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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.
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.
Charley Furnas near the end of his life.
The cancellation stamp used by the post office to commemorate Charley Furnas as
the "first airplane passenger."