Unknown giants: Charles Taylor Award for those just doing their job

Feb. 1, 2002

Unknown Giants

Charles Taylor Award for those just doing their job
By Don Dodge

Master Mechanic Frank Bedard receives the 2001 Charles Taylor Award.

It was a beautiful crisp February morning at the Charleston International Airport when the van full of inspectors from the Flight Standards Office pulled up to the old hangar. The parking lot was full, and people dressed in their best were filing through the hangar door. This was an awards banquet, the first for 2001 and the inspectors were there to present the Charles Taylor Award to Frank Bedard.

Frank is a mechanic and local legend who worked at the Charleston Airport for almost 50 years. As I entered the hangar, my thoughts went back to when I first began the process of qualifying Frank for the Charles Taylor Award.

When I first told Frank that he had been nominated for the award, Frank responded in a way that was typical of this quiet, unpretentious mechanic. Frank said "I don't understand this, I don't deserve anything, I just did my job."

I asked, how did you get your start in aviation? Frank looked out the window with care-warn eyes. I could see that his mind was crossing over the decades of his life. He smiled, then told me the amazing story of his Uncle Jack.

Major Jack Berry, second from left, received a plaque on his retirement as manager of the Cleveland Airport in 1933 depicting his achievements throughout his aviation career.

Uncle Jack was a burly ruddy-faced Irishman, who wore tweed suits with spats and drove up for Sunday dinner at his parent's house in a big Packard. To his family he was Uncle Jack, but to every one else he was Major Jack Berry. After dinner Uncle Jack would sit at the table smoking his briar pipe and tell of the adventures of his friends Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Wiley Post, and Amelia Earhart. Frank grew up on those stories.

Frank casually mentioned that Uncle Jack supervised laying out the first airway from New York to San Francisco and built the Cleveland Airport. "Uncle Jack gave me my first job, polishing airplanes at the Cleveland Airport." I stared at Frank with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression that betrayed my astonishment. Frank said that if I was interested, he would go up in the attic and find some of his uncle's pictures and share them with me.

The pictures showed Major Berry with aviation giants like Lindbergh, Doolittle, and Amelia Earhart. There were also some newspaper clippings and other memorabilia. Frank said that his Uncle Jack's office walls were covered with pictures and awards like these. Frank said, "It broke my heart when I found out that all that aviation history was thrown out after Uncle Jack passed away."

Seeing the photographs and knowing Frank, I was inspired to research this further. Armed with copies of the photos and newspaper clippings that Frank lent me, I began to research local libraries, the Internet and the FAA aviation library at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center. After much research, I was astonished to find only one small paragraph, just a footnote that mentioned Major Berry. This footnote stated:

"Major Berry was the Cleveland Airport Manager in the early '20s. He was one of the first of his breed of airport managers and under his direction the Cleveland Airport was constructed as a 2,000-foot circular all-way airfield paved with cinders."

Discovering a treasure trove
Major Jack Berry and Bob "Paleface" Hope.

With the aid of the incredibly helpful FAA librarian at the Mike Monroney library I continued the research. The librarian contacted the Cleveland Public Library and they produced 10 newspaper articles from their archives. These newspaper articles spanned from 1928 to 1955. This treasure trove of information also provided insight into Major Berry's personality. What follows is a brief history of an unknown giant.

Major Jack Berry was quick with his fist or a smile. He entered the army at the outbreak of World War I as a private and rose to the rank of Major. During WWI he served with the A.E.F. in France as an engineer laying out airfields for the fledgling U.S. Army Air Forces.

After the Great War, Major Berry served as the chief engineer of Airway Development for the fledgling U.S. Airmail Service. As chief engineer, Major Berry supervised the building of the first transcontinental air lane from New York to San Francisco. This transcontinental air lane was marked with light beacons and emergency landing fields were established along its length.

Aided early airport construction
In 1924 Cleveland was strategically located along the newly established air lane. However, Cleveland's airport was inadequate and plans were made to shift the important airmail route to Akron. Bill Hopkins, the city manager of Cleveland, was faced with his city loosing the airmail terminal business. At that time, Major Berry was the national authority on airport construction and Bill Hopkins persuaded the U.S. Post Master to loan Major Berry to the City of Cleveland to supervise the construction of Cleveland's airport.

