Aviation Today, Yesterday & Tomorrow

May 1, 2003

100 years of aviation

By Emily Refermat

You, the men and women who repair or alter aircraft in aviation go by many names, A&Ps, AMTs, aircraft mechanics, etc. And the problems you face today run deeper than the slow economy and fluctuating aircraft industry, instead stemming from a precedence of under appreciation starting from the first aircraft mechanic almost 100 years ago.

It seems that for AMTs, the environment in hangars today is one of pressure. Pressure to complete repairs and sign off alterations without having the right tools (including training), making tasks harder and even dangerous. Managers and other higher-ups push output, turnover, and the bottom line. Mechanics take more and more liability risks with every logbook entry. No inter-company job mobility means wages are inconsistent and you must start at the bottom of the wage ladder when moving to a different company. All this stems from a lack of general respect for the men and women who keep the world flying. It's been a melancholy journey from the start since many of these problems existed from the day the first aircraft mechanic, called a mechanician in those days, made the first airplane engine.

The first
You undoubtedly know Charles Taylor as the "invisible man" behind the Wright Brother's success. As a reliable and hardworking man, he was given the task of building an engine from the tools at the Wright Brothers' bicycle repair shop. The engine requirements were simple; it needed to produce 8 horsepower and weigh less than 180 pounds. With only rough sketches, but an ingenious mind, Taylor took up the task.

He made a crankshaft out of a slab of high-carbon steel by drawing an outline and drilling holes with a drill press until he could knock it out with hammer and chisel, hardly how it would be done today. He knew he needed to have horizontal cylinders in order to work on the engine with the shop's lathe, so he sent the crankcase out to be cast with that specification. Once he got it back, he bored out cylinder wells with his 14-inch lathe adapted with riser blocks. The cast pistons needed grooves for oil-scrape rings, so he made them. He drilled alignment holes and thread holes in the cylinders and the most precise machining went into where the cylinder barrels fit into the wells. All this without electricity, only a gas-powered four-stroke-cycle ignition engine. He measured with a scribe, a metal ruler, and possibly a micrometer, but nothing else was available. And his bottom line was not production or costs, but that the aircraft engine simply had to work.

Taylor was left to run the bicycle shop when his engine provided the means for the first powered flight and he continued to machine parts, make repairs, and was an aircraft hangar manager for the Wright Brothers until his adventures took him elsewhere. Taylor was a modest man who didn't claim the limelight. His actions show him as most happy when working and he would talk about his friends' achievements more than his own. Times got tough for Taylor in later years, as he changed jobs his pay fluctuated and the depression didn't help. Hardships (as well as a few kindred spirits) surrounded him until his death on Jan. 30, 1956.

The future
Did Charles Taylor set a precedent for the aircraft mechanic to be a quiet background collaborator with occasional references and news briefs, but unknown and unappreciated by the general public? Well, if he did, it's time for a change. As you begin to demand the appreciation you deserve, the world will listen. The management's bottom line will probably continue to be cost and production, but training, safety, human factors, job conditions, etc. are all coming into the arena. These topics demand attention from the world and the smaller the world becomes, the more important they become. Communication will be the first step to appreciation, which is what it will take for an A&P to gain a work environment to be proud of. In preparation for that day, let's remember to support each other.

AMT Day is fast becoming a reality. Already resolutions have been passed in eight states declaring May 24 (Charles Taylor's birthday) Aircraft Maintenance Technician Day. This effort reflects the rising awareness of the behind-the-scenes, unsung heroes and heroines working in aviation hangars everywhere. Choosing Charles Taylor's birthday is a tribute to the man who started it all. To monitor the status of this legislation around the country, visit AMTonline.com and click the U.S. map. If the state you live in isn't yellow or green, what are you waiting for? Call Richard Dilbeck, Airworthiness Safety Program Manager for the FAA Sacramento FSDO. He was instrumental in getting an AMT Day resolution passed in California and he can answer questions on how you can get a similar resolution passed in your state. His number is (916) 422-0272 Ext. 229.

