Walter R. Taliaferro

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Walter R. Taliaferro (1880–1915)

Walter R. Taliaferro (September 9, 1880 – October 11, 1915) was a pioneer aviator in the U.S. Army who died in a flying accident. After his first and last "loop the loop" in a Curtiss tractor biplane, the plane suddenly dove into San Diego Bay, killing him instantly.


He was born on September 9, 1880 in Campbell County, Kentucky.

Taliaferro served as an enlisted man in the artillery for seven years before being commissioned as an officer in the 21st infantry in 1908. He did surveying work in the Philippine Islands and in 1913 was detailed to the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps, for pilot training.

Taliaferro was married to Leicester Sehon. He died on October 11, 1915, in San Diego. He was buried in San Diego at the Mount Hope Cemetery.

Camp Taliaferro in Texas was named in his honor, as was Camp Taliaferro in San Diego.


Taliaferro made an aviation distance record, flying 220 miles in about 3.5 hours. With Lieutenant Joseph E. Carberry, he set a new American altitude record for a plane carrying two persons of about 7,000 feet, although it was only a month until Carberry and another reached 11,690 feet. Taliaferro also achieved a flight endurance record in September 1915 of 9 hours and 45 minutes, before he ran out of fuel.


The San Diego Union on October 12, 1915, wrote:

Cause of Taliaferro's Death Plunge Mystery to Airmen. Tragic Fall Into Bay Follows Loop in Sky by Daring Birdman. Lieutenant Walter R. Taliaferro, junior military aviator and holder of the American record for sustained flight for pilot alone, was killed at 11:15 o'clock yesterday morning when he fell from a height of 200 feet in military biplane No. 30. He fell into the bay in forty feet of water at a point about three-quarters of a mile due west of the municipal pier and only a few hundred feet from where Lieutenant Henry Post was killed when he plunged from a height of 100 feet in his wrecked biplane February 9, 1914. Although the military tractor in which Lieutenant Taliaferro met his untimely death remained on the surface of the bay, a crumpled mass of wreckage, for fully three minutes after it struck, both pilot and machine found a resting place on the bay bottom several minutes before a rescue boat arrived on the spot and up to an early hour this morning, neither the dead army aviator nor the biplane had been brought to the surface. The fatal aeroplane accident, the first that has occurred to United States army aviators stationed at the military aerodrome at North Island in twenty months, came as the climax to a series of looping the loop performed by Lieut. Douglas P. Netherwood, Walter G. Kliner and Walter Taliaferro. Only a few minutes previous to the fatal accident Lieutenant Netherwood and Kiner, each piloting No. 30, looped the loop. Lieutenant Taliaferro ascended at 11 o'clock and after circling for fifteen minutes attempted the first and last loop he ever made. He succeeded in his achievement and was in the act of making a long sweeping volplane to the hangars when the big military tractor was seen to plunge like a plummet towards the bay. The sound of the impact of the machine with the water could be plainly heard from a quarter of a mile. The wings were seen to crumple and then the machine slowly sank beneath the waters of the bay, the tail being the last to disappear. That Lieutenant Taliaferro either was instantly killed by the shock of impact or else rendered unconscious by his rapid fall, is the belief of Army aviators. They based their opinion on the fact that the aviator made no attempt to unbuckle the strap which held him in securely to his seat in the enclosed body of the tractor, and to scramble to temporary safety on top of the upper wing. The machine struck while the engine was still running, a section of the propeller, which struck the water at the same instant as the left end of the upper wing, being sheared off. It is believed that the engine became unseated at the moment of impact and that Lieutenant Taliaferro was crushed between the heavy motor and the back of the enclosed body. The exact cause of death, however, will not be known until the body is recovered. A fleet of steam launches from the cruiser San Diego soon were on the scene of the accident, followed by the signal corps patrol launch Pronto, which, owing to someone's failure to fill the fuel tanks, was unable to leave the North Island dock until too late to render assistance to the stricken aviator. Dragging operation began at 11:30 o'clock and continued without interruption all day and night. First Class Gunner's Mate J. Seagraves, R. Jackson, F.E. Williams and I.F. Krantz each took turns during the afternoon in attempting to locate the wrecked aeroplane by walking along the bay bottom while equipped in diving suits. Just before sunset, Gunner's Mate Krantz came to the surface with a piece of the aeroplane's wing and propeller and at one time grappling hooks obtained an insecure hold. The swift tide, however, dashed all hopes by swinging the aeroplane down the channel before the officers could be sent down to attach a line. Aided only by the light of the stars a squad of twenty-five blue-jackets form the cruiser San Diego, under the command of Lieut. S. H. Lawton, continued drag operations throughout the night. One of the first persons to reach the scene of the accident was Barry Kelly, member of the San Diego Rowing Club, who was rowing on the bay in a shell. Barry picked up a part of the propeller blade, which he found floating in the water over the spot where the tractor went down. Later in the day he turned it over to Capt. Arthur Cowan, head of the signal corps aviation school. The piece evidently was the one that was sheared off when the biplane first struck the water. E.R. Watson, a member of the board of education and his nephew Miles Strafton, were eyewitnesses of the fatal accident. "We had been following the movements of the aeroplane for several minutes", said Watson. "It seemed to be flying along nicely until it suddenly pitched forward and plunged toward the bay, striking near beacon No. 10. When the aeroplane struck, a sharp sound like the firing of a gun occurred. If Lieutenant Taliaferro was not killed by the fall, I believe he might have been saved, if a fast motor boat had started from the station camp as soon as the machine hit the water." Officer Harold Reams of the San Diego police department was aboard the cruiser San Diego and saw Lieutenant Taliaferro fall. He bore out the statements of other witnesses that a speedy motorboat probably would have saved Lieutenant Taliaferro or at any rate prevented him from going into a watery grave. "I can give no explanation of the accident until the machine is recovered", said Captain Cowan, head of the signal corps aviation school. "Lieutenant Taliaferro was one of the most skilled aviators in the army while No. 30 was one of the best aeroplanes we had on the school." Lieutenant Taliaferro was born in Kentucky on September 9, 1880. He served as a private, corporal and a sergeant in the one Hundred Tenth coast artillery from September 12, 1901, to September 8, 1908, reaching the grade of Second Lieutenant in the Twenty-first infantry August 2, 1908. He had been attached to the aeronautical branch of the army since the birth of aviation, as aviator and instructor. He had been in the air 195 hours since he attained the rank of junior military aviator, and had the distinction of making more flights than any two aviators in the United States army. Lieutenant Taliaferro's most notable achievement in the world of aviation was made September 17, 1914 when he broke the American sustained flight record for pilot alone by remaining aloft 9 hours and 11 minutes. He would have remained aloft fully two hours more on this record-breaking flight had not a break occurred in his gasoline supply, necessitating volplaning to the ground. The machine in which Lieutenant Taliaferro was killed was a Curtiss military tractor, equipped with a 95 horsepower engine. It as specially equipped for looping the loop. Lieutenant Taliaferro completed the fortieth loop made by the machine when he fell to his death yesterday. Thirty of the loops attributed to tractor No. 30 were made by Sergeant William Ocker and Corporal Albert Smith on September 24 last. Lieutenant Taliaferro was married to Miss Leicester Sehon in this city April 29 last, the wedding being one of the big society events of the year. The widow was prostrated last night. Failure of navy divers to bring her husband's body to the surface was carefully kept from her. A brother, Lucien H. Taliaferro, is attached to the field artillery, stationed at Eagle Pass, Tex. He was notified of his brother's untimely death by the war department last night. Failure of the navy divers and patrol launches to find the wrecked plane is attributed to the fast ebbing tide running between 11 and 12 o;clock yesterday. Oil floating on the surface of the bay pointed out to rescuers where the aeroplane had sunk, but when divers were sent down, they reported that the machine was nowhere in sight. Grappling hooks attached to long hawsers were then towed back and forth across the channel by motor boats from the cruiser San Diego. Nightfall, however, saw their efforts unavailing and the work was pursued throughout the night with officers of the signal corps aviation school assisting in directing the work. Arrangements for the funeral of Lieutenant Taliaferro will be held in abeyance until the body is recovered.


Arnold, History of Rockwell Field, 39, 50-51. quoted in Wallace R. Peck Forgotten Air Pioneers: The Army’s Rockwell Field at North Island in The Journal of San Diego History retrieved 4 July 2009

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