Major Berry overcame all obstacles while constructing Cleveland's airport. Having practically no budget, he improvised; borrowing lights from the county courthouse, calling here and there, to get this and that. The airport had no truck, no problem; Major Berry wore out his own car hauling rock.

Trees on property adjacent to the airport posed a threat to arriving and departing aircraft. The owner of the property refused to allow them to be removed and even stood guard around them. But one dark night, 27 sticks of dynamite were tamped in around the roots of these trees. The next morning the trees were lying on their sides as though they were rooted out by a hurricane. Local police claimed that the evil deed was done by a man who learned about high explosives in the World War. No one was arrested, the property owner was furious, but flying was safer.

Airport manager and aviation safety pioneer
After the airport's completion, Major Berry became Cleveland's first airport manager. As airport manager, he helped promote and organize the Cleveland Air Races. Under his direction the Cleveland airport became a magnet, drawing aviation giants from around the world.

Major Berry was lauded as an aviation safety pioneer. He applied ground-breaking aviation technologies to improve safety. The Cleveland airport was the first to have a control tower with radio control of air traffic. In 1931 the Cleveland Control Tower established the first en-route air traffic control, tracking aircraft traveling between Cleveland and other cities.

In 1940, with war looming on the horizon, the Assistant Secretary to the Department of Commerce appointed Major Berry to the committee of 20. These men were nationally known aviation leaders and together they planned the development of airports for national defense.

Major Berry is credited with the establishment of the NACA Engine Test Laboratories at the Cleveland airport in 1940. These same NACA laboratories developed the rocket engines that powered the Mercury and Apollo flights.

Shunning the spotlight
Major Jack Berry is a giant of aviation history. He personally knew and influenced the careers of every major pioneering aviator during the golden years of aviation. But amazingly, this great man's name is conspicuously absent from the history books. After careful study, I came to understand why.

Major Berry was a leader, a businessman who was congenial but quiet and modest. He did not like the spotlight. He was a man of action and had no use for fanfare. Major Berry preferred to be the man behind the curtain.

Major Berry's modesty and aversion to the spotlight were best demonstrated when he stunned the Cleveland City counsel and everyone else at City Hall by refusing to allow the city to rename the Cleveland Airport, Berry Field. Nothing like that had ever happened in the memory of the oldsters around the City Hall. When questioned by reporters, Major Berry said, "after all I just did my job."

A legacy of service to aviation
The echo of Major Berry's words "I just did my job" rang through the decades to that special day in February when they were repeated by Major Berry's nephew Frank Bedard. Frank repeated these very same words when presented with the Charles Taylor Award for 50 years of dedicated service as a mechanic.

Men like Frank Bedard and his Uncle Major Berry had no idea how great their contribution to aviation safety was. These men worked so hard, often 12 to 15 hours a day and gave so much of themselves to aviation, that they never had the time to look back and see all the people they helped. They couldn't conceive the impact their presence had on the profession that they loved. They were just too busy doing their job to realize how gigantic their contribution to aviation safety was!

In Frank Bedard's family there is an unbroken legacy of aviation safety spanning more than 85 years. Frank Bedard and his Uncle Jack weren't swashbuckling daredevil pilots. They didn't fly across the Atlantic, win air races, or set new records. Their life's work just made those accomplishments possible. People like Frank Bedard and Major Berry are rare and stand out in our society. Yet amazingly, the aviation industry seems to produce people like them in abundance. For the love of aviation, they quietly, and with little or no fanfare go about doing their jobs.

There are thousands of these unknown giants in aviation. To find them you only need to look to your local airport. They are the ones who planned and built the runway, fixed your airplane, gave you your weather briefing, and made it possible for you to fly. Studying the life's work of Frank Bedard and Major Berry has taught me that we stand on the shoulders of unknown giants! AMT

Don Dodge is Airworthiness Safety Program Manager, South Carolina FSDO.

Major Jack Berry with Amelia Earhart and her husband, George Putnam, on the left, and with Charles Lindbergh on the right.