Bowlus and his sailplanes
The Bowlus Baby Albatross
The following is reproduced from “Soaring” January 1974, and written by “Soaring’s” homebuilding editor, Stan Hall, who made the flight.
It was an Easter Sunday in 1938 that a history-shaping event in soaring took place near the rural township of Arvin, California. Here, in the lupin-covered foothills below the shadow of Bear Mountain, gliding meet was under way. And it was here that the late Hawley Bowlus’ prototype Baby Albatross made its first soaring flight. I was there. I was the pilot.
Earlier that spring afternoon I had joined the hundreds of spectators and glider pilots who watched with awe and envy as Stan Corcoran, designer and builder of the famed Cinema made two quick glides to the San Joaquin Valley in the Baby.
This machine was of a new breed, awe-inspiring in its beauty, a Cirrus or ASW, as it were, in an age of sticks and gussets and wires. She was sleek, with a polished, natural finish mahogany pod, a slender aluminium alloy tubular boom, carrying a tail spangled with the Stars and Stripes. The wing was a Bowlus trademark, a single spar, plywood covered D-tube leading edge and single strut. The fabric was treated with clear dope and like a butterfly, every rib, spar and auxiliary structure was clearly exposed to the eye. Hawley had a keen sense of form and beauty and it showed in every line and curve of the Baby. I knew that only pilots having superior skill would be able to handle this spirited and magnificent machine.
You can imagine my astonishment when Hawley and Don Mitchell, his shop foreman, walked up and asked me if I would like to try my hand at flying her! I was not one of the well-known pilots of the day such as Harland Ross, Woody Brown, Dick Essery, Frank Kelsey, and others. I suspect, however, that my innate ultra-conservatism showed through, even then. I didn’t question their wisdom, I merely blurted out a “yes!” and before I had a chance to reflect upon my own poor qualifications as a pilot of such an incredible aircraft, I was off the ground, whisked into the air under the steady hand of Jay Buxton, himself a famous designer, but who was serving as winch operator for the day.
I pulled the towline release and headed immediately toward the valley, the same route Corcoran had taken earlier. I was vaguely aware of the almost total lack of sound. Despite there being no canopy, not even a windshield, the machine was incredibly quiet. I was accustomed to the singing wires of the two-place, wire-rigged secondary glider I had built with Sven Ingels, and the low sound level compounded the strangeness of this new environment.
All I could consciously think of was Hawley’s last admonition as he hooked up the towline; “Corcoran flew too fast. That’s why he went down. Keep the speed down to around forty.” So, I kept my eyes glued to the speed, neglecting even to look out at the wings and bored straight for the valley at precisely forty miles an hour. Sometimes I dared to move my eyes to the variometer (a new and strange instrument at the time) which always said “down”.
As my confidence grew I made some gentle turns, a few degrees in either direction. In doing so I found myself Inadvertently trying to rotate the wheel about its vertical axis as if it were a rudder that would make the sailplane turn. I knew better, of course, but I had never before flown anything with a wheel control. I was used only to a stick.
I had been in the air about fifteen minutes and had managed to glide down within 800 feet or so of the valley floor. “Maybe I should start looking for a place to land”, I thought. So, with all that altitude (for 1938) to play with I began to plan for what had to be just the best landing I had ever made – for Hawley’s sake If not mine. Unexpectedly I felt the bird shudder a little, then surge upward as though the Gods of weather had suddenly lifted me by the scruff of the neck. Wow, a thermal! I had never before encountered anything but slope lift in our secondary, and if I hadn’t listened as other pilots described their adventures with thermals, I would have sailed right through It.
I rolled into a turn – and the lift didn’t go away. We were climbing! Now I concentrated on the variometer, which was now saying “up” and we whirled around and around, while I unconsciously attempted to pull sideways on that wheel as I fed in the rudder.
Nothing else mattered in the world. I had to stay in the lift. And the only thing that seemed to be keeping me there was turning. Centring the thermal be hanged – I don’t think many of us in 1938 knew a thermal had a centre! After a while I made two important discoveries. One was that the thermal was so large that in spite of my stumbling around in it I had gained 500 feet above the take-off point. The other discovery was that the wind had carried me right over the take off point.
