According to the Jan. 18, 1912 edition of The Conecuh Record, under the headline, “The Airship,” editor J.C. Whitcomb reported that “aviation, like the automobile a few years ago, is becoming quite the rage, and when it was known that the bird man, R.G. Fowler of San Francisco would reach Evergreen Sunday afternoon, the streets were crowded with people with their noses elevated at an angle of about 45 degrees to catch the first sight of the wonderful flying machine.
“They were not disappointed – the bird man came and made good and although circling in the air at least 1,000 feet above the earth, the whirr of the powerful little motor, which drove the machine through space with such velocity, was plainly heard by the crowd below.
“After circling over the city several times and executing some graceful curves, Fowler landed about two miles from town. The people had the thrilling pleasure again on Tuesday of seeing the airship which had remained over on account of unfavorable weather conditions. Mr. Fowler took his final flight about three o’clock for other points on his route.”
Fowler’s appearance in Evergreen was a big deal for local residents, many of whom had never even seen an airplane before. Many Evergreen residents probably also didn’t realize that they were witnessing an important event in aviation history first hand because Fowler’s landing is believed to have been the first ever airplane landing in the history of Conecuh County.
R.G. Fowler was actually early aviation pioneer Robert Grant Fowler, a 27-year-old pilot who was trying to win the Hearst Prize, a $50,000 prize put up by newspaper legend William Randolph Hearst for the first person to fly coast to coast across the United States in less than 30 days. After he left Evergreen, Fowler did become the first person to fly across the country from west-to-east, but he didn’t make it in 30 days.
Fowler, who passed away at the age of 81 in 1966, took off from San Francisco on Sept. 11, 1911 in a Wright Model B biplane built by the Wright Company, which was owned and operated by the famous Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur. The “powerful little motor” heard by Evergreen residents was the plane’s Cole Motor Car Co. engine, and this engine must have served him well as he flew across America. As things go, 150 days later (and 23 days after he left Evergreen), Fowler finished his coast-to-coast trip when he landed in Jacksonville, Fla. on Feb. 8, 1912.
Fowler apparently wasn’t satisfied with being the first pilot to fly across the country from west to east because in April 1913 he became the first person to (technically) make a nonstop transcontinental flight. He did it in just 57 minutes by flying from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean over the 48-mile long Panama Canal. He later formed the Fowler Airplane Corporation, which built nearly 300 planes for the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps during World War I.
During my research on Fowler for this column, I was left with more than a few questions. Where exactly did he land when he stopped in Evergreen? What happened to the biplane that he used in his 1911-1912 flight across America. It’s possible that it’s sitting in a museum somewhere today, and if anyone out there knows anything more about it, please let me hear from you. You can call me at The Courant at 578-1492 or shoot me an e-mail at email@example.com.