The Life and Times of Robert G. Fowler

By Maria Schell Burden

Borden Publishing Company

Copyright © 1999 Maria Schell Burden. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-87505-369-6

Chapter One


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    Robert Grant Thomas Fowler was born August 10, 1883in San Francisco, California. He was the only child of ThomasJames and Mary Francis (Ashworth) Fowler. His father was arancher, hotel manager and garage owner. Robert spent muchof his childhood as others did in those days—playing with friends,attending public schools and helping to run the family businessin Gilroy.

    After completing his education in 1901 at the age of eighteen,his parents gave him his first automobile, the first singlecylinder Oldsmobile ever purchased in California. He traveledduring the remainder of that year, and became a sales agent forOldsmobile autos on the west coast. He was known by this timeas a skilled mechanic and driver who had set records racingcars between San Francisco and Los Angeles. His fourteen-hourtime stood as the record for several years.

    In 1903, the world followed the progress of the Wrightbrothers and their experiments with heavier-than-air flight. Whenthey met with success in December of that year at Kitty Hawk,North Carolina, Robert Fowler devoured the details of the flightreported in such journals as Scientific American. Also that yearhe raced a Franklin car with a four cylinder air cooler and wonagainst the legendary race car driver Barney Oldfield. His speedsduring the ten mile race at Ingleside Race Track topped one mileper minute.

    In the early days of automobiles, individuals who couldafford a car often hired drivers (chauffeurs), who also served asmechanics to operate the cantankerous motors and maintainthe cars. In 1906 he began a European tour, employed as achauffeur for the Diamonds, a wealthy San Francisco family.The earthquake and fire of 1906 forced their temporary returnto California. He experienced numerous aftershocks to the greatquake which he described in letters to his family in Gilroy. Hedescribed difficult driving conditions in the city, and the needto wear goggles at all times because of the brick and lime dustin the air which could cause a driver to "lose one's eyesight atany time."

    During 1907, in the continuation of his European tourof eight countries, Fowler became interested in aviation in Paris,where he saw a dirigible fly overhead during the Bastille Daycelebration. He also inspected the manufacturing plants of variousEuropean automobiles.

    He became an expert on engines, propulsion and speedworking with early automobiles like Oldsmobile, Packard,Cadillac, Pope-Toledo, Mercedes, Chalmers, Franklin, and Royal,among others.

    Between 1908 and 1910 he developed various automobilegarages and dealerships in the San Francisco area. He wasagain exposed to aviation at the Dominguez Air Meet in LosAngeles, California. This time, Robert Fowler's sights shiftedirrevocably from dirt tracks to blue skies.

Chapter Two


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    It is difficult to say exactly when Robert Fowler first becameenamored of aviation. In his personal notes he states simplythat during the year 1910 he "became interested inaeroplanes," and decided to "begin experimentation in this line ..."

    He read stories in Scientific American magazine of theearliest aviation accomplishments of Orville and Wilbur Wrightand Glenn Curtiss in their glorified box kites made of bamboo,cotton cloth and bycicle tape. He was captivated when twofriends, Louis DeMars, a fellow auto racer, and Rex Younge, amotorcycle racer, bought an aeroplane and invited Bob along totry it out in a northern California field.

    The plane was under-powered and could only bouncealong the ground at dizzying speeds of forty miles per hour in astraight line, and make brief hops into the air. Mid-air turnscould not be practiced due to insufficient altitude. Nonetheless,young Bob Fowler was intoxicated with the notion of flight. Readyto demonstrate, DeMars assured Fowler that he would showhim the basics of flying. So, with confidence DeMars climbedbehind the controls.

    Rex spun the single propeller and let go. DeMars andthe plane surged forward. Bob watched with the fascination of anovice, observing the plane and DeMars racing and bouncingalong the ground, without immediate knowledge that somethingwas terribly wrong. Just then, Younge started jumping up anddown, shouting "The controls! The controls!" The plane was goingforty miles per hour when Bob observed DeMars, who nowunderstood the problem, climbing out the rear of the movingaircraft.

    A sturdy fence at the end of the field was rapidly approaching.Unable to do anything to help, Fowler and Youngewatched and waited for the crack-up. DeMars was now hangingon for dear life to the rear of the frame, dragging his feet, attemptingto stop the plane from reaching the fence. It came soonenough. The plane slammed into the fence, with DeMars stillclinging to the frame. DeMars was uninjured, but he'd draggedhis feet and pulled so hard trying to slow down the plane thathe'd torn off the soles of his shoes.