This was simply too much. I had successfully “mastered” the Baby Albatross, I was directly above the field – and to my chagrin, I had just blundered out of the thermal. What better time to simply spiral down, get on the ground in one piece, and walk away with the knowledge that I had just flown the most beautiful sailplane in the world? But fate was not yet through with me.
As I spiralled downward, I heard a great “pop” in the structure. “My God”, I thought, “I’ve got a structural failure.” But nothing happened other than my heartbeat going over the red line, and I continued spiralling down. After what seemed an eternity, I gingerly exercised the controls. They seemed okay. The wings were still there – but I couldn’t turn my head enough to see the tail. “It must be there,” I thought, “in the tall”. Not wishing to make any unnecessary move I sat Immobile, preferring not to wake the tiger but simply to wait for the time to straighten up and land, hoping the ship would indeed straighten out. One thing I was certain of, we were going to land, straight or crooked. But I was terrified at the thought of possibly demolishing Hawley’s new creation, and maybe myself, in the process. At the appropriate moment I rolled the wheel and pushed the rudder pedal. The ship straightened out and we landed soft as thistledown.
People came running from all directions. I felt like Lindbergh at Le Bourget – except that I was scared stiff. The first person to reach me was Hawley Bowlus himself. He said, “You’re pale as a ghost, Stan. Are you Okay?’ I replied, “Hawley, something broke in the air and I don’t know what it is.” Then he turned pale. I crawled out of the cockpit amid the snapping of cameras while Hawley and Don dived headfirst into it. After a few seconds Hawley came up for air with a grin. He said, “I’ve found it!”
Those familiar with the Baby Albatross will recall that the control wheel sits atop two vertical tubes, inside which runs a chain that passes over a sprocket on the wheel. The wheel and sprocket, which operate the ailerons, of course, are contained in a casting, which is riveted to the upper end of the tubes. In their haste to get the Baby completed and taken to the Arvin soaring site, Hawley and Don had apparently forgotten to replace with rivets the two self-tapping screws that temporarily held the casting in place. What I had done in about an hour’s tugging sideways at the control wheel was to break that temporary joint. The only thing holding the assembly together was the tension in the cables. The sound of the joint letting go amplified by the mahogany plywood pod and my own psychological receptivity was one I’ll never forget. Nor will I forget any detail of the experience that Hawley Bowlus, Don Mitchell and the incomparable Baby Albatross brought me that glorious spring day in 1938. It was an important day for me, yes, but more Importantly, it signalled a new era in soaring. People from America’s four corners began building the Baby from Hawley’s kits. And as a result, many of our best pilots and designers took paths from which today they have never swerved. They are now making their own contribution to soaring. Hawley Bowlus was a legend in his own time. The trouble was that nobody realised it. The Impact of the Baby Albatross on the advanced state of design and soaring as we now know it is felt to this day. He remains, in my mind as one of the most talented and ingenious designers of that time or any other, including the present one. Bowlus died in relative obscurity to soaring, and today his greatest contribution, the Baby Albatross, has gone to its reward, too. There are still a few around, but when they appear at the gliderport they are mostly objects of amusement to those insensitive souls who, because Hawley left his mark, now ride the wind in sophisticated space-age fibreglass chariots. But in 1938, and for a lot of years to follow, it wasn’t like that. Hawley Bowlus and the Baby were the best. The very best.
The following article was extracted from the website of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The Bowlus BA-100 Baby Albatross
After orders ran out for the Albatross II design, Hawley Bowlus concentrated on developing a high-performance design for the least money about 1937. He copied the Grunau Baby wing planform, but enlarged the ailerons and lightened the structure. The use of an aluminum tube for the aft fuselage was uncommon at that time and further enhanced Hawley’s penchant for minimum weight. His helper on the effort was Don Mitchell who aided in later Bowlus designs and has become a sailplane and ultralight designer in his own right. All the fittings are aluminium castings. A wheel control allows a tighter cockpit. The stabilizer moves as one piece and is neutral in feel, making it easy to over-control. The original, and four early aircraft, had the pod built from sections of 1/8-inch plywood, scarfed to join at the bulkheads. Production kits featured moulded pods layed-up from mahogany veneer in a concrete mold, similar to the Lockheed Vega technique.
