Long before he designed and built the Bowlus-du Pont "Falcon," William Hawley Bowlus had contributed to aviation history. In 1926, T. Claude Ryan hired him as factory manager at the Ryan Airlines, Inc., at San Diego, California. Late in February 1927, Bowlus and twenty Ryan workmen, supervised by chief engineer Donald A. Hall and Charles A. Lindbergh, built a long-range monoplane based on the Ryan M-2. Lindbergh christened the modified M-2 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 Lindbergh, 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 that he called the Bowlus Super Sailplane. In Germany, designers and pilots led the world in building and flying 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 wing of the Super was nearly a copy of the wing used on the German "Wein" sailplane designed and flown with great success in 1930 and 1931 by Robert Kronfeld. Both the Super Sailplane and the Senior Albatross 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 called the "Fafnir" and designed by Alexander Lippisch specifically for 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, this heir to the Delaware-based chemical empire could fly gliders with some skill. During his first year at the University of Virginia, he founded a campus soaring club. His passion for motor-less flight drew him farther away from traditional academics and in 1932, he transferred to the Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute. Mr. 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 while du Pont supplied enthusiasm, financing, and additional labor. The Bowlus-DuPont Sailplane Company became an official entity in 1934, not in California but in Delaware. The firm folded in September 1936 but during its short life, the small factory built four examples of the Senior 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 while du Pont supplied enthusiasm, financing, and additional labor. The Bowlus-DuPont Sailplane Company became an official entity in 1934, not in California but in Delaware. The firm folded in September 1936 but during its short life, the small factory built four examples of the Senior Albatross. No two were constructed exactly alike and a short history of each follows:
-Prototype Sr Albatross called the Super Sailplane, 60-ft span straight wing, built 1932, landed in the ocean and destroyed fall 1932.
-First two production Sr. Albatrosses, 62-ft span gull wing, a single-seat named Albatross I, and a two-seater named Dragonfly with pod fuselage and a metal boom aft fuselage, both with gull wings but no flaps, purchased by Richard du Pont in 1933. Dragonfly crashed at Elmira 1933 and later burned by du Pont. Du Pont sold Albatross I to Chet Decker.
-Third production Sr. Albatross built to order for Warren Eaton, named Falcon and fitted with flaps, Eaton accepted the sailplane May 1934, flown at Elmira in national meet that year, Eaton died end of 1934, Eaton’s widow Genevieve donated to Smithsonian Institution in 1935.
-Fourth production Sr. Albatross, Bowlus built a sister ship to Eaton’s Falcon called Albatross II and fitted with flaps like Falcon, sold to du Pont who flew it in 1934 national contest at Elmira. Flown many times but not owned by Lew Barringer, damaged by wind in 1935 and wreck sold to Jack O’Meara in 1935.
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. Bowlus fitted two with wing flaps, Falcon and Albatross II, rather than spoilers, for better speed and altitude control during landing. Mahogany plywood skinned the Falcon and spruce plywood covered the other three aircraft, Dragonfly, Albatross I, and Albatross II. Bowlus sold each of these handcrafted airplanes for $2,500.
Performance calculations revealed a best glide ratio of 23:1 when flying at 64.4 km/h (40 mph). If it became necessary, the pilot of a Senior Albatross could push his mount well over 161 km/h (100 mph) as long as he never exceeded a speed of 241.5 km/h (150 mph). With an accomplished pilot at the controls, the Senior Albatross could fly better than any other American sailplane and they were very pleasing to look at, too. A quotation from the July 1934 issue of "Aviation," a popular aviation periodical of the day, sums up one writer's impressions of the 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 who flew the Senior Albatross nearly dominated American competitive soaring. In September 1933, Richard du Pont flew the first Senior Albatross, Albatross I, 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, he 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). The following year, Lewin Barringer soared du Pont’s Albatross II parallel to the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains for 250.3 km (155.5 miles). Du Pont sold Albatross I to Chet Decker who competed with the sailplane in the 1936 U. S. National contest held at Elmira, NY.
In May 1934, Warren E. Eaton acquired from Hawley Bowlus the Senior Albatross Falcon that is now preserved at NASM. Eaton was already a veteran aviator. He had joined the U. S. Army Air Service and flown SPAD XIII fighters (see NASM collection) in the 103rd Aero Squadron, 3rd Pursuit Group, at Issoudon, France, from August 27, 1918, until Armistice Day, November 11. He was credited with downing one enemy aircraft in aerial combat. After the war, Eaton founded the Soaring Society of America and became the organization's first president.
Eaton had commissioned Bowlus to build a Senior Albatross after he saw Richard du Pont fly the Albatross I at the U. S. Nationals the year before. Eaton asked Bowlus to fit flaps to his aircraft and to skin it with mahogany plywood. He 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 stylized 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 atop Harris Hill outside Elmira, 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 a Franklin primay glider.
In 1935, Warren Eaton's widow, Genevieve, donated the Falcon to the Smithsonian Institution. It arrived in Washington on May 28 and a few days later, museum personnel suspended the glider from the ceiling of the West Hall of the Arts and Industries Building where it remained on display for many years.
Wingspan: 18.8 m (61 ft 9 in)
Length: 7.2 m (23 ft 7 in)
Height: 1.6 m (5 ft 4 in)
Weight: Empty, 153 kg (340 lb)
Gross, 236 kg (520 lb)
References and Further Reading:
Blacksten, Raul. "On the Wings of an (Senior) Albatross." Unpublished manuscript, May 2000.
Crouch, Tom D., ed. "Charles A. Lindbergh - An American Life." Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977.
Frebert, George, and Haskell, Debbie, ed. "Deleware Aviation History." Dover: Litho Printing Co., 1998.
Ross, Harland. "A Bowlus Outline," "Bungee Cord," Vol. 6 No. 4, Winter 1980.
Simons, Martin. "The World's Vintage Sailplanes 1908-1945." Melbourne, Australia: Kookaburra, 1986.
Senior Albatross curatorial file, Aeronautics Division, National Air and Space Museum.
Russell Lee, 7/23/12, rev. 11/5/20