    "What happened?" asked Fowler as he and Younge arrivedbreathlessly at the wreck. DeMars shot a look at Younge,who sheepishly explained that the night before, he had carefullylashed the controls for safety, and forgotten to untie themthat morning. The amateur trio examined the wreck. The rudderand controls, which before the flight had projected ten feet outin front of the aircraft, were now wedged back under the wings.Bob could scarcely believe that his first chance to fly was gonein a twisted heap right before his eyes.

    Younge and DeMars determined that the motor and wingswere undamaged. Fowler helped them remove the rudder, steeringline and controls, and together the men took to the machinewith a sledge hammer and some bicycle tape. They had her inflying shape within a few hours. Bob would finally get his chanceat the controls the next day, and the experience would changehim forever. Unaccustomed to being a novice at things mechanical,he felt a rush of adrenalin as DeMars reviewed the basicsfor the last time. "She's already cracked up once, Fowler, soyou can't do any real harm." His head filled with the task athand, Bob forced a thin smile at DeMars.

    Far more confident in Fowler's ability than Fowler himself,DeMars pulled the single propeller through, and swung it.The motor thundered and the aircraft surged forward as DeMarslet go. In seconds Bob was racing down the field at forty milesper hour with the dreaded fence approaching quickly. He pulledon the elevator lever and nothing happened—or so he thought.What had he done wrong? What had he forgotten? He lookeddown and realized that he was about ten feet off the ground. Arush of exhilaration saturated his senses.

    He was flying! He might as well have been five hundredfeet up, so great was his excitement. He skimmed the length ofthe field with a grin on his face. He set the battered aeroplanedown at the end of the field, and vowed that he would find a wayto make his living at flying.

    Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, aftertaking his first thrilling aeroplane ride with aviator LouisPaulhan, announced that he would pay $50,000 to the firstaviator to fly from one U.S. coast to the other in thirty days orless, using just one aeroplane. The Hearst prize, calculated tocreate additional excitement for the new field of aviation, wouldalso sell Hearst newspapers, which would liberally cover therace from beginning to end. A one-year time limit was imposed,the purse to be withdrawn after October 10, 1911. After initialexcitement over the generous prize subsided, few aviators of theday showed any real intention of entering the race.

    Most involved in aviation at the time, including Orvilleand Wilbur Wright, felt that such a lengthy journey would exceedthe limits of aircraft technology at the time, between powerlimitations and durability of aircraft structure itself. Shortexhibition flights were the ideal use for 1910-1911 eraaeroplanes. The Wrights felt that long-distance flights shouldbe put off until advances could be made in the current designs.

    During 1910 after a record-setting automobile race fromLos Angeles to San Francisco, Bob returned to southernCalifornia to attend the 1910 Dominguez Air Meet in January.Eugene Ely, a former racing partner of Bob's was the leadingpilot for the Curtiss Exhibition Team. Ely introduced Bob Fowlerto Glenn Curtiss, recounting tales of races won, records brokenand mechanical challenges overcome.

    Racing commitments would consume most of that year,but now the aviation bug had bitten hard, and was quicklyburrowing under the skin of Bob Fowler. He returned to southernCalifornia in December of 1910 to attend the Los Angeles AirCarnival. He was convinced that even with his limited flyingexperience, he could show Glenn Curtiss what he had if he couldjust get a tryout. Curtiss, who had seen several of his exhibitionpilots hospitalized that day after aerial mishaps, was in desperateneed of a pilot for his remaining undamaged aeroplanes.

    With Gene Ely's glowing endorsement of his former racingpartner still in mind, Curtiss agreed to give Bob Fowler a tryoutfor the exhibition team. But Bob soon learned that he would besharing the stage with another newcomer, Lincoln Beachey, whowould get the first tryout.

    Beachey, at 23 years old, had already made a name forhimself as a dirigible pilot and had been on the Curtiss payrollfor a short time as a mechanician. In limited training by Curtisshimself, Beachey had demonstrated a patent lack of instinct inmaking turns and landings, and had a tendency toward minorwrecks. As a pilot, Beachey was hard on a team's aircraftinventory and so had remained employed only as a mechanicianin the Curtiss camp.

