August 3, 1909. Mineola, Long Island. Charles Willard becomes the first American to take a flying lesson—and the fifth American to operate a flying machine. Two of the others are a pair of brothers named Wright. The third, Lt. Tom Selfridge, died ten months earlier in the crash of a Wright Flyer piloted by Orville Wright. The fourth is Willard’s instructor, Glenn Curtiss.
Charles Forster Willard was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Manhattan, the son of an electrical engineer. He planned to, but didn’t—as is commonly reported—attend Harvard College. Nor was he a race car driver, although he did work as a mechanic for a Winton automobile dealer in New York. Willard was twenty-five in 1908 when Stanley Beach, aviation editor for Scientific American magazine and a cousin of the automobile dealer, invited the mechanically inclined Willard to help him build a flying machine. Their device never flew, but in the course of its construction Willard gained a practical understanding of aerodynamics and flying machines.
Beach was instrumental in founding the Aeronautic Society of New York, formed in the summer of 1908 by younger members of the Aero Club of America who wanted to investigate the potential of heavier-than-air flying machines, rather than spherical balloons and dirigibles. When, after several months, none of its members’ efforts had produced a machine capable of flight, the Society made a bold decision. Hoping “to create a more general interest in the art,” it sought to commission a machine from someone who would guarantee to produce a working aeroplane for an exhibition the Society wanted to hold in the summer of 1909.
The $5,000 purchase price quoted by Glenn Curtiss and accepted by the Society included personal instruction of two Society members. Once completed, the sale represented the first commercial purchase of an aeroplane by anyone other than a governmental agency. It was a coup for Curtiss, too, since the Society had initially considered and rejected the idea of buying a Wright machine. Curtiss immediately went into business with aviation pioneer Augustus Herring and opened the first aeroplane manufacturing business in America.
In July 1909 the Aeronautic Society took delivery of “Herring-Curtiss No. 1”—christened Golden Flyer, from the color of its wings—and soon afterward Curtiss set about fulfilling his obligation to provide instruction to two members. The first, decided by a coin flip at the Aero Club field, was Charles Willard. Curtiss briefly explained the controls and gave a few pointers before Willard took off on his own, achieving a short but successful flight. The second student pilot was Alexander Williams; unlike Willard, he took off too steeply, turned too sharply and stalled, landing Golden Flyer upside down. Williams survived with a broken arm but never flew again. (Notwithstanding detailed news coverage the next day, Willard would insist fifty years later that his inaugural flight came more than two weeks after Williams crashed.) Willard spent every evening while the machine was being repaired going on rides at Coney Island, so as to get comfortable with the sensation of moving through the air.
Curtiss had to leave New York to fly in an international aviation tournament in France. Consequently, once the machine was repaired Willard essentially taught himself to fly. He then set off touring on behalf of the Aeronautic Society—ostensibly to encourage enthusiasm for aviation, but also “with the hope of raising funds for experimental work and more sheds and workshops.” He thus became the first professional exhibition pilot in America—and the first challenge to the Wright brothers’ claim that anyone who flew for money owed them a royalty. The Wrights brought suit in August against the Aeronautic Society and Herring-Curtiss, seeking money damages and possession of Golden Flyer, which they intended to destroy. It was the first shot in a patent war that wouldn’t be resolved until the United States was on the brink of entering World War I.
In January 1910 Willard and Curtiss were among the aviators participating in the first international aviation tournament held in the United States, at Dominguez Field near Los Angeles. The Aeronautic Society decided to sell its Golden Flyer to balloonist Charles J. Strobel. Willard elected not to work for Strobel, however, instead signing a lease agreement with Curtiss under which he flew a new Herring-Curtiss machine and kept a percentage of the exhibition fees generated.
Willard flew for a year and a half on the Curtiss team, which Eugene Ely joined in the summer of 1910. On one memorable occasion, a Missouri farmer took a shot at Willard’s passing plane, “just for luck.” Willard designed a more powerful flying machine of his own, Banshee Express, and flew it regularly at exhibitions.
Willard expected to make the first landing on a ship in January 1911, a flight for which Ely would become internationally famous, but Curtiss—hoping to sell aeroplanes to the Navy—considered the fact that Banshee Express wasn’t “pure Curtiss” a marketing negative. Willard did contribute significantly to the design of the primitive arresting device used by Ely, the forerunner of the modern tailhook.
Long a bachelor, Willard married in March 1911. He quit the Curtiss exhibition team that summer, having flown for two years with very few mishaps. He ceased exhibiting soon afterward, settled in Los Angeles and designed aircraft, later moving to the East Coast as an aeronautical engineer. He was the chief engineer for Glenn Martin, and he designed flying boats for Glenn Curtiss.
The first professional aviator in the world, Willard lived to see men land on the moon and spend time aboard orbiting space stations, but he ridiculed the idea of visiting other planets as “humanly outrageous and impractical.” He is said to have asked of interplanetary travel, “What are we going to do when we get there, anyhow?”
Charles Willard died in 1977 at the age of 93.