If you think times aren't changing, take a look at a newly started organization called Aircraft Maintenance Technicians Association (AMTA). Started by Ken MacTiernan, an aircraft technician who believes in dusting off the reputation of the aircraft mechanic, the AMTA's slogan is "remember the past - think of the future." He has plans for the AMTA to dedicate plaques and memorials to the history and contributions made to aviation by mechanics. The AMTA plans to institute the "Faces Behind Safety" Program that will bring recognition to aircraft mechanics by displaying their picture next to a Charles Taylor plaque in the airport in which they work. Passengers on the airline will see and read about today's AMTs, getting the previously "invisible" names and faces out in the limelight. Further promotion, legal information, and other services for the aircraft mechanic are in AMTA's future. To lend your hand or to learn more about AMTA visit www.amtausa.com.

Charles Taylor award
Nominees for the Charles Taylor "Master Mechanic" awards are still numerous. There are still men and women staying in aviation for a lifetime. The award, named in honor of Charles Taylor, recognizes certified mechanics and repairmen who have worked in aviation maintenance for at least 50 years, working 30 years as a FAA-certified mechanic and the other 20 in the military, as an FAA-certified mechanic, or related industry job. The award consists of a certificate signed by the FAA Administrator, a stick pin for the recipient's spouse recognizing the supportive role he or she plays, and a "Role of Honor" leather book with the recipient's name, city, state, and certificate number that will be kept in the FAA's Washington, D.C. building. At least once a year, the Flight Standards Airworthiness Safety Program Manager and members of the Airworthiness Units of the FSDO's form a three- or five-person committee to review the applications and award all qualified AMTs. To apply or nominate someone, send a notarized letter to the local FSDO containing the kinds of certificates held and the original issue dates, resume of past employment, and three letters of recommendation from certified mechanics or repairmen.

Another organization, the Aviation Maintenance Career Commission (AMCC) founded in 1999, is not only highlighting the achievements of past and current A&Ps, but is targeting young people and trying to revive the romance and excitement for these future mechanics. As part of their twofold mission to raise awareness of AMTs and encourage future generations into aviation, the AMCC is helping to sponsor the Charles E. Taylor Memorial. This brick monument will break ground on May 24, 2003. In the center will be a 20-foot-high wall with a relief of Charles E. Taylor. Two smaller walls, "wings," will jet out at a 45-degree angle on each side of the main wall. The names of Charles Taylor Award recipients will be engraved on these two wings. And the sponsorship bricks will be laid out on the ground before the main wall. A model of the memorial can be found on the AMCC's homepage (www.amccommission.com).

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) is raising the awareness of aviation maintenance professionals by holding its Maintenance Management Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina where AMTs will be specially recognized at the Winston NASCAR All-Star Race. More information is available at www.nbaa.org/seminars/mmc/mmc_2003.htm.

The Professional Aviation Maintenance Association, which has been dedicated to improving the environment of today's technicians for the technicians of tomorrow, has upcoming events to boost exposure and training opportunities. Its annual maintenance symposium at the AS3 trade show (May 13-15 in Las Vegas) will stress continuing education, technology development and learning, and effective communication. While at the trade show you can watch or compete in this year's Aviation Maintenance Olympics. Visit www.pama.org for more events.

These pro-mechanic organizations and events are taking off despite the turbulence in aviation. Perhaps the 100th anniversary of powered flight could not have come at a better time. Peoples' raised voices in celebration remind us that there are still people who work in aviation because they love it. Something we should remember as we enter the next 100 years. What do you see in the future?

Additional ReSource
"The Invisible Man: Charles E. Taylor: Behind the scenes of powered flight" by Michelle Garetson AMT May/June 2001.
Charles E. Taylor: The Wright Brothers Mechanician by H.R. DuFour with Peter J. Unitt

About the Author

Emily Refermat