Kits were sold from $350-385 with all fittings, ribs, the wing spar and leading edge, and the pods with controls completed. Completed ships were offered from $540-750, but may not have been sold, possibly due to certification problems. It was by far the most popular of contemporary designs, because of its low price and looks, but it had inherent structural weaknesses, and had no spoilers to help get it on the ground. Many overshot the field and suffered damage, typically to the wing and pod joint. Despite this, many top pilots flew the ship and achieved good results. The Second World War and the subsequent availability of extremely cheap war-surplus two-place training gliders that had superior performance affected its popularity. There was some friction between the eastern gliding establishment — which dominated the Army’s program–and the westerners, typified by Bowlus. As a result, when civilian gliders were conscripted for the training program, orders went out not to accept Bowlus designs, despite the fact that several designs with more grievous structural or handling flaws were accepted. Bowlus had a part in designing a training glider and three troop gliders. His CG-16 design crashed during a rushed 1943 flight test, and while Hawley and Harry Perl bailed out, Richard duPont and two others perished. He conducted a wartime flying-wing experiment which influenced Mitchell’s B-10 and U-2 hang glider and ultra-light designs.
The following article was extracted from the website of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
The Bowlus-DuPont Albatross
Long before he designed and built the Bowlus-DuPont “Falcon,” William Hawley Bowlus had contributed to aviation history. In 1926, T. Claude Ryan hired him as factory manager at the Ryan Airlines, Inc., plant at San Diego, California. Late in February 1927, Bowlus, chief engineer Donald A. Hall, twenty Ryan workmen, and Charles A. Lindbergh designed and built a long-range monoplane based on the Ryan M-2 that Lindbergh christened the “Spirit of St. Louis.” It is said that Bowlus suggested several design features that Lindbergh approved and incorporated in the finished airplane. Bowlus renewed his friendship with Lindbergh late in 1929. He taught the ocean flyer and his wife, Anne Morrow, to fly sailplanes and in January 1930, both Charles and Anne completed their first solo glider flights.
Hawley Bowlus developed the Senior Albatross series from a design he called the Bowlus Super Sailplane. In Germany, designers and pilots led the world in the building and flying of high-performance gliders and Bowlus was strongly influenced by their work. He and German glider pioneer, Martin Schempp, taught courses in aircraft design and construction at the Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute in Glendale, California. The two instructors led a group of students who built the Super Sailplane in 1932. The Super’ served as a prototype for the Senior Albatross. The wing of the Super’ was nearly a copy of the German “Wein” sailplane designed and flown with great success in 1930 and 1931 by Robert Kronfeld. Both gliders employed the same Goettingen 549 wing airfoil and even the tips of the control surfaces curved to almost identical contours. When Bowlus built the Senior Albatross series, the cockpit enclosure closely resembled another record setting and influential German sailplane, the “Fafnir,” designed by Alexander Lippisch to fit the body contours of pilot Gunther Groenhoff.
Richard C. du Pont was also an important character in the history of the Senior Albatross. By the time he finished high school, du Pont could fly gliders with some skill. During his first year at the University of Virginia, he founded a campus soaring club. His passion for motorless flight drew him farther away from traditional academics and in 1932, he transferred to the Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute. Du Pont was probably among the students who built the Super Albatross.
In 1933, du Pont teamed with Hawley Bowlus and the two men set up shop in San Fernando, California, to build gliders. Bowlus furnished the design expertise and performed much of the construction. Du Pont supplied enthusiasm, labour, and financing. The Bowlus-DuPont Sailplane Company became an official entity not in California, but in Delaware in 1934. The firm folded in September 1936 and during its meteoric corporate life, the small factory built and flew four examples of the Senior Albatross but no two were constructed exactly alike. All four sailplanes did have ‘gull’ wings (each wing was bent down slightly at about mid-span) and this feature differentiates these airplanes from the prototype Super Sailplane. One of the Senior Albatross gliders employed a pod-and-boom fuselage (see Bowlus BA-100 Baby Albatross in NASM Collection) with a two-seat cockpit. Richard du Pont bought the sailplane and named it “Dragonfly.” Bowlus sold each of these hand-crafted airplanes for $2500.
In 1935, Hawley Bowlus began work on a two-place Senior Albatross built from aluminium but other distractions delayed completion until 1940. In 1939, Ernest Langley and Jim Gough built another Senior Albatross at the Bowlus ranch in California.
The “Falcon” and the glider sold to Richard du Pont used wing flaps, rather than spoilers, for better speed and altitude control during landing. Mahogany plywood skinned only Eaton’s glider and Spruce plywood covered the other three airplanes. Performance calculations revealed a best glide ratio of 23:1 when flying at 64.4 kph (40 mph). If it became necessary, the pilot of a Senior Albatross could push his mount well over 161 kph (100 mph) as long as he never exceeded a speed of 241.5 kph (150 mph).
With an accomplished pilot at the controls, the Senior Albatross could fly better than any American airplane without a motor and they were very pleasing to look at too. A quote from the July 1934 issue of “Aviation,” a popular periodical, sums up one writer’s impressions of the Bowlus-Du Pont Senior Albatross:
“Few flying machines have ever exhibited such an extraordinary combination of workmanship, finish, and aerodynamic refinement, so that it seems quite safe to say that the new ships represent the ultimate in soaring design practice in the United States, if not the world.”
The pilots that flew the Senior Albatross nearly dominated American competitive soaring. In 1933, Richard du Pont flew the first Senior Albatross at the fourth U. S. National Soaring Championships held at Elmira, New York. On September 21, du Pont set the American sailplane distance record by flying 196 km (121.6 miles).
On June 25, 1934, du Pont flew to within 3.2 km (2 miles) of New York City and established a new world distance record of 254 km (158 miles). On June 30, 1934, du Pont set the U. S. altitude record for sailplanes by climbing to 1,892 m (6,223 ft). In 1935, Lewin Barringer soared his Senior Albatross parallel to the ridges of the Allegany Mountains for 250.3 km (155.5 miles). He came within a half-mile of breaking du Pont’s 1935 World Distance Record of 251 km (156 miles).
File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.2In May 1934, Warren E. Eaton acquired the Senior Albatross now preserved at NASM from Hawley Bowlus. Eaton joined the U. S. Army Air Service and flew SPAD XIII fighters (see NASM collection) in the 103rd Aero Squadron, 3rd Pursuit Group, at Issoudon, France, from August 27, 1918, to the Armistice. He was credited with downing one enemy aircraft in aerial combat. After the war, Eaton founded the Soaring Society of America and became that organisation’s first president.
Eaton had commissioned Bowlus to build this glider after he saw Richard C. du Pont fly the second Senior Albatross at the U. S. Nationals the year before. Eaton christened it “Falcon,” and it bore the federal aircraft registration number G13763. Several gold decals edged in black also appeared at various locations on the fuselage. “Warren E. Eaton” and “Falcon” appeared on both sides of the nose. A stylised albatross and the company motto “On the Wings of an Albatross” were applied to the vertical fin above the words “Bowlus-Du Pont Sailplane Company.”
Eaton first flew the glider at San Diego. In June, he brought it to the national contest at Harris Hill, New York. At Big Meadows, Virginia, Eaton set the American soaring altitude record, 2,765 m (9,094 ft), during September 1934. Three months later, Eaton died in Florida flying another glider.
In May 1935, Warren Eaton’s widow, Genevieve, donated the “Falcon” to the Smithsonian Institution. It arrived in Washington on the 28th and a few days later, museum personnel suspended the glider from the ceiling of the West Hall, Arts and Industries Building. The “Falcon” will also be exhibited in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.
In 1936, the damaged glider was sold to the soaring legend, John K. (Jack) O’Meara, who returned the glider to Bowlus to repair. Repairs done with the fuselage painted blue and the rudder “candy stripped,” the Albatross II last flew at the 1939 Western Soaring Championships by Bowlus himself. It remained in his shop until about 1952, when it was sold to Stuart Baxter, who kept it in his garage. In October 1990, Baxter, Steve Lowry, and Raul Blacksten made an agreement to own and restore the Albatross II. It is currently undergoing restoration.