Charles E. Taylor, born May 24, 1868 on a farm in Illinois, was involved in many historical events related to the growth of aviation. He was involved in the first powered flight, was the first airport manager, helped build the first military plane, was involved in the first transcontinental flight, was inducted into the USAF Museum Aviation Hall of Fame as the first airplane mechanic, and the FAA named a lifetime maintenance award after him.
He didn’t seek the limelight and his contributions came to light after the deaths of Wilbur and Orville Wright. As the lone survivor of the team that created the first flyer, at the 40th, 45th, and 50th anniversaries of the first powered flight he was interviewed by the media and credited for his contributions.
The Wright Connection
After getting married and having a son the family moved to Dayton, OH, where he worked for the Stoddard Manufacturing Co. making farm machinery and bicycles. As fate would have it, the Wright Brothers moved their business to a building owned by Taylor’s wife’s uncle. In 1901 Taylor started working at Wright Cycle Co. repairing bikes and minding the store. With the Wright Brothers working on a flying machine, they needed an engine and Taylor said he could do it. And he did.
With the machinery that was in the bike shop he succeeded in creating an engine that met specifications and performed in a period of six weeks. The shop contained a 26-inch Crescent band saw, 20-inch Barnes drill press, 14-inch Putnam lathe, 6-inch double end bench grinder, stationary natural gas combustion engine, and a wind tunnel. And on Dec. 17, 1903 history was made with the first powered flight.
Taylor worked with the Wright Brothers on many projects, upgrading engines and fixing the planes after flight testing. With the need to be closer to Dayton for making improvements to their aircraft and the subsequent testing, the Wright Brothers had access to 100 acres of prairie a few miles away. Named Huffman Prairie, Taylor had the new task of airport manager and building a shed (hangar) to assemble and maintain the Flyer II (1904). After the Wrights had a contract with the Army, Taylor helped to develop the engine for the first military plane in 1907.
First Transcontinental Flight
In 1911 Taylor joined Calbraith Perry (Cal) Rodgers for the first transcontinental flight from New York to California. A $50,000 prize from publisher William Randolph Hearst to the first pilot to fly across the United States within 30 days was the incentive. Rodgers had taken flight instruction from Orville and hired Taylor as his chief mechanic for the flight. Rodgers took off Sept. 17 from Sheepshead Bay, NY, following railroad tracks since it didn’t have the avionics equipment of today. He landed about 70 times and crashed at least 16 times, reaching Pasadena, CA, on Nov. 5, 1911, not soon enough to win the prize but setting a record nonetheless.
Vin Fiz, a new grape soft drink from J. Ogden Armour, was the designated sponsor of the trip. With the name Vin Fiz printed on the rudder and underside of the plane, Armour paid him $5 for every mile flown east of the Mississippi and $4 for every mile west of the river, a total of $23,000. Armour also provided a special train with the Vin Fiz logo with cars to accommodate Rodgers’ family, support crew, and a workshop with spare parts.
The biplane manufactured by the Wright Brothers was constructed of a lightweight spruce airframe covered with canvas and linen, powered by a 35-hp engine, and could fly at 45 to 60 miles per hour. The entire trip, approximately 4,000 miles, took 84 days, but only about 82 hours were in the air. Damage to the aircraft was so extensive that Taylor had to rebuild the plane several times. Only the vertical rudder, a couple wing struts, and the original oil pan made it all the way. The Vin Fiz is now in the Smithsonian.
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