The First Airplane Passenger
Fatal Attractions

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ilbur left for Europe on May 17, 1908, and Charley and Orville went back to Dayton shortly thereafter. Wright Brothers funds were uncertain. The French syndicate was wobbly at best, the U.S. Army would pay them nothing until they had an airplane that met their specs, and bicycle sales — for years the only sure source of income — were dropping off as the bicycle craze gave way to motorcycles and automobiles. Orville told Charley he couldn't afford to hire him, but every few days Charley would pop in and ask what he could do. Meanwhile, Orville and Charley Taylor fell further and further behind on the new "Military Flyer." Orville relented, hiring Charley full time in early July of 1908, paying him $12 a week. Orville and the two Charleys put on a push to get ready for the Army trials of their flying machine at Fort Meyer, Virginia.

On August 8, 1908, news arrived from France that Wilbur had made a successful flight. It was short — just over two miles — but it stunned France in particular and the European community in general. Suddenly, all eyes in America were on Orville Wright, Charley Taylor, and Charley Furnas as they rushed to complete their machine.

The Military Flyer was packed up and shipped in mid-August, accompanied by the two Charleys. According to a note from Katharine Wright, Orville had told Charley Furnas that he couldn't afford to pay him very much, if anything, for his services in Virginia. He had scraped together enough for Charley Taylor to go, but that was all he could afford. Charley Furnas was not to be left out, however. No doubt if Orville had told him not to go, Charley would have shown up on his own accord as he did in Kitty Hawk. But Orville relented; by this time he knew he could count on Charley Furnas.

Taylor and Furnas arrived at Fort Meyer on August 19 and supervised the transfer of the crated flying machine from the railroad station in Arlington to the balloon hangar at Fort Meyer. Orville arrived on August 20. The two Charleys began to put the machine together while Orville laid out his cross-country flying courses and met with various officers and observers. The machine went together smoothly, but the engine refused to run properly. This was the team's worst nightmare. The specifications were for a flying machine that would fly at 40 miles per hour. Anything slower and the purchase price would be seriously reduced. Conversely, anything faster would earn a higher price. The two Charleys put their heads together and began to tinker. After adding some new oil cups, readjusting the magneto, and switching to a higher-octane gasoline, the engine developed the required power.

Orville made his first flight at Fort Meyer on September 3, 1908 — just a short hop. But he flew three miles the next day and began breaking record after record, eventually staying aloft for over an hour. The second airplane passenger to fly with the Wrights was Lieutenant Frank Lahm, who remained airborne with Orville for 6 minutes, 24 seconds, breaking Charley's record.

The trials progressed amazing well, and the press, which had been skeptical of the Wrights' claims, was full of glowing reports. Orville and Wilbur were the toast of two continents. Then tragedy struck. On September 17, 1908, Orville was making a short demonstration flight with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, one of the observers who had been assigned to assess the Military Flyer. After three turns around the field, Orville noticed a strange tapping sound coming from behind him. He glanced back to see what was wrong and found nothing out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, he decided to shut off the engine and land. As he was preparing to do so, there were two big thumps and the machine began to shake. Then the Flyer went into a steep turn and began to dive toward the flying field. Orville frantically worked the control levers, but there was no response. The front skids hit first and the Flyer crumpled, trapping the pilot and passenger in a tangle of wood, cloth, and wires.

Three mounted troopers were the first to reach the wreck, closely followed by Charley Taylor, Charley Furnas, and several officers. Orville was pulled from the wreckage first, while the two Charleys worked their way through the wreckage to Selfridge. Both men were unconscious; Selfridge was bleeding from the head. A field ambulance took them to the post hospital, where officers, newsmen, Taylor, and Furnas waited for news. It wasn't long in coming — Orville suffered a broken left thigh, broken ribs, and a badly wrenched back, but he would likely survive. Selfridge had a fractured skull and had been rushed to surgery. He died at 8:30 that evening, shortly after leaving the operating room.

Several days later, when Orville was conscious and strong enough to speak, the two Charleys brought parts of the broken Flyer to the hospital at his request. Orville carefully inspected them and conferred with his mechanics. From the evidence, they deduced that a propeller had broken and fouled the wires, making it impossible for Orville to control the Flyer.

Furnas_Check_Stub.jpg (19049 bytes)
According to the Wright Cycle Company ledger. Charley Furnas was paid $12 a week. Charley Taylor, the more experienced mechanic of the two, was paid $18.

Flyer_in_transport.jpg (43509 bytes)
The Wright Military Flyer in transport at Fort Meyer, Virginia. Note that there are four modes of transportation in this photo -- horse-drawn wagon, automobile, balloon, and airplane.

Flying_At_Fort_Meyer.jpg (23453 bytes)
Orville banks the Flyer over a crowd at Fort Meyer.

Fort_Meyer_Accident_small.jpg (1772 bytes)
The fatal accident at Fort Meyer which killed Lt. Thomas Selfridge.

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