cylinder in his Wright engine exploded catastrophically. It blew out the entire left side of the engine block, and Cal’s right shoulder and arm were peppered with shrapnel. Screaming pain tore at his consciousness, and Cal’s arm was almost useless. Somehow, he executed a banking turn over the salt waters and glided the “Flyer” back to Imperial Junction. He managed to land safely, again, with just one arm: Cal had become quite a pilot. After two hours of surgery a doctor was able to remove most of the metal from Cal’s arm.
The engine was destroyed (above), but the “Vin Fiz Special” carried a spare, which “Weggie” was able to install. It took a little longer because the crew was short handed. The master mechanic Charlie Taylor had left the flight crew back in Texas and gone ahead to California.
The next day Bob Fowler was almost across New Mexico when he ran into his own mechanical problems. A clogged fuel line chocked off his engine near the isolated water station of Mastodon, just 16 miles outside of El Paso, Texas. Mastadon was just a water tank where the single rail line and a siding ran between sand dunes, and a very lonely place at the time. It still is, especially since the railroad has "moved on". On satellite photographs today it looks like a drawing, all straight lines through a tan background. It was just a little less lonely in 1911. New Mexico wouldn’t even become the 47th state for another 68 days. Once he was safely down, Bob cleared the clogged fuel line, restarted his motor and tried to get airborne again. But the the Cole Flyer couldn’t break free of the sand and sagebrush. Bob Fowler would have to wait for a shift of the wind. Except it didn’t shift.
Cal didn’t even wait for his wounds to heal. Early on the morning of the 5th, wearing an arm sling, he made the hop from Imperial Junction through the San Gregorio Pass to Banning, and from there to Pomona, where he made a last refueling stop. And finally, at 4:08 p.m. on Sunday November 5, 1911, Cal Rogers landed at the Tournament of Roses Park, on the current grounds of Cal Tech. He was met by 10 to 20,000 screaming people, most of whom had paid a quarter apiece to be there. The New York Times reported, ''...a maelstrom of fighting, screaming, out-of-their-minds-with-joy men, women and children.'' Cal was loaded into a car and driven around and around the stadium. And amongst all of the cheering and back slapping, poor deaf Cal kept asking, “I did it, didn’t I? I did it?”
They draped him with an American flag, and posed him next to the “Rubenisque” 1911 Rose Queen, Miss Ruth Palmer . And almost nobody who was in that crowd cheering Cal Rogers had any idea that a deaf man had just flown coast-to-coast, alone. It was quite an achievement. And nobody was prouder of Cal than Mable, unless it was "Weggie", his faithful mechanic, beaming up at him in the photo below.
Cal’s personal victory came a week later, in the Maryland Hotel, when a representative for Mr. W.R. Hearst , burning from the negative publicity over his refusal to extend the prizes' time limit, presented the aviator with a loving cup. And Cal turned it down. He still wanted the money. And he wasn’t going to let W.R. off the petard he had hoisted himself upon.
Unnoticed was that the Armour Meat Packing Company had spent $180,000 (including Cal’s fee of $23,000) to support the flight, and all this to sell a really crappy soft drink that quickly disappeared after the publicity of the flight died down. Then, on November 10th, the "Vin Fiz Flyer" was in the air again. The city of Long Beach had offered Cal $5,000 to complete his journey right up to the Pacific Ocean, in their town. The flight was going fine until half way there when the engine quit. Cal landed, fiddled with the Wright, and started again. And again, the engine coughed and died, this time over Compton. And this time Cal plowed into the ground. And this time he did not walk away. He was pulled unconscious from the wreckage, with a concussion, a broken ankle, broken ribs, and injured back and burns. But his lucky bottle of “Vin Fiz” was still hanging, undamaged, from the broken wing strut. Cal must have hated that bottle by now.
Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Mastodon, New Mexico, Bob Fowler was still stuck in the sand and beginning to think he would never get out. But then, on the 10th, a two man Santa Fe work crew appeared over the horizon, pumping a handcar. And Bob had an idea. He talked to the railroad and they agreed to help him out. Using railroad cross ties they fashioned a platform to sit atop a hand car, and struggled to secure the “Cole Flyer” atop the platform. On the morning of Monday, November 13th, the entire contraption was pushed from the siding onto the main line. Bob Fowler clambered into the pilot’s seat. The motor was started. And with railroad workers running alongside to stabilize the wings, the “Flyer” began to move along the track.
And just as the Flyer began to pick up speed Bob looked ahead to see a column of smoke rising from the tracks. Instantly Bob realized he was on a collision course with a steam locomotive. The two objects quickly ate up the ground between them, heading for the most unlikely collision in railroad history!
NEXT TIME; AN ASIDE
- 30 -
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
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