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Fowler was first: nine years after Kitty Hawk, the first flier touched down on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

On a sunny September afternoon in 1830, Charles Ferson Durant stood beaming with pride inside the wicker gondola of a balloon as he ascended slowly heavenward to become "America's first aeronaut." Flying in a balloon of his own design and construction, the daring pilot, a native of Jersey City, New Jersey, was lifted into the air at 5:31 p.m. from Castle Garden, New York, near the southern tip of Manhattan overlooking the bay and isle where now majestically stands the Statue of Liberty. After a flight of about an hour, Durant's balloon came abruptly back to earth, but not dangerously so, about 30 miles away near the then-small waterfront town of South Amboy, New Jersey. The intrepid Mr. Durant became an Immediate hero of immense proportions, and he remained in the public eye all of his life. From 1831-1834, he made 11 more "successful aerial ascensions," each of which was accompanied by a brass band and witnessed by large, cheering crowds. He single-handedly ignited America's love affair with aviation 175 years ago this year with a flame that burns ever brighter with each passing September.

In 1903, 73 years after the historic balloon flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright rekindled Durant's flame when at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they gave new meaning to cloth and sticks. From then until now, hardly a day has passed without some new innovation in aviation. Today, thousands of people step on and off airplanes without giving it much thought, but there was a time when the very mention of the word "airplane" gave rise to other words such as "thrill" and "excitement." To citizens of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the year 1912 was one of those times.

The event that led to aviation history being made in Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson counties actually began in 1910 with the announcement by publisher William Randolph Hearst of a $50,000 cash prize to the first aviator who could fly coast to coast in 30 days or less. Within days of his announcement, eight men came forward offering their intentions. A few days later, supposedly after counting the cost of such a venture and unable to secure financial backing, five of the hopefuls withdrew, leaving only three serious competitors: Robert G. Fowler, Calbraith P. Rodgers, and James Ward.

Fowler was the first to get underway. On September 11, 1911, he departed from San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in a new $5,000 Wright Model B, equipped with a 40-horsepower automobile engine made by the Cole Motor Company of Indianapolis, and flew eastward to Auburn, California, a distance of 129 miles. Surely, Fowler--a big six-footer who neither drank nor smoked and who had already made a name for himself as a champion West Coast race car driver--must have felt pretty good about his first day's travel. Little did he know at that point that things would become far more difficult.

The second man to take to the air in a bid to claim Hearst's money was a former horseracing jockey, James "Jimmy" Ward. Ward, who billed himself as the youngest aviator in the world, was a scrappy competitor who put his Curtiss biplane in the sky just two days behind Fowler's start. Ward's plan was to follow the rail tracks westward. However, Murphy's Law came into play almost immediately. Ward had a smooth takeoff from New York, but after he crossed the bay and flew over Jersey City, he became confused with the maze of railroad tracks leading out of the city. He flew around frantically trying to get his bearings. After what must have seemed an eternity, he finally landed at Patterson, New Jersey, where he spent the night--only 20 miles west of his starting point. Later, he crash-landed at Addison, New York, where his wife persuaded him to give up the quest.

Meanwhile, Calbraith "Cal" Perry Rodgers, whose great-grandfather Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (sailing the first U.S.S. Mississippi) opened Japan to the West in 1854, left Brooklyn, New York, on September 17 to become the third flier with plans to collect the Hearst prize money. The handsome, 6-foot-4-inch pilot wisely spent more time than his competitors in planning his route and perhaps more importantly in putting together a solid financial backing scheme. His plane--brand new and sent straight from the factory to his starting point in New York by train--was a Wright Model EX that came equipped with a 35-horsepower water-cooled engine. It was dubbed the "Vin-Fiz Flyer" for a new carbonated grape soft drink introduced by the Armour Meat Packing Company of Chicago. After being christened with a bottle of Vin-Fiz by a young lady from Memphis, Tennessee, Rogers was soon airborne. On his first day, Cal flew 84 miles in 105 minutes.

Back in California, Fowler, who tried valiantly to fly up and over the 7,017-foot Donner Pass, crashed his plane because the high altitude caused his engine to boil dry. Although he wasn't badly injured, it took 12 days to rebuild the craft and to have a new engine shipped in. It was a costly setback, but giving up was not the stuff of which Robert Fowler was made.

On Sunday, November 5, 1911, a grinning Cal Rodgers reached Pasadena, California, at 4:08 p.m., "where he was literally mobbed by 10,000 wildly cheering people" who had to be restrained by police officers lest they strip the snow-white Vin-Fiz of every piece of fabric and wood as souvenirs. It took 49 days for "Flying Cal" to cover 4,231 railroad miles and become the nation's first transcontinental flier. Rodgers, ever the gentleman, who was literally "wrapped in a large U.S. flag" by some of his fans, celebrated his feat by drinking not a Vin-Fiz but a big glass of milk, according to Sherwood Harris in The First to Fly. It was said that during the trip, Rodgers made 69 stops, including 16 crash landings. His plane was completely rebuilt five times, and the only original parts that remained with the aircraft to the end were the rudder and two wing struts.

Meanwhile, the press continued to follow Fowler as he doggedly continued eastward. He had decided against trying to fly over the Sierras and had opted instead for a more southern route. When Rodgers reached California, Fowler was en route from Arizona to New Mexico. It was during this part of his trek that he came up with the idea of putting his plane upon a hand rail car, and with some help in being pushed down a long incline of track (while he remained seated at the controls of his plane), he became the first person to ever pilot a plane into the air from a railroad track.

With no chance now of being the first to fly coast to coast or of winning the Hearst prize money (Rodgers didn't win the money either because the stipulations were to fly the trip in 30 days or less), Fowler didn't want to go down in history being known as the quitter. So he swallowed his pride, bandaged his bruises, and flew on, across Texas and into southern Louisiana. It was late December when he reached New Orleans. His hope was to arrive in the Crescent City on Christmas day, but he was delayed a few miles west of the city in Paradis, Louisiana, until the 28th due to bad weather.

His plan from New Orleans was to fly to Mobile and then on to the Atlantic Coast and up to New York; however, the mayor of Gulfport contacted Fowler's manager, Charles L. Young, inviting the "birdman" to visit the Gulf Coast's newest city. Both Fowler and Young saw the offer as an opportunity. By this time, Fowler was virtually if not in fact broke. He desperately needed cash--for fuel, repairs, food, and lodging--to finish the trip.

Young wired all of the larger Gulf Coast cities to make arrangements, which would include a monetary incentive for the now-famous coast-to-coast flier to land and perhaps even give an exhibition of his skills. In other words, at this stage of the game, for a city to offer an invitation with a complimentary hotel stay and a meal wasn't enough. Before Gulfport could respond with a monetary offer, H.H. Roof, secretary of the Commercial Club of Biloxi, offered Fowler a purse of $100 to visit his city.

With this money guaranteed, Fowler left New Orleans between rain showers at 1 p.m. on January 4, 1912. Flying against a cold north wind, the nattily dressed Californian, who without fail always wore his trademark winter-weight sweater and a tie, landed his plane on a grassy expanse west of Gulfport at Pass Christian. During that day, hundreds of citizens of Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and the other small coast towns searched the skies after hearing the drone of the Wright engine and then with outstretched arms waved gleefully as the first airplane in history to visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast flew over their heads.

The next day, Fowler left the Pass and headed straight for Biloxi. After only a few minutes of flight, he reached the skies over Gulfport, where a writer for the Biloxi Daily Herald reported him to be about 2,500 feet in the air. "Hundreds of people lined the streets of the city to see the daring airman," reported the newspaper. Gulfport novelty shop owner E.J. Younghans, ever the entrepreneur, had a photographer ready atop the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad headquarters building. A photo taken by the photographer, perhaps the only one professionally taken, was made into a postcard that became a popular seller for months.

It was about 2:30 p.m. when Fowler reached Biloxi. Rumor had it that he would likely land at the old baseball park near downtown, so hundreds of spectators, "the majority of whom had never seen a flying machine before," crowded together in awe and wonderment. Fowler, however, selected a different spot. "Thinking the old golf links back of the railroad between Keller Avenue and Lee Street a better landing place ...," he alighted at what was commonly known as "Pelican Green."

Fowler greeted the crowd, which continued to swell as the curious made their way from the baseball park, with his ever-present California smile. He cheerfully answered numerous questions, most of which were about his plane. When asked about the weather aloft, Fowler said, "It is very cold to fly now, and my fingers are frostbitten from yesterday's flight."

The next day, Saturday, the courageous pilot was ready to continue on with plans to make a stopover in Pascagoula, but that didn't happen because of a downpour that came during the night and continued throughout the day. And since Fowler did not fly on Sundays, his plane sat for another day. Monday and Tuesday presented more disappointment as dense fog blanketed the entire coastal area.

But Wednesday, January 10, was a bluebird kind of day. Though the air was crisp, the sky was blue, and at 11 a.m., "aviator Fowler rose from Pelican Green and after making a short circle in that immediate vicinity took his fight for Pascagoula."

The Daily Herald reported that "three thousand people were at Pelican Green to see him ascend, and people all over the city were on the alert over the flight, the fire bells having apprised them a short while before 11 o'clock that he would go up." All were delighted to see the plane take to the air; however, many were disappointed that he didn't loop around the city at a lower altitude so that they could see him better. His exhibition was short by all accounts. In fact, within only a few minutes after takeoff, Fowler and his machine were seen "over Ocean Springs as a mere speck in the sky."

Unfortunately, Pascagoula did not raise a purse to induce Fowler to land, and neither did Mobile, though he did stop there to refuel and then continued to Flomaton, Alabama, where he spent the night. Four weeks later, the determined Mr. Fowler reached the Atlantic coast at Jacksonville, Florida, on February 8, 1912. After 112 days of travel, Robert Grant Fowler made history by being the first to fly across the United States from west to east.

To those Mississippians of pioneer aviator Fowler's generation who witnessed his historic first flight across our state's three Gulf Coast counties, the big question was not "Where were you on November 11, 1918?" It wasn't "Where were you on December 7, 1941?" either. Nor was it "Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated?" The big question was "Where were you during the first week of January in 1912?"

A PILOT POSTSCRIPT

Even though Cal Rodgers gained national fame upon his arrival in Pasadena, he was broke. All the money from the Armour Meat Company had been spent keeping the "Vinfiz" in the air. He had hoped to parlay his fame into a high-paying job. In the meantime, he stayed in the southern California area giving flying exhibitions on an irregular basis. On the afternoon of April 3, 1912, Cal took off for a quick spin around Long Beach. As he flew over the water only a few yards from the beach, he hit a flock of seagulls, causing him to lose control. His plane nose-dived into the Pacific, and even though he was pulled from the wreckage within minutes by some nearby swimmers, he suffered a broken neck and did not survive.

Plucky little Jimmy Ward, whose wife encouraged him to withdraw from the race for fear he would be killed, continued to fly in exhibitions at county fairs. Exhibitions were certainly no less dangerous than racing. However, Ward, who received no financial backing during the race and depleted his savings account of $21,000, needed a paycheck. During World War I, he served as a civilian flying instructor for the U.S. Army.

In 1913, Robert G. "Bob" Fowler set a record for "flying nonstop from the Atlantic to the Pacific"--a 41 -mile flight over the Isthmus of Panama. His plane is now in the Smithsonian. In 1916, he founded an aircraft manufacturing company, which during World War I produced 275 training planes for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. After the war, he went into the passenger flying business, and in 1961, he was elected president of the Early Birds of Aviation, Inc. On March 9, 1965, Fowler--ever the aviation hero--passed away at his home in San Jose, California. He was 81.
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Title Annotation:LOOKING BACK
Author:Cooper, Forrest Lamar
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:2427
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