The First Airplane Passenger
Wright Place, Wright Time

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eginning in 1905, the Wrights attempted to sell their invention. They first offered it to the United States armed forces, suggesting it would be useful for scouting. Their congressman, Robert M. Nevin, supported the Wrights, but their offer and his influence could not persuade the military bureaucracy that there was anything useful about an airplane. The U.S. Army Board of Ordnance and Fortification turned the Wright Brothers down three times before the end of 1905. They had similar luck when they tried to sell an airplane to the governments of England, France, Germany, and Russia.

But in late 1907, their luck started to change. Aware that advances in aviation would soon make the airplane and the airship potential means  of observing a battlefield, the US Army Signal Corps created an Aeronautical Division. By chance, one of the members of this new division, First Lt. Frank P. Lahm, met the Wright brothers while they were in France trying to sell their invention. Lahm wrote his superior, Brigadier General James Allen, urging the Army to take another look at the Wrights' offer. That letter convinced the Army to at least talk to the Wrights. They opened negotiations when the Wrights returned from Europe and on December 23, 1907, the Army issued "Signal Corps Specification No. 486" advertising for a flying machine that could carry a pilot and a passenger for 125 miles at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. It was tailored to the capabilities of the Wright airplane. Then, in the spring of 1908, a syndicate of French businessmen came together to manufacture and sell Wright airplanes in Europe, provided the Wrights could deliver and demonstrate a working aircraft.

Suddenly, the Wrights were shorthanded. The French wanted a flying demonstration by late spring, the Army by summer, barely enough time to build a single plane, let alone two. The Wrights found themselves in the position of a man who boasts "I can do that" just to get a job, then has to hurry up and figure out how to do it so as not to let his customers down. The Wrights had told the Board of Ordnance that they could build an airplane capable of carrying two people. But they had never flown with two people aboard — all their flights at Huffman Prairie had been solo. Additionally, they knew that their old engine hadn't enough power to push two people through the air, and that their old control system wouldn't work with two people on board in a sitting position. They needed a new engine and a new control system — and they needed to test them before any demonstration flights. They set their one and only mechanic, Charley Taylor, to building a 40-horsepower engine, while they began to modify the control system and seating arrangement of the Wright Flyer 3.

 During this time, Charley Furnas was working for the Platt Iron Works, and was apparently not using the mechanic's skills that he had picked up in the Navy. He counted it as good fortune when he was laid off in January 1908 and almost immediately got a job with a machinist named Roos. Mr. Roos' shop was at Sprague and Third Street, within walking distance of the Wright bicycle shop at 1127 West Third. Charley began visiting in his spare time, offering to do odd jobs and repeatedly expressing his desire to learn to fly. The Wrights, caught in a time crunch, let him help Charley Taylor, even though they didn't have enough money to hire him full time. He received his first paycheck from the Wrights on April 11, 1908, probably paying him for over 100 hours of part-time labor. The check was for $35.

In 1908, $35 was a considerable sum, similar to being paid over a thousand dollars today. Charley was unmarried, he had no kids, and his living expenses were small. So a considerable portion of that paycheck was "discretionary income" in Charley's eyes. What he decided to do with it would put him in the history books.

Wright_4cyl_vertical_engine_small.jpg (1742 bytes)
Although the Wrights began designing a four-cylinder, 40-horsepower engine in 1906, they still hadn't tested it on an airplane in early 1908.

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