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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Charlie Taylor, the Wright-hand man

Today marks the 112th anniversary of the first flight at Kitty Hawk by the Wright Brothers. Here is the story of the man who helped make that flight, Charlie Taylor.

     In 1936, Henry Ford wanted to recreate in Dearborn, Michigan, the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, where the first airplane was built, for Greenfield Village, his tribute to great Americans. Orville Wright suggested that Ford ask Charlie Taylor, who could help remember the details of the shop, where Taylor had designed and built the engine for the first plane. Wright said Taylor lived somewhere in California, where he had bought a farm and retired.

     Indeed, Taylor, 67, lived in California, but he was dead broke. He lost the farm to the Great Depression. He finally found a job for 37 cents an hour as a mechanic at North American Aviation, where he never told his fellow workers that he even knew the Wright Brothers or made their first flight possible. Asked later why he didn't mention this, he replied, “Why should I?"

     But Ford sent detectives to track down the aviation pioneer and in 1937, Taylor worked as a consultant on the recreation of the bicycle shop. He had not only lived history, he had made it.

     Born in a log cabin on May 24, 1868, in Cerro Gordo, Illinois, Taylor worked as a binder at the Nebraska State Journal at age 12. He became a tool maker. At 24, he met and married Henrietta Webbert, who was from Dayton, Ohio. They had a child and moved to Dayton, where prospects were better. Stoddard Manufacturing Co. hired him to make farm machinery and bicycles. But when the Wright Brothers began renting from his wife's uncle a building for their bicycle shop, he went to work for them. By 1902, they trusted him enough to run the shop in their absence while they went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to fly gliders. These two mechanical engineers were going to build a heavier-than-air airplane.

     When they came back, Taylor had built a wind tunnel for them. The design and building of their first plane was in full swing. They determined they needed an engine that was at least eight horsepower, but weighed no more than 180 pounds. Using a 26-inch Crescent band saw, a 20-inch Barnes drill press, 14-inch Putnam lathe, 6-inch double end bench grinder, and a lot of cigar chomping and cussing, Taylor produced a 178-pound engine that had 12 horsepower. Unlike the competition, the Wrights and Taylor went with an internal combustion engine instead of steam.

     Over the next few years, they perfected their engines and their airplanes. A farmer in Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, allowed them to use his pasture for testing flights, provided they did not kill any cows. They kept their end of that bargain. By October 1905, they could sustain flights and actually have the pilot control the flight. In a short time, they sold aircraft to the U.S. Army as well as visit Paris to consult the French. It was not until 1910, though, that Taylor finally flew. Orville was the pilot. He asked his mechanic if he was scared. Taylor replied, “No, Orv, if you weren't, why should I be?”

     In 1911, Calbraith Perry Rodgers got the idea that he could fly across the continent in a Wright biplane. Orville tried to talk him out of it, but when he could not, Orville said, “We will lend you our best mechanic and, oh, God, how you will need him.”

     With Taylor's help, Rodgers succeeded, if one calls 16 major crashes along the way a success. But when he arrived in Pasadena, California, on his 49th day, the crowd greeted Rodgers as a hero. Only the vertical rudder and engine’s drip pan were left of the original plane. Taylor, not Rodgers, had made the cross-country attempt succeed.

     He returned to Dayton and stayed with the Wrights until he retired to California at 60 in 1928. His farm was nice, but the Great Depression left him destitute. Orville occasionally sent him money. While the Ford gig helped, it was Orville's granting him a pension that helped him through the years. At 73, Taylor became a mechanic again, supporting America's effort in World War II. Sadly, at 86, he was broke again and became a charity case. Orville had died by then, Wilbur having gone in 1916. The aviation industry chipped in and made his final year in this life comfortable.

     But 45 states, celebrate his birthday, May 24, as Aviation Maintenance Technician Day. The FAA also named its mechanic's award in his honor. You can design all the planes you want, but without an engine, they are not going anywhere.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.


  1. Without an engine, AND a good mechanic.

  2. We always hear of the American dream, middle class guy made good enough to have a posterity to hand off, it's just when it comes time to show an example of it happening even once, the story always ends with "and then the government fucked him".