Day recognizing the Professionalism of thousands of AMTs
Charles E. Taylor is the Face of AMT Day
It’s May 24, which has been designated as National Aviation Maintenance Technician Day. This annual event is meant to highlight the many men and women whose professionalism assures that our aircraft fly safely.
The face of this day, certainly in historic terms, is Charles E. Taylor (see above collage). Obscure to the general public but an icon within aviation, Taylor’s role as the Wright Brothers’ mechanic is the source of much of his recognition.
Charlie started as a bicycle mechanic in their Dayton Shop
Here are a few pictures of Charlie with the planes for which he was the mechanic.
- Taylor as an inventor
The 1965 Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinement of Taylor lists his category as “inventor” and lists his primary contribution as building of the 1903 engine. Here is an excellent description from the FAA History by Bob Taylor:
“Falling back on their own mechanical experience, the Wright brothers decided to design and build their own engine. They estimated they could build a four cylinders engine with four-inch stroke and four-inch bore, weighing no more than 200 pounds with accessories included. By their calculation, it would develop the horsepower necessary to power the glider in flight.
Now the problem was who was going to build the engine, but it was easily solved. The brothers decided that they would give the task to Charlie and they would build the airframe. Charlie was excited about this new challenge. From his knowledge of mechanics and design he knew that the engine design was basic, straight forward, simple, and capable of being successful.
Charlie had very limited knowledge about gasoline engines, but he used his craftsmanship, genius, enthusiasm, and efficiency to tackle the task. Charlie started building the engine in the winter of 1902-03. Without any formal drawings available, it was necessary for each part to be crudely sketched out by the Wrights or Charlie on a piece of paper. After a thorough discussion about it, Taylor would pin the drawing above his workbench and go to work to complete it. Using these sketches and specifications, he finished the engine in six weeks–an amazing accomplishment.
I want to describe in some detail of how Charles Taylor made the engine, so you can appreciate the craftsman he was. The first problem that Charlie and the Wrights faced was the crankcase. The case had to be light and strong. Aluminum was still a rare metal in those days and it was difficult to get a good sound casting. John Hoban, foreman of Buckeye Iron and Brass Foundry in Dayton, took on the job of making the crankcase using the strongest aluminum he had.
The cylinders were turned from fine-grain gray cast iron and had a bore of four inches. The top and bottom of the cylinders were threaded so they could be threaded into the crankcase and a water jacket could be threaded on them. The next major task for Charlie was making the crankshaft.
Being a mechanic most of my life, I would never even attempt taking on a project of making a crankshaft with the equipment that Charles Taylor had– a drill press, a lathe (both run by a natural gas engine), and hand tools. Charlie secured a plate of high carbon tool steel that measured 1-5/8 inches thick, six inches wide, and 31 inches long. On the plate he traced an outline of the crankshaft and carefully, painstakingly drilled hundreds of holes along the outline of the crankshaft.
This weakened the plate enough, so he could knock the excess material away with a hammer and metal chisel. Once this was done, he had the rough-cut crankshaft ready for the lathe and the finish cut. With the small natural gas engine chugging away at full power driving the large wide leather belts that turned the lathe, Charlie turned out a near perfect crankshaft to the thousandth of an inch.
The next part that Charlie worked on was a fly wheel from a solid block of cast iron. The connecting rods, intake valves, exhaust valves, pistons, valve guides, rocker arm, and numerous other parts that made up the complete engine were carefully thought out by Charlie and tailored to fit the operation of the engine.
Charlie painstakingly assembled the engine part by part, fitting and refitting each piece with the meticulous care of a jeweler making a watch. He scrutinized every detail. He assembled and disassembled the parts, time and time again, making sure of their operation until all the parts were working in harmony. It took a lot of genius and ingenuity and the engine was finally complete and assembled in February 1903. It was mounted on a test stand and ran well, producing eight horsepower at 670 rpm and 11 hp. at 1000 rpm.
Charles E. Taylor had successfully built the first aircraft engine. As a result of the engine producing 12 horsepower at full rpm, the Wright brothers were able to add another 150 pounds to the aircraft which allowed them to strengthen the wings and framework. The engine with its dull propeller drive drove two counter rotating pusher propellers by means of chains. “
Charley’s talents as a mechanic/inventor helped the Brothers correct what was considered one of the aviation absolutes of the times. Otto Lilienthal had performed some very carefully constructed experiments to calculate lift. He published his work and included a series of charts which showed the correlations. The early test flights at Kitty Hawk did not meet the German’s tables. On their return to Ohio, the young men began to question Lilienthal’s postulate.
