Most people, when thinking of the first heavier-than-air flight, think of Orville and Wilbur Wright (the Wright Brothers). Aviation enthusiasts think about that December day in 1903 when the Wright Brothers soared for 120 feet in 12 seconds to be the first in the air. They attribute the feat to their engineering skill and just plain good project management and testing. However, there was a third person that was involved in this endeavor that rarely comes to mind — Charles E. (Charlie) Taylor (pictured in the bottom left of the photo above). This article is based on a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) document (https://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/field_offices/fsdo/phl/local_more/media/CT%20Hist.pdf) that briefly talks about Charlie’s achievements, but it is necessary to delineate them a little here for the young project managers since the whole purpose of this article is to point out that the person that takes the least amount of credit can be the one that makes or breaks your project.
Charlie got involved with the Wright Brothers around 1898 when the brothers brought him jobs to do when Charlie had a machine shop in Dayton, Ohio. In fact, Charlie produced bicycles, having something very much in common with the Wright Brothers. After a while, and changing a few jobs, Charlie was offered a job with the Wright Brothers repairing bicycles in 1901. It was there that Charlie helped the Wright Brothers build their first airplane.
The Wright Brothers had the skill and knowledge to build kites but needed help with other areas such as engines and wind tunnels. Charlie built a wind tunnel for the brothers, where they could test their kites, but more importantly, Charlie built the first aircraft engine for the brothers, with no prior knowledge of how to build an aircraft engine. The brothers had asked automobile manufacturers for help with the engine, but they replied that they were too busy to undertake the endeavor. By asking Charlie to do the work, it both energized Charlie, and made him the first to build an aircraft engine. In fact, some of the designs that the Wright Brothers gave him were handwritten on paper. Charlie had to interpret and machine the engine based on these designs – and did not with incredible accuracy. He not only completed the engine from these drawings, he did so in 6 weeks! Imagine the amount of effort that would go into something like this today?!
Once the engine was complete, the Wright Brothers realized that Charlie had produced something that exceeded their specifications for the same weight so they were able to add more weight to the air frame, allowing for more strength in the aircraft. The aircraft was ready in the Spring of 1903 and flew on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers were excited about the first flight and decided to move to Dayton for subsequent flights. They picked an area and put Charlie in charge of the maintenance of the aircraft and facilities; which made him the first airport manager.
The Wright Brothers tried to sell the aircraft to the military and in 1908 Orville flew with a military officer (Charlie was slated for the flight, but the officer bumped him). The flight crashed and the military officer, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, died in the accident. Charlie investigated the accident and reported the findings to the Wright Brothers. He was the first to investigate an aircraft accident.
In 1911, Charlie was lent to an adventurer, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who wanted to fly across the United States. Charlie followed the flight in a special train, repairing and maintaining the aircraft to the point where there were only 3 original parts that were used- the rest had to be made again by Charlie. This, according to the article, was a feat that has not been repeated.
I will stop here because the rest of the story for Charlie is pretty sad, since he was the forgotten person in airplane history. However, this story shows that someone who never demanded attention or recognition, was the most important person in a plan. It was Charlie that allowed the Wright Brothers to fly their aircraft repeatedly; it was Charlie that maintained and made the parts so that the aircraft would fly; it was Charlie that helped others flying the aircraft; and finally it was Charlie that gave up his chance to fly to be the maintainer of the Wright Flyer. The quote that says it all came from the article referenced above: