Charles E. Taylor: Who is he and why should we honor him?

May 9, 2006
Charles E. Taylor, born May 24, 1868 on a farm in Illinois, was involved in many historical events related to the growth of aviation.

Charles E. Taylor, born May 24, 1868 on a farm in Illinois, was involved in many historical events related to the growth of aviation. He was involved in the first powered flight, was the first airport manager, helped build the first military plane, was involved in the first transcontinental flight, was inducted into the USAF Museum Aviation Hall of Fame as the first airplane mechanic, and the FAA named a lifetime maintenance award after him.

He didn’t seek the limelight and his contributions came to light after the deaths of Wilbur and Orville Wright. As the lone survivor of the team that created the first flyer, at the 40th, 45th, and 50th anniversaries of the first powered flight he was interviewed by the media and credited for his contributions.

The Wright Connection

After getting married and having a son the family moved to Dayton, OH, where he worked for the Stoddard Manufacturing Co. making farm machinery and bicycles. As fate would have it, the Wright Brothers moved their business to a building owned by Taylor’s wife’s uncle. In 1901 Taylor started working at Wright Cycle Co. repairing bikes and minding the store. With the Wright Brothers working on a flying machine, they needed an engine and Taylor said he could do it. And he did.

With the machinery that was in the bike shop he succeeded in creating an engine that met specifications and performed in a period of six weeks. The shop contained a 26-inch Crescent band saw, 20-inch Barnes drill press, 14-inch Putnam lathe, 6-inch double end bench grinder, stationary natural gas combustion engine, and a wind tunnel. And on Dec. 17, 1903 history was made with the first powered flight.

Taylor worked with the Wright Brothers on many projects, upgrading engines and fixing the planes after flight testing. With the need to be closer to Dayton for making improvements to their aircraft and the subsequent testing, the Wright Brothers had access to 100 acres of prairie a few miles away. Named Huffman Prairie, Taylor had the new task of airport manager and building a shed (hangar) to assemble and maintain the Flyer II (1904). After the Wrights had a contract with the Army, Taylor helped to develop the engine for the first military plane in 1907.

First Transcontinental Flight

In 1911 Taylor joined Calbraith Perry (Cal) Rodgers for the first transcontinental flight from New York to California. A $50,000 prize from publisher William Randolph Hearst to the first pilot to fly across the United States within 30 days was the incentive. Rodgers had taken flight instruction from Orville and hired Taylor as his chief mechanic for the flight. Rodgers took off Sept. 17 from Sheepshead Bay, NY, following railroad tracks since it didn’t have the avionics equipment of today. He landed about 70 times and crashed at least 16 times, reaching Pasadena, CA, on Nov. 5, 1911, not soon enough to win the prize but setting a record nonetheless.

Vin Fiz, a new grape soft drink from J. Ogden Armour, was the designated sponsor of the trip. With the name Vin Fiz printed on the rudder and underside of the plane, Armour paid him $5 for every mile flown east of the Mississippi and $4 for every mile west of the river, a total of $23,000. Armour also provided a special train with the Vin Fiz logo with cars to accommodate Rodgers’ family, support crew, and a workshop with spare parts.

The biplane manufactured by the Wright Brothers was constructed of a lightweight spruce airframe covered with canvas and linen, powered by a 35-hp engine, and could fly at 45 to 60 miles per hour. The entire trip, approximately 4,000 miles, took 84 days, but only about 82 hours were in the air. Damage to the aircraft was so extensive that Taylor had to rebuild the plane several times. Only the vertical rudder, a couple wing struts, and the original oil pan made it all the way. The Vin Fiz is now in the Smithsonian.

Preserving History

Taylor returned to Dayton in 1912 after the death of Wilbur and worked at the Wright Company testing motors and other mechanical engineering. Even though he later moved to California, Taylor received moral support and financial support from Orville until his death.

In the ’30s he assisted in reconstructing the Wright Bicycle Shop at the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI, under the direction of Henry Ford who wanted to preserve the historical artifacts. Taylor traveled to Ohio and Pennsylvania tracking down the machinery he used in the bicycle shop. The lathe was found in Miamisburg, OH; the drill press in Dayton; and the band saw at a college in Pennsylvania. The machines had been kept in the shop until 1910 when the Wright-Martin Company sold the machinery to the Patterson Tool and Supply Company, which then sold the items to others. There was a good paper trail for Taylor to locate and identify the machines as being authentic. Orville Wright provided drawings and details of the wind tunnel for the exhibit.

The dedication of the Wright shop and homestead was held April 16, 1938, on what would have been Wilbur’s 75th birthday. Photos were taken of Taylor with Orville Wright and Henry Ford in honor of the event.

In 1940 and 1941 Taylor continued to preserve the past by building a half scale working model of the first aircraft engine using the original shop machinery and his own original tools.

FAA Recognition

Named in honor of Charles Taylor, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Charles Taylor “Master Mechanic” Award recognizes the lifetime accomplishments of senior mechanics.

The Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) airworthiness safety program manager, an airworthiness supervisor, and an airworthiness safety inspector make up a selection committee that reviews the application letters and selects qualified individuals. To be eligible for the award, you must have 50 years in aviation maintenance as an accredited mechanic or repairman and be an FAA-certificated mechanic or repairman for a minimum of 30 years.

The awards recipients receive a lapel pin and a certificate signed by the Administrator. The recipient’s spouse receives a smaller version of the lapel pin for his or her contribution. And the winner’s name is added to the "Role of Honor" book kept at the Washington, D.C., Federal Aviation Building.

Industry Recognition

There has been a development to raise the level of recognition of Taylor’s achievements over the last several years. AMT Day, May 24, was established to recognize Taylor and other aircraft mechanics. First, it was on a state-by-state basis, now the push is for a national holiday to be created by congress. The Professional Aviation Maintenance Association has taken the lead in the push for a national AMT Day resolution. It has created a flier to encourage support for the effort. And Richard Dilbeck, the man behind the push, is expanding the boundaries so there will be international recognition as well.

Schools, companies, associations, and others plan special festivities on May 24 each year to honor Taylor’s memory and increase the awareness of what mechanics contribute to the industry. Last year Embry-Riddle University renamed its Daytona Beach, FL, aircraft maintenance training school the Charles Taylor Department of Aviation Maintenance Science (AMS). The dedication ceremony included the unveiling of a bronze bust of Taylor and the speakers included Charles Taylor II, the great grandson of Taylor, and Howard DuFour, author of the book Charles E. Taylor: The Wright Brothers Mechanician.

So the next time someone asks who Taylor is, you can have an answer and another convert to recognizing the achievements of Charles Taylor and the aircraft mechanics of today.