The test pilots drew up their concept for an instrument to measure the correlation between various wing curvatures and lift. The resulting “box”, built by Charley, would be called a wind tunnel today. This created a more controlled experiment and the data was used for the 1902 and 1903 successful wings.
2. Taylor as a mobile mechanic and logistician
Cal Rodgers, whose cousin was a Navy pilot, followed his relative’s lead and also enrolled for training with Orville Wright. After completing received 90 minutes of flying lessons, he took his official flying examination at Huffman Prairie and became the 49th aviator licensed to fly by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Rodgers decided to enter the popular air races; so, he purchased a Wright Flyer He was one of the first civilians to purchase an airplane. Soon thereafter, he competed successfully at a Chicago meet winning over $11,000.
Soon thereafter, Rodgers heard of a exciting competition.
In 1911 William Randolph Hearst employed a tactic common to newspaper publishers during the early 20th Century; he sponsored a contest to the first pilot who could fly across the entire country in 30 days or less. The prize –$50,000, a magnificent sum for the times.
Rodgers approached J. Ogden Armour, of Armour and Company, to sponsor the flight. In return for naming his plane, a Wright Model EX after Amour’s grape soft drink Vin Fiz, the company supported his competition.
Rodgers also bought from the Wrights enough parts to build two more aircraft. Orville recommended to the pilot that EZ would require repairs and probably would need heavy maintenance every 1,000 miles. Thus, Charlie was hired at $70 a week, an attractive salary. The mechanic/logistician then outfitted a “hangar” car. A three-car train– sleeper, diner, and shop-on-wheels filled with spare parts to repair and maintain the airplane, followed along the tracks. Rodgers planned to use the rail line for navigation.
The journey’s elapsed time was 49 days coast-to-coast. The real time in air was three days, ten hours. Cal flew 4,321 miles in 82 hours, 4 minutes, total flying time at an average speed of 82.4 kph (51.5 mph).
The Vin Fiz crashed 16 times; so, Rodgers had to make such extensive repairs that upon reaching the destination end only the vertical rudder, the engine drip pan, and a single strut of the original plane remained. The skill and knowledge required of Charley through these crashes in which major reconstructions were required and the many, many jury-rigged repairs which were critical to make the next flight. Factor in that for some of, maybe even all of, the tour was operated under tremendous time pressure. Taylor was conscious that if he made a mistake, the pilot’s life was at risk.
The flight did not qualify for the prize, but the Vin Fiz eventually ran its wheels in the waters of the Pacific.
3. Taylor as an inspiration for aviation award
Charley’s name may be the only historic aviation figure mentioned in FSIMS– FAA/FS-I-8700-3 (Rev.1) CHARLES TAYLOR MASTER MECHANIC AWARD Information Guide
The Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award is an honor presented by the United States Federal Aviation Administration in honor of Charles Taylor, the first aviation mechanic in powered flight. The award recognizes the lifetime accomplishments of senior aviation mechanics. Taylor served as the Wright brothers' mechanic and is credited with designing and building the engine for their first successful aircraft. To be eligible for the award, a person must: ♦ Have 50 years in aviation maintenance as an accredited mechanic or repairman ♦ Be an FAA-certificated mechanic or repairman for a minimum of 30 years
There are likely many other recognitions of this true aviation pioneer. Southwest honored Charley Taylor with this face painted on one of its B-737s:
4. Taylor as a forgotten hero
There are several gaps in Charlie Taylor’s history during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It is known that he suffered a severe depression brought on by the permanent hospitalization of his wife in a mental hospital. In 1928, Taylor moved back to California and lived quietly. It is known that he sought work but, ironically, had a difficult time finding work in aviation due to his age. Taylor enjoyed a brief respite when he was hired by Henry Ford to build a model of the first airplane engine for Ford’s museum at Greenfield Village in Michigan. The time seems to have been a high point for Taylor.
After that, Charlie Taylor slipped into relative obscurity until the death of his friend, Orville Wright, in 1948. Wright left Taylor an annuity of $800 a year. A fair sum of money at the time, it soon proved inadequate in helping Taylor meet his needs. As Taylor’s life drew to a close, he was cared for by family friends. When the health of his main caregiver, Mrs. Shafer, failed, Taylor became a charity case at the County Hospital in Los Angeles, California. When it became known that this significant figure in aviation was unable to support himself, those who made their livelihoods in the aviation industry came together and created a fund for Taylor’s support. He was soon moved to a private sanitarium where he died in January 1956.
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