The First Airplane Passenger
Almost Forgotten

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harley's life took several turns for the worse in the Great Depression. In 1931, his wife Letitia died. A year later, Charley was admitted to the National Soldiers Home (now the Veterans Administration Hospital) on West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio, suffering from tuberculosis. He spent nine years at the Home, eventually becoming bedridden. During this time, he researched his genealogy and painted  huge mural of his family tree on oilcloth. That painting now hangs in the Hale-Sarver Funeral Home (the old Furnas homestead) in West Milton.

After his long absence from the airplane business, few people knew of his important role in early aviation. In 1938, 30 years after his historic flight, Charley was briefly honored by the postal service. During "Air Mail Week" (May 15 through 21), the post office used a special stamp to cancel airmail letters, designating Charley as the "first airplane passenger" and the "Wright Brothers' second mechanic." It's the one and only time his accomplishment has ever been commemorated. It's interesting to note that the West Milton Record, Charley's hometown newspaper, ran a story on Air Mail Week in its May 16, 1938 edition without a single mention of Charley or his historic flight.

However, those who flew with him never forgot. During his long illness, Orville Wright visited Charley several times. When Charley died on October 16, 1941, Orville attended his funeral, paying homage to his courage, his gumption, and his contribution to aviation.

Charley Furnas Aviation Firsts

  • First airplane passenger
  • First on-board flight engineer
  • First person (and one of the very few) to fly with both Wilbur and Orville Wright
  • Helped to develop and build the first military aircraft
  • First person hired in America by an aircraft-manufacturing firm (The Wright Cycle Company) expressly to build airplanes. (Charley Taylor had been hired originally to build bicycles.) This makes Charley Furnas the first employee ever in the aerospace industry; an endeavor which has grown to become the largest sector of our economy and the largest industry in the world.

The Wright Flyer III, in which Charley rode, was rescued from Kitty Hawk in 1914 and temporarily stored in Massachusetts. It was returned to Dayton in 1948 and restored to its 1905 configuration. Today it is on display at Carillon Park in Dayton, Ohio.


Furnas_old.jpg (49724 bytes)
Charley Furnas near the end of his life.

Furnas_Mail_Stamp.jpg (27407 bytes)
The cancellation stamp used by the post office to commemorate Charley Furnas as the "first airplane passenger."

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A History of the Airplane/The Tale of the Vin Fiz/Many Wrecks and Crashes
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