Basil Lee Rowe Collection

Display Status:

This object is not on display at the National Air and Space Museum. It is either on loan or in storage.

Basil Lee Rowe, born February 10, 1896, grew up in the small town of Shandaken, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. He began his flying career in 1914 as an apprentice to aviator Turk Adams after seeing Adams fly at a local county fair. Impatient to become a military pilot, Rowe arranged to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, but was sidelined by a ruptured appendix before he could get to Canada. By the time Rowe had recovered, the United States had entered World War I and Rowe was able to join the Aviation Section of the U. S. Army Signal Corps; he was sent to Texas. During the Third Liberty Loan drive, Rowe was assigned to a group of fliers who were to give exhibition flights; after his discharge, he used his savings to buy a used Avro biplane and barnstormed around the East Central United States, using Hadley Field (New Brunswick, New Jersey) as his home field. Rowe soon bought a second aircraft, hired pilot William S. "Bill" Wade, and moved his base of operations to the Aeromarine Base at Keyport, near Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Rowe prospered through the early 1920s, and his troupe the "Rowe Fliers" (including at various times wingwalkers Bill Stacy and Marguerite L. "Peggy" Roome) toured the eastern US giving exhibition flights and passenger rides. In the winter, Rowe moved his operation to Florida, and, with a rebuilt Curtiss Seagull, ferried passengers eager to escape Prohibition from Miami to Nassau, Bahamas--with a bit of rumrunning on the side. Back in New Jersey, Rowe formed the Chamberlin-Rowe Aircraft Corporation with fellow aviator Clarence Chamberlin to buy and resell Army surplus aircraft; the short-lived business went bust in 1924 when the government finished selling off its aircraft. Rowe, a talented racing pilot, kept busy from 1924 through 1926 on the racing circuit, winning numerous prizes. By the end of 1926, at the age of thirty, Rowe felt that he had reached a turning point in his life. Dismayed by the increase in US government regulation of aviation, Rowe moved his operations to the West Indies, settling in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. With Bill Wade, Rowe rapidly established a business flying charters around the country, with flights to neighboring Haiti and Puerto Rico. In June 1927, with financial backing provided by sugar industry businessmen and the government of the Dominican Republic, Rowe founded West Indian Aerial Express (abbreviated variously as WIAE or WIAX) to provide airline service between Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, hoping to be well positioned to bid on future US foreign air mail routes. With this in mind, Rowe returned to the Unites States and purchased a Fairchild FC-2W floatplane (christened "La Niña") and a larger Keystone K-47 Pathfinder trimotor (the former "American Legion," r/n NX179, rebuilt by the Keystone factory following a crash in April 1927 and rechristened as "Santa Maria"). To his dismay, Rowe was forced to acquired a US transport pilot license in order to be allowed to fly the "Santa Maria" back to Santo Domingo; he hired Canadian pilot Cy Caldwell to ferry "La Niña." On the way south in mid October 1927, Rowe found himself and his two aircraft in Florida just as Pan American Airways (PAA), which had been successful in obtaining a temporary contract to deliver mail from the US to Cuba, found itself without any aircraft able to fly out of their Key West, Florida, field to fulfill the contract before it expired. PAA struck a deal with Rowe to lease "La Niña" (piloted by Caldwell) to fly the first Pan American Airways flight on October 19, 1927. With its two new aircraft, West Indian Aerial Express started regularly scheduled twice-weekly flights on December 1, 1927, between Cuba, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Rico, later extending the routes to St. Thomas and St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. On June 30, 1928, WIAX filed a bid with the US government for air mail service on the route from Key West to Puerto Rico, but was outmanuevered by the more politically-savvy Pan American Airways which won the contract. A final crippling blow was dealt to WIAX in September 1928 when a severe hurricane hit their base in San Juan, Puerto Rico, destroying "La Niña" and two older Waco biplanes. Rowe made his last flight in the "Santa Maria" on September 20, 1928, before turning the aircraft over to Pan American. On October 16, 1928, PAA purchased WIAX, with Rowe becoming PAA's senior pilot. During his first ten years with Pan Am, Rowe flew a record number of hours and surveyed most of the new air routes through the Caribbean to Central and South America, several times flying with Charles Lindbergh. When the US entered World War II, Rowe was assigned to Pan Am's Africa and Orient Division to serve with the US Army Air Forces Air Transport Command on their supply route across the South Atlantic and Africa to India and China (the "Cannonball Run"). His wife, Florence May Sharp, whom Rowe had married in 1930, served as an aircraft spotter during the war. During the Korean Conflict, Rowe was once again pressed into service, and was transferred to Pan Am's Pacific Division to fly transpacific supply routes and medical evacuation flights. May's early death in 1943 left Rowe a widower at his retirement from Pan Am in 1956. At their Coral Gables, Florida, home he wrote his autobiography, Under My Wings (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., New York, 1956) and remained active as a tennis instructor until his death on October 28, 1973.