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Sunday, November 13, 2011

AIR HEADS - Part Two, Headwinds

I believe Bob Fowler was confident on September 23rd , when he finally took off from Colfax, California, (alt. 3,306 feet) in the Sierra foothills. He certainly looks confident in this photo. His confidence was, however, seriously misplaced. He had just fixed his airplane after his first crash, and immediately he was airborne, at six thousand feet up the Sierra Nevada mountains, Bob hit headwinds that his 40 horsepower Cole motor just couldn’t overcome. He was forced to return to Colfax.
That same day (September 23rd) back East, the little jockey Jimmy Ward was following the “iron compass”, as pilots referred to following railroad lines. In this case he was tracking the Erie Railroad westward out of Middletown, N.Y.  James landed and refueled safely, as he had planned,  at Callicoon, N.Y.(above), at 10:05 A.M. He refueled again at Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, and took off again at 2:15 P.M.
Two hours later, after avoiding crowds waiting for him at other landing fields, the shy James touched down on a farm outside of Owego, N.Y. Here the Jockey hitched a ride into town, where he ate a quick dinner while a local mechanic refueled his plane. He wanted to make it to Corning, N.Y. before dark, so he hurried his take off. But as the Jockey lifted into the air his engine coughed, his wheels snagged a fence and he was yanked to an abrupt halt. His lower left wing was bent, his wheels destroyed. Jimmy Ward was unhurt, physically, but it would take a crew from Curtiss Airplane almost two days to repair the damage.
 Back out in California, bright and early on the September 24th , Bob Fowler tried again to get over the Sierra. This time he got as high as as Emigrant Gap just below the Donner Pass, 7,500 feet above sea level, before the headwinds again forced him to retreat to Colfax.
On the 25th Bob reached 8,000 feet...before running into those darn headwinds again. This time Bob decided to land at Emigrant Gap, in order to get a head start start the next day. But flying in the thin air at high altitude was a skill not yet mastered by anyone, including Bob, and while turning around his wings lost lift and he plowed into the trees. They had to send out a search party to locate him, and when they did he had two broken wings and and two broken propellers - well his Cole Flyer did. Bob himself was somehow uninjured, but for the time being his continental flight was… waiting for repairs, again.
Back in Owego, the repaired Jimmy Ward’s Curitss airplane managed to limp into Corning and then on to the village of Addison, N.Y. (above) late on September 25th. He was now 300 miles and 10 long days out of New York City. But at this rate it could take him the better part of a year to reach California. Anxious to make up for lost time, at 7:18 A.M. on the 26th, James took off from Addison. And about five miles west of town he crashed again. He had to walk almost the whole way back to town. This was getting really hard.
To make it seem even harder, at a local hotel, Jimmy‘s wife, Maude Mae, overheard gamblers taking five-to-one odds that her husband would be dead before he reached Buffalo, New York. Maude May knew that Jimmy was not actually planning on heading to Buffalo, but she also knew that town was still 60 miles further to the west. And, since at the rate Jimmy was making progress toward California he could have been out run by a Conestoga wagon, and what with the rate Jimmy was crashing, Maude Mae figured the gamblers were being a bit optimistic at figuring Jimmy's lifespan. So Maude Mae decided to be practical - leave it to a woman to destroy a daredevil sporting event with practical thinking. Maude Mae spoke to Jimmy that night. And after his long walk and his two crashes over the previous four days, Jimmy was inclined to listen to the advice given by his wife.
Jimmy's manager announced his decision to the press the next morning. He was dropping out of the race. Later, Jimmy Ward would explain his decision in less than pragmatic terms. “…it was a plain case of a jinx”, he said.  And then he went on to prognosticate. “Rodgers is a mighty fine fellow, " said Jimmy, "and I wish him all kinds of luck, but he won't reach the coast within the specified time. To win that $50,000 he's got to complete his journey by Oct. 10th.  He can't do it. He'll get through all right, but not by that date.” Given this skill at fortune telling,  I am surprised that Jimmy Ward had no inkling that just seven months later Maude Mae would have him arrested in Chattanooga and charged with bigamy. She had discovered that Jimmy had never been legally divorced from his first wife. Poor Maude Mae. Poor, Jimmy Ward. And  he may have been the pilot with the most brains. Without his brains, the race went on. 
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