Living Legend – Don Taylor
Don Taylor, beyond the typical pilot stereotype
By Juliana Ap. Torchetti Coppick
Yvonne and Don Taylor at their home in Emmett, Idaho.
His passion for flying is very obvious, but he is also very methodical and can always easily explain the airplane’s reaction. I know that because when I converted my Brazilian pilot’s license in USA, he was the flight instructor who gave me the biannual flight review endorsement. But more than that, he gave me lots of great advice. And for sure, I learned from him things that I’ll never forget. Like, “The one thing that is constant in aviation is gravity!” Now, I have the pleasure to tell you a little bit about his aviation career and history.
Don Taylor was born December 2, 1933 in California and lived in a farming area. At the age of eight years old he was driving a bulldozer and at twelve he started to learn flying from his dad.
Don’s father was a pilot too and he flew until he was 85 years old. After WWII, the U.S. government sold surplus airplanes and his dad bought a BT13 for $800 dollars.
At 13 years old, Don was like his dad’s auto pilot, holding the altitude and tracking low frequency radio beacons, which was very hard to do. In 1946, VOR was the super new technology and it took him awhile to figure out how to use the system.
He volunteered for the Korean War in 1950 and was sent to Northern Italy and Austria. That war lasted for three years and he was discharged from army in 1956. He went on to earn his Commercial Pilot’s License through the GI bill. At that time, Don and his dad kept an airplane at the airport, so he would fly and watch the spray planes.
When Don was 32 years old and and farming with his dad, who was hard to work for, he left home when a local crop duster offered him a job. The same guy helped him earn his CFI rating and he started working as flight instructor. By the way, he’s still instructing to this day and I can tell from my experience that he is a great flight instructor! There’s more; he has an A&P license with Inspection Authority (IA).
In 1965, Don started working as a spray pilot flying a Stearman that today is still his favorite airplane, even with lots of hours in all types of different aircraft. Among
the many things he learned with the Stearman one is, “Listen to the airplane.”
Don made a modification to the Stearman that made it an even better ag-aircraft. He moved the top wing forward so the angle of incidence decreased and made the stall speed lower and more predictable.
Don remembered a story from that time when he and Jack, the other spray pilot, were spraying a nut tree farm that had a power line running diagonally through it. Jack liked going where nobody went before and Don was following him. They were spraying close to a river bottom.
Jack made a pass underneath the wire and Don made the same decision, but then he realized there was a tree in his way. He was already committed to his decision, but that tree was quite a bad surprise for him. The right wing hit the tree. He looked to his side and saw pieces of the tree on his wing. The aileron was shaking. But, once he stabilized the plane, he finished the load.
Later he patched the damaged wing and found 13 holes on the top of the lower right wing of the Stearman. One of the holes was coming from the leading edge and passing through the aileron. Since he was in a hurry and rushed, his repair wasn’t that good. He found that he’s a better pilot than a seamstress!
So, our legendary pilot went back to work. When he took off, the patch puffed up. He was ‘a little bit’ concerned the aileron could break off. He had taken off before the glue had time to dry. The aircraft was still flying, so he took another load. Since the aileron didn’t break, he took another load and guess what? After a couple of loads, the aileron was improving. The wind was finishing the drying job and putting the fabric in its place.
For many years, Don experienced several adventures flying the Stearman. In 1976, he flew the Ag-Cat for the next two years. Don really likes round engines. In all his years of flying them, they only gave him one engine problem, when a Number 1 cylinder head blew off. This produced a big flame in front of him and the engine quit. But, that was the only time he has a major problem with a round engine.
In 1978 he flew his first turbo Thrush spraying in California. He found the engine to be great, but the attitude of the new airplane was a challenge for him. So, he decided to attend a school to learn more about these new turbine engines.
One time, Don went to the Thrush factory to pick up a new turbo Thrush. He was flying over Texas at 500 feet when he saw a shadow and then, two F-102 fighters were flying just beside him. At the time, George Bush Jr was flying that type of airplane in Texas, so maybe it was him, waving to our legend.
Later, Don was flying from the Grand Canyon Airport ferrying an ag-plane to California. He had filled up the wings’ fuel tanks and hopper with fuel. Before landing, he had been going along Highway 395 and as usual that time of the year, it was snowing. Don knew California was open and clear. So, when a Baron took off climbed through a hole, he followed him. When he climbed through the hole there was just mountains with no place to land. Somehow he made it over them. But, he learned a valuable lesson and would never do it again.
Don and his buddies had an interesting way to find a good airstrip, simply sending a driver out in a pick up truck. If the driver could drive 0.2 of a mile and not fall off the seat, that airstrip was good enough to use for landing and taking off!
During those years in California, Don used to make 120 loads per day spreading solid fertilizer; one load every six minutes. He logged 36,000 hours and 150,000 loads! As an old fashioned pilot, he feels more comfortable with the old style of flying. He never used a DGPS, only human flaggers and paper flags.
Don married Charlene, who gave him two sons, Kelly and Chris and a daughter, Julie. Don and Charlene stayed together for 61 years, when they had to say goodbye and she went to live with God.
The kids are doing very well! Kelly Taylor (57 years old) is a great mechanic. Chris Taylor (58) followed in his dad’s steps as a spray pilot and has a spraying business in California. Julie Taylor Bartsch (55) is a musician teacher in Sparks, Nevada.
Don ended his spraying career in 2007 at the age of 75. He promised Charlene he would quit spraying at 70, but his passion for flying made him stay on for more five years when he finally felt ready to stop.
Don married again and I had the opportunity to meet his adorable new wife, Yvonne. She is very affectionate and proud of him. She told me he has taught lots of people to fly and that he’s well respected and has apprentices all over the country, including Alaska. Don and Yvonne must be doing really fine. When I saw them together, they were both in very good shape physically and had lots of energy and a great sense of humor.
Don was also awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in June 2008; which is the most prestigious award presented by the FAA to pilots who have exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft.
There’s a question that I always ask of these legends and that’s when I get out my ‘gold coin’, like something that I always keep on my mind. I feel blissful sharing these treasures. So, here we go!
What’s the most important skill for a spray pilot? According to Don Taylor, “Learning to talk with the airplane. Airplanes talk to the pilots. So, it’s about listening to comprehend what the airplane says.”
I feel fortunate to have spent time with another living ag-pilot legend and have him sharing his stories and advice. These pilots make me feel like I am on a journey when they take me back in aviation time.
A special thanks goes to my husband, Joe, who introduced me to these amazing people and also helped me a lot with the English language!