    But on this day, Glenn Curtiss had a unique problem—anaeroplane at an aviation meet with no one to fly it. He hesitatedto take the controls himself. As president of the company, hehad other responsibilities.

    Curtiss had at least seen Beachey fly. This new guyFowler was a complete unknown. Did he really have theexperience he claimed to have? Curtiss flipped a mental coinand decided to give Beachey the first try-out. Beachey wreckedtwice making dangerous turns, and Curtiss decided that he couldnot risk any more of his aeroplanes on novice pilots. Fowler leftCurtiss and Beachey behind for the moment and returned tonorthern California without taking the controls even once.

    Bob knew that his call to aviation could not gounanswered, but he must return to what he knew best and waitfor an opportunity. It would come from an unlikely source—autoracing. Bob Fowler was hired in 1911 to promote the latestautomobile model of the Indianapolis, Indiana-based Cole MotorCompany. The car was dubbed "The Cole Flyer." The significanceof the name was not lost on Bob Fowler. True to his nature, hebegan to research and plan a strategy that he hoped would bringhis dreams of flight to fruition.

    He convinced company President J.J. Cole that the mostexciting way to promote the Cote Flyer was from coast to coast,with Fowler himself competing in the Hearst transcontinentalair race. Cole thought it was a splendid idea, and immediatelyadvanced $7,500 toward the purchase of the most reliableaircraft of it's time. Bob's recommendation was the Wright ModelB to be dubbed the "Cole Flyer."

    With the wad from Cole in his pocket, he left for SimmsStation, Dayton, Ohio to enroll in the Wright Company Schoolof Aviation. He would be required to pass a qualification test forthe Hearst race, and could take care of all details in one spot.There were numerous aviation schools for aspiring birdmen tochoose from even in the infancy of aviation. The Wright'sphilosophy was markedly different than most. Students wereextensively trained on the ground and always flew side-by-sidewith an instructor who held duplicate controls in the event of astudent error. In the company's promotional literature theschool's policies were plainly stated: "the pupil is not heldresponsible for breakage of machines." At the rates they werecharging, $250.00, "they could afford to fix a few aeroplanes,"thought Fowler.

    He arrived near the end of July, 1911 to receiveinstruction from the nation's pioneer fliers, and overseeproduction of his very own Wright Model B. As a seasonedmechanic, he knew the importance of familiarizing oneself withevery aspect of a machine. He intended to be the mostknowlegeable member of his mechanical crew, able to fix anyproblem for himself in the event that his crew was unable toreach him. After just a few hours of flight instruction under A.L.(Al) Welsh, the Wright's most trusted pilot, Fowler made his firstsolo flight. Welsh declared that Bob Fowler was a fine pilot—thebest airman he had ever taught. A swooping figure eight in theair qualified Bob as the first official entrant in the Hearst race.He was awarded Hydroaeroplane licence number 36.

    On August 31, 1911 Bob filed his intention with theHearst newspaper The New York American as the first officialentrant in the transcontinental air race. Orville Wright, who hadbecome fond of Bob, spent a great deal of time with him as heplotted his transcontinental course and discussed his plans withanyone who would listen. Orville tried more than once to convinceBob to leave from Los Angeles instead of San Francisco. Theextreme elevations in the Sierra Nevada Range might be too muchfor the Wright and its small engine, even with a naturally skilledpilot like Fowler.

    Bob would never forget a closed-door meeting in theupstairs office of the Wright Cycle Company at 1127 West ThirdStreet in Dayton, Ohio. The brothers "really gave me a talking toabout trying to fly across the continent," he would later say.Their strenuous attempt at talking their talented student out ofthe coast to coast flight even included an admission that theirengine was quite unreliable in flights longer that one hour.

    Bob argued that he was an experienced mechanic andcould fix any problem without help from a crew. When it becameobvious that their friend would not betalked out of it, they asked how theycould help. Fowler picked their brainsfor several days, trouble-shootingvarious problems and making plans.Orville favored a southern routethrough the desert with its lowerelevations.

    Fowler asserted that the highelevations in the Sierras would forcehim to fly higher, thus affording himextra time to locate an emergencylanding site and volplane to it in theevent of an engine failure. Bob wasdetermined to leave from his hometownof San Francisco, and it seemed thatnothing would sway him.

