The First Airplane Passenger

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n the spring of 1908, Charley Furnas, a 28-year-old mechanic, was working for a machinist a few blocks away from the Wright Cycle Company in Dayton, Ohio. In his spare time, Charley did odd jobs for the Wright Brothers and pestered them to teach him how to fly.

Wilbur and Orville, meanwhile, were rushing to adapt their Flyer to carry two people. For years, they had been trying to sell their invention to the U.S. Army, and their persistence had finally paid off. The Army agreed to buy an airplane for $25,000 -- if it could carry a pilot and a passenger. Additionally, a French syndicate of businessmen wanted to manufacture and sell Wright planes in Europe. The brothers  decided to return to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where they had developed their first airplane, to test the two-man Flyer. Kitty Hawk's steady winds would help get them airborne and its remoteness would hide their plane from prying eyes.

Wilbur left for Kitty Hawk in early April and found their old camp in a shambles. He was struggling to put it back to rights when -- unasked-for and unexpected -- Charley Furnas turned up. Wilbur was glad to see him, but explained that he couldn't afford to pay him. Charley said he didn't come for the money, he just wanted to help.

Wilbur and Charley had the camp shipshape when Orville arrived later in the month with the Flyer. The three of them put the airplane together and began making short hops on May 6. Occasionally, the Wrights would carry a sandbag in the right seat to simulate the weight of a passenger. By May 14, Will and Orv figured they were ready to try a flight with a real passenger, and they gave Charley the honor to repay him for his work. Charley made a brief flight of 800 feet with Wilbur, then flew for over two miles with Orville. Not only was he the first passenger ever carried on an airplane, he was also one of the very few people to fly with both Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Wilbur left Kitty Hawk shortly thereafter for France. Charley went back to Dayton with Orville. Together, Orville, Charley Furnas, and Charley Taylor -- the Wright's first mechanic -- built the first military aircraft, shipped it to Fort Meyer, Virginia, assembled it, and helped Orville maintain and launch it.

Charley Furnas left the Wright brothers immediately after Orville crashed on September 17, 1908, breaking his leg and killing his passenger. Quite possibly, the crash dissuaded Charley from his ambitions to become a pilot. He started his own garage in his home town of West Milton, Ohio, then operated two movie theaters. However, he remained friends with the Wrights all his life. When Charley passed away in 1941, Orville Wright attended his funeral.

Charley Furnas circa 1900.jpg (30888 bytes)
Charles W. Furnas, taken about 1900, when Charley was 20 years old. He was born in 1880 and died in 1941.

1908ki~1.jpg (27163 bytes)
Wilbur and Charley found the camp at Kitty Hawk almost uninhabitable in 1908. It had been ravaged by weather and looted by visitors.

1908ba~1.jpg (33492 bytes)
The Wright brothers adapted the 1905  Flyer 3 to carry two people, then flew it at Kitty Hawk with Charley riding in the right seat. This is the only surviving photo of the first two-man Flyer.

Fort Meyer Accident.jpg (40824 bytes)
Charley Furnas witnessed the crash at Fort Meyer, Virginia, that killed Lt. Thomas Selfridge and left Orville Wright critically injured. It's quite possible that one of the men in the center of this photo, fighting their way through the wreckage, is Charley.

For the full story of the first airplane passenger, Charles W. Furnas, see:


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