It is unique to the United States, if not the world, that 14 of America's most famous aviation pioneers, including the Wright Brothers' mechanic, Charles Taylor, are buried just steps away from Burbank's busy airport and the former site of Lockheed's Skunk Works. Appropriately these graves are covered by dignified bronze tablets with shiny symbols of propellers and wings. These Early Birds rest beneath the dome of an ornate structure, so singular in its own right that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now called The Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum and since 1996 has been open year-round to the public. However, for decades the building and the pioneer aviators' graves deteriorated with neglect. It took a 6.8 earthquake and a quest to find the grave of a daring Bleriot pilot who died in 1910 to restore the Portal's place in American history.
The Search for John Moisant
In 1995, while researching the life of Harriet Quimby, America's first licensed female pilot, I first learned about John Bevins Moisant. John and his brother Alfred, formed a school on Long Island, NY, to license aviators and formed a flying exhibition team which toured the United States and Mexico. Matilde Moisant, their sister, joined Quimby in the school's first class and she ultimately became the second licensed female aviator in the United States. John had earned his license under the instruction of Louis Bleriot in France and soon captured the imagination of the world by becoming the first to cross the English Channel (Paris to London) carrying a passenger, his mechanic, Albert Fileux, and a kitten, he called "Paree-Londres."
John then quickly took America by storm winning the controversial Belmont Park Aviation Meet's race around the Statue of Liberty against European competition. (Eventually the prize money he won was reclaimed and given to England's Claude Graham White). On the last day of 1910, John was killed in New Orleans as he attempted to break the world's altitude records. He was hastily buried in a vault at Meterie Cemetery by his grieving family. Pilots may recognize "Moisant Field" or the call letters MSY for Moisant International Airport which was named for John. Today it is known as New Orleans International Airport. Although I lived in Southern California during 1995, I traveled to New Orleans to lay a flower at the base of Johnny's vaulted grave, and asked the cemetery office for burial records.
During a wild storm, rain-drenched and cold, I found the vault. Although it was small by comparison to the surrounding tombs, I had at least hoped for an inscription, but the stone face was eerily blank. I left a flower and note to John anyway. With thunder clapping between the stone mausoleums, a cemetery employee implored me to drive with him back to the office before I was struck by lightning. Back in the safety of their lobby I couldn't shake my hunch that something was not quite right about Johnny's grave. I pressed the receptionist to look for more information. Soon, fortified with leather-bound registers dated 1910, I found a record of his burial and a note hastily added sometime during the 1960s. In disbelief, I read that John Moisant's remains had been relocated at Matilde's request to Valhalla Cemetery in California. The reason I saw no inscription on his vault was because he was no longer there.
I had traveled more than 2,500 miles in search of Johnny's grave, only to discover he was within 10 miles of my home. When I returned to California, I hurriedly visited the cemetery where he and his sisters were buried.
I had never heard of the Portal of the Folded Wings, and I did not know that the 1994 Northridge earthquake had caused such severe damage to the exterior of the structure that it was almost torn down. Instead, the owners were convinced that the architecture was valuable enough to restore. When I saw the Portal for the first time in September 1995, it was a construction site shrouded in scaffolding 100 feet tall. I wore a hard hat when I entered via an area piled high with cement and tile debris. Under the grime I had no idea the walls were of white marble, nor that the sky-blue ceiling was painted with huge gold stars. Plywood covered the floor and the graves I wished to visit.
As I lifted the planks my heart raced. Barely legible beneath years of oxidized patina on a bronze tablet were the letters "J-O-H-N." At last I had found Johnny's grave. Next to him, were his sisters, Matilde and Louise. Partially visible on another tablet were the letters "S-H-U-E," which belonged to "A. Roy Knabenshue" who I knew to be a pioneer of dirigible and balloon design. I also knew that at one time, Knabenshue had hired Charles Taylor, the Wright's mechanic to work for him in California. As I struggled to replace the plywood I glimpsed the letters "T-A-Y-L-O." I could barely breathe when I saw the entire grave marker for Charles Taylor.
Eventually, I uncovered others I recognized from aviation history books and a few I had never heard of like Hilder Smith, wife of Floyd Smith, inventor and pilot. Hilder was the first woman to make a parachute jump over Los Angeles harbor from Glenn Martin's plane in 1914. Everyone in this fraternity of aviation enthusiasts who chose to be together in their final resting place could trace their careers in association with notables such as the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Admiral Byrd, Glenn Curtiss, and Charles Lindbergh.
I realized the current owners of the cemetery had no idea who these famous fliers were. Above my head an airliner took off from Burbank airport's Runway 15 and the roar of the engines vibrated within the dome. Between dusty scaffolding I saw the bright red fuselage of a Southwest Airlines' plane climb and bank south.
At that moment I vowed to find out everything I could about the history of this remarkable building and the aviation pioneers buried beneath its dome. Ultimately I convinced Pierce Brothers Valhalla Cemetery to hire me to direct the final stages of restoration to the structure and to create a paper display museum. During months of research, I met family members of those buried under the dome, and corresponded with aviation historians. My great fortune was to connect with Howard DuFour, who at that time was finishing his own biography on the life of Charles Taylor. He provided valuable photographs for me to use in the museum displays.
The Portal Today
On Memorial Day, 1996, Dr. Tom D. Crouch, chairman of the Aeronautics Dept., National Air & Space Museum, was the keynote speaker at the re-dedication of the Portal. It was officially renamed, "The Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum." More than 50 family members of the pioneers buried at the Portal, including Taylor's step-daughter, Izella Katherine Shafer (now deceased) attended the reunion.
Between 1995 and 2001, I hosted public events and tours through the paper display museum. A special exhibit honoring Charles Taylor and another for Bert Kinner highlighted the role of aircraft designers and mechanics. In 2002, the museum I had founded closed, but the grave sites remained available for visitation during cemetery hours.
Through the years it has been most gratifying to illuminate the accomplishments of these men and women in TV documentaries, on web sites, and in public presentations. Ultimately, my greatest contribution may be assisting Howard DuFour, Hon. John Goglia, Richard Dilbeck and eventually, Ken McTiernan in illuminating the life of Charles Taylor and all aviation maintenance technicians culminating in the recent installation of a sculptured bust of Taylor by Virginia Hess at the Udvar-Hazy (NASM.).
The Portal stands with its colorful tile dome gleaming in the California sun and you may visit the grave of Charles Taylor and his fellow pioneers of aviation 365 days a year. There is no admission fee. And as far as I know, there are no ghosts. But the fun-loving spirit of Hilder Smith is apparently in touch with those endowed with the ability to hear her (although, I cannot.) Perhaps you can.
Each time I visit the pioneers, I bring a flower to rest on John Moisant's grave, whispering thanks for bringing me to a place of beauty and American history to share with the rest of the world. I wear a Victorian brooch with Charles Taylor's photograph on my lapel. When I am asked who he is I smile and tell them the story of how I went looking for Johnny's grave and found the man who built the Wright Brother's first engine.
All those at rest beside Charles Taylor's grave followed due to his efforts as the Wright Brother's mechanic. Following the Wrights' first flying exhibitions in Europe a slogan emerged which may best describe the "third Wright Brother:"
"The Wright Brothers made the glider but Charles Taylor made the glider an aeroplane."