Factory Fires and Other Challenges of Aircraft Builder
Robert G. “Bob” Fowler [1883-1966] - By Giacinta Bradley Koontz
Although born in San Francisco, Bob Fowler’s independent spirit was formed as a child in the small town of Gilroy, Cal., where his father had been a rancher and also ran a garage and hotel. Fowler owned his first car at age 18 and became a skilled mechanic. His passion for automobiles, coupled with his boundless imagination and lack of fear, placed him among top contenders in speed and long distance racing. At age 23, he was hired as a chauffeur and toured Europe. While in France he lingered long enough to see his first airship, a dirigible. He returned to work in his hometown of San Francisco where many of his future adventures unfolded.
In January of 1910, Fowler attended America’s first international air meet in Los Angeles and thereafter all that automobiles were to Fowler paled in comparison to his instant attraction to flying machines. He was soon at the controls of an aeroplane.
First to Start, Last to Finish
In 1911, when William Randolph Hearst set a $50,000 prize for a transcontinental flight within 30 days, Fowler was unknown, inexperienced and unfinanced. However, it was just the sort of challenge he could not resist. Three other aviators declared interest to compete, but only one, Calbraith “Cal” Perry Rogers, actually entered.
Hearst gave entrants roughly one year, until Oct. 10, 1911, to finish, thereafter withdrawing the prize. Fowler rapidly organized an air and train traveling show, sponsored by the Cole Motor Car Company, which provided him with aviation fuel, water, and spare parts for his 800-pound Wright biplane.
Although advised that he should begin in Los Angeles and follow the southern route toward the Atlantic Ocean, Fowler refused. Instead, his loyalty to San Francisco prevailed and he departed from Golden Gate Park on Sept. 11, 1910, to fly over the Sierra Mountains toward his first stop. He didn’t get far.
Within hours, Fowler was forced down by a mechanical problem and crash landed among trees and bushes. He walked away but the Wright was in a heap. Fowler trucked his wrecked aeroplane and his entourage to nearby Colfax, where the town council welcomed their first aviator. Making repairs on the town square, Fowler became a local celebrity. He also earned a permanent place in their hearts when he volunteered to fight a hotel fire in downtown Colfax.
A week later he was in the bitter cold mountain air hoping to outrace squalls of rain and snow. Again, he did not get far.
On Sept. 25, 1910, another forced landing dropped Fowler and his Wright into a field shared with horses and cows. When his crew caught up with him, they lit bonfires to keep the aircraft’s dew-drenched fabric from freezing stiff, and poured hot water over the radiator to melt the frost and thin the oil. Nineteen days into his 30-day allowance, Fowler conceded that he could not win the Hearst prize, and quit ... but not for long.
Determined to be the first to fly from west coast to east coast, Fowler rested, repaired his aircraft, rallied his crew and announced he would start over again from Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Rogers had also failed to meet Hearst’s deadline but went on to become the first to fly from coast to coast when he reached Long Beach, Cal., on Dec. 10, 1911.
Fowler’s second attempt took him 121 calendar days, with 45 days aloft. Surviving 65 forced landings, he made history as the first to fly west to east when he splashed the Wright’s wheels in the Atlantic Ocean at Pablo Beach, Fla., on Feb. 15, 1912. Hearst was not impressed enough to bestow either Fowler or Rogers with cash for their record-setting flights.
“I was the first to start and the last to finish,” he later said, explaining his success was due to “ignorance, courage, humor and a complete lack of fear.”
The International Incident
Just two years after his trans-continental flight, Fowler was determined to make the first non-stop flight over the Isthmus of Panama where construction was already underway on the Panama Canal.
Fowler and Los Angeles aircraft designer Jay Gage built a biplane with pontoons which they shipped to Panama for the flight. Accompanying Fowler on his attempt was Ray Duhem, a motion picture photographer. Before they left the U.S., Fowler had secured permission for his flight from the commanding officer of U.S. military operations at the canal.
On April 27, 1913, Fowler and Duhen flew directly over the canal, landing in a shallow bay near Colon, Panama. Their epoch flight took just less than an hour for a distance less than 50 miles.
Back in San Francisco, Fowler and Duhen successfully sold tickets to their stage show which displayed their aircraft and featured the first aerial moving films of the canal. In June 1914 they were arrested on Federal charges of divulging photographs of military information to the public. Two months later, President Wilson signed an order prohibiting flights over the Panama Canal without written consent from the War Department. Penalties included $1,000 fine and one year in prison.
In July 1915, charges were dropped against all involved with Fowler’s flight, but by then he was ready for a major change.
Airframes and Flames
After his flying adventures and in 1916, Fowler joined Edward Lowe and Charles Willard to form the LWF Company in Queens, N.Y. The company’s name was derived from the first initials of the partners’ last names — although many guessed that it stood for their signature framework of laminated wood fuselage. LWF made dozens of different wood-and-fabric aircraft but their largest production (305 total) was of the HS-2L Curtiss flying patrol boat. Most of Fowler’s aircraft were powered by the Liberty “V” engine which had evolved from the original Hall-Scott company near San Francisco. In less than one year, the homesick Fowler sold out to Lowe and Willard and left Long Island.
In 1918, as the U.S. prepared to enter WWI, Fowler opened his own aircraft plant in San Francisco, adjacent to the furniture manufacturer which he had contracted to make parts. German sympathizers threatened businesses which contributed to the American war effort, prompting Fowler to hire full-time security guards. Nevertheless, on the morning of May 21, 1918, arson was suspected to be the cause of a fire starting in the furniture factory that quickly engulfed the Fowler Aircraft plant. Surrounding residences burned to the ground and several firemen were injured. Fowler lost a fortune in linen fabric and nine completed aircraft with Hall-Scott (Liberty) engines ready for delivery to a Texas military field. Fellow aviation pioneer Waldo Waterman worked for the U.S. Aircraft Company in San Francisco at the time. He later wrote that Fowler shut down, but quickly reorganized a new aircraft company under the name of Howell and Lesser. The irrepressible Fowler went on to build 125 more Curtiss “Jennies” (JN4).
During his 83 years, Fowler was an automobile salesman, mechanic, race car driver, chauffeur, exhibition aviator, stage performer, journalist and aeroplane manufacturer, and ran a charter air service. He become San Francisco’s resident expert on engines and ran a chain of repair garages. After a failed first marriage, Fowler met Leonore, a glider pilot who was a match to his own courage and imagination. Together they outlived most aviation pioneers and both died in California in the mid 1960s.
Fowler was never comfortable away from the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It is ironic then that a statue of him was dedicated on the arid desert of Yuma, Ariz. in 2010. Commemorating his stop there during 1911, the marker notes: “He saw human flight advance from flimsy kite-like contraptions to multi-engine jets. Bob Fowler’s courage, sacrifice and many contributions helped make possible this remarkable technological progress.”