    Flight training was not the onlyaspect of planning that Fowlerconcentrated upon. He constructed acomplex system to navigate thecontinent and maintain contact withhis crew along the way. The only sureeast-to-west guideline available was therailroad tracks, which Fowler nowreferred to as his "iron compass."Besides providing a visual guide, therailroad provided the additional ad[vantage of having a crew andspare parts on the rails in the event of a forced landing.Accordingly, he made arrangements for a special train car whichwould follow his course. The Cole Motor Company would arrangefor fuel, water and spare parts to be available at all times aboardthe train, as well as at Fowler's scheduled stops. Hismechanicians would also be present aboard the train.

    His mother, Faye Fowler would be along for the ride,bringing with her the well-known boxing trainer Tim McGrath.Charged with monitoring Fowler's physical health at all timesduring the transcontinental journey, McGrath would order theaviator proper meals, set his sleep schedule, and control hisexposure to crowds.

    Meanwhile, the time limit for the Hearst prize was rapidlyapproaching. A start had to be made by the early part ofSeptember in order for the flight to be completed by the October10 expiration date. Fowler calculated that he would need twentyflying days to complete the coast-to-coast journey, and wouldallow an additional ten days for rest, repairs and inclementweather. With that in mind, and the wind at his back, Fowlerpredicted it was an achievable goal.

    The transcontinental air race was no small challenge.The sort of determination required to continue onward day afterday against all kinds of adversity was not to be taken lightly.Thrill-seekers without any staying power would be quicklydiscouraged by such an undertaking. Fowler knew this betterthan any of his competitors. It would not be a comfortablejourney. With freezing temperatures at high elevations, coupledwith exposure to the wind, it would be a physical test as well asa mental one.

    Long races were nothing new to Bob. His days behindthe wheel of an automobile in long distance events would servehim well, but the particular challenges of an aviation race werestill unknowns. Balancing the logical timeline of the trip withthe grand ideas of a promoter proved to be one of the most difficultchallenges of all.

    As Fowler quietly worked behind the scenes, the numberof entrants in the race grew, and soon twelve competitors haddeclared their intentions. To Fowler, the race and its successfulcompletion was all. But his backers, of course, had their ownagenda. As a commercial enterprise, the flight must achievecertain goals outside the arena of the Hearst prize, and of coursesell cars in the bargain.

    As excitement grew about the transcontinental race,cities began vying for the opportunity to host the beginning orend of the race. Local business associations collected purses,some rather impressive sums, to induce the pilots to make theirstart or finish there. In Fowler's home state of California, LosAngeles and San Francisco were the cities approved by the HearstRules Committee for start or finish.

    Fowler had on his plate a mind-boggling list ofarrangements and preparations to be made prior to the start ofhis journey. Meanwhile, Cal Rodgers, his principal competitorin the race, was planning a start from New York any day, andthe pressure was on to be the first aviator officially underway.

    After seeing to the safe delivery of his aircraft from therailroad express car a few weeks earlier, Bob had spent severaldays studying maps and railroad routes to plot his most favorablecourse through the Sierra Nevada Mountains — his mostformidable obstacle in the race. Ever pragmatic, Fowler knewthat careful planning could spell the difference between successand failure, perhaps even life and death.

    He boarded an eastbound Southern Pacific freight trainand traveled the Sierras between Colfax, California and Reno,Nevada. From an observation platform aboard the train, he notedpossible forced landing sites and memorized the lay of the landand the elevations of key mountains.

    The Cole Motor Company had appointed C. Fred Grundy,a Cole sales agent from Los Angeles as Fowler's manager for thecross-country journey. Grundy and Fowler often disagreed ondetails relating to the race. Fowler was naturally shy and notone to promote himself or brag about his accomplishments.Grundy's grandstanding on the aviator's behalf (part of his jobas manager) made Fowler patently uncomfortable. Bob justwanted to get underway in the simplest, most timely fashionpossible. Grundy, however, was determined that Fowler wouldstart from whichever west coast city was willing to put up thelargest financial incentive to that end. Fowler had made clearhis preference for a start from San Francisco. A struggle forcontrol ensued. Grundy initiated a series of communications tothe cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Pasadena,and others. He also contacted the official Hearst timekeepers inSan Francisco, C.C. Moore and James Rolph Jr., who was alsoa candidate for mayor.

    In the days leading up to the official departure date, Bayarea newspapers scrambled to keep up with the latest location


Excerpted from The Life and Times of Robert G. Fowler by Maria Schell Burden. Copyright © 1999 by Maria Schell Burden. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.