Sculpture recognizes father of aircraft maintenance

  • Published
  • By Butch Wehry
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
It's an old story. A pilot swaggers off the tarmac after a record-breaking flight or after scoring his fifth aerial victory and rightfully etches his name into the history books -- immortalized for all time.

Always appreciated by those who slip the surly bonds of earth, the accomplishments and names of those who supported the mission -- the maintainers -- are often forgotten by the masses. The Academy held a ceremony to dedicate a statue to the father of aircraft maintenance, Charles Edward Taylor, March 2.

Mr. Taylor built the first aircraft engine used by the Wright brothers after it became clear that an off-the-shelf engine was not available in the United States for their first engine-driven flyer. The Wrights turned to Charlie Taylor for the job. Tasked by the Wright brothers to construct an engine weighing no more than 180 pounds and capable of producing eight to nine horsepower, Mr. Taylor, in only six weeks, built an engine weighing only 150 pounds and delivering 13 horsepower.

In 1908, he helped Orville build and prepare the "Military Flyer" for demonstration to the U.S. Army at Fort Myer, Va. Unfortunately, the airplane crashed, seriously injuring Orville and killing his passenger, Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge. Taylor was among the first to reach the crash. Selfridge was the first military aircraft fatality.

Mr. Taylor became a leading mechanic in the Wright Company after it was formed in 1909. Although history largely ignored his accomplishments, all three of the early pioneers were close friends. Charlie Taylor died in 1956 at age 87 - the last member of the Wright Brothers' pioneering team.

A family member now at the Academy shed perspective on the early innovator.

"Charlie Taylor was my great, great uncle, my paternal great grandfather's brother," said Col. David Lange, commander of Cadet Group 2. "I believe that makes me a great grand nephew, or so Reuben Taylor tells me, but when I came to the Air Force Academy as a cadet in 1984, Charlie Taylor was little more to me than an abbreviated family tale, passed to us from my father. All I really knew was that I had a great, great uncle who built the engine for the Wright Brother's aircraft."

His first writing assignment at the Academy, for English class, proved to be very fulfilling. Cadets were permitted to write a research paper on a topic of their choosing, and then-Cadet 4th Class Lange saw this as a great opportunity to make use of the Academy's Special Collections to find out more about Charlie Taylor.

"In a chaotic freshman year, Special Collections was unusually quiet and peaceful," he said. "Using primarily a book of letters written by the Wrights along with and an old Collier's magazine, I began to piece together a remarkable life which, unfortunately, not very many people were familiar with or cared to learn about."

Since then, the group commander felt a special bond with his great, great uncle. What struck him more than anything was not only his total commitment to the Wrights' endeavors and to powered flight, but his distant relative's desire to remain out of the spotlight.

"He was so successful in this regard that most people he worked with in later years had no idea of who he was or what he had done," Colonel Lange said. "In fact, history nearly forgot about Charlie Taylor, the work he did on the first few Wright Flier engines and all the mechanical work and tooling he did to support the Wrights.

"Charles Taylor, to me, was always a great example of service before self. He never asked for nor desired any credit for the work he did. He was a true team player. I think his example is a valuable one for all of us," he said.

During the March 2 ceremony, Brig. Gen. Dana Born, dean of the faculty, thanked Virginia Hess for crafting the sculpture on behalf Academy Superintendent Lt Gen. Mike Gould, the senior leadership, faculty, staff and especially the cadets.

"With the graduation of our 2010 seniors fast approaching, half of them will begin their training as pilots, while the other half will be serving our nation in support, some of them as maintenance officers, becoming the modern-day Charlie Taylors," General Born said. "Without the likes of men and women like Mr. Taylor in today's force, the U.S. Air Force would not be the premier Air Force in the world."

The new bust sits next to a statue of the Wright brothers on the sixth floor in the McDermott Library.

"History has a way of sometimes forgetting specific individuals who by themselves might not ... be noticed, but when their contributions are added to those of other individuals, their places in the pages of history are undeniable," said Ken Mactiernan, director of the Aircraft Maintenance Technicians Association. "We're grateful to the Academy for accepting this bust. This is the first place where all three men responsible for powered flight are honored together."