After selling just four examples of his handcrafted masterpiece, the Senior Albatross (see NASM collection) in the early 1930s for $2,500 apiece, William Hawley Bowlus decided to reduce substantially the performance of his next design and with it the selling price so that more pilots could afford them. His approach would get more pilots flying more frequently and perhaps bring in new blood to the small community of soaring pilots at a time when the movement was trying to survive the depths of the Depression. Thus was born the Bowlus BA-100 Baby Albatross, named because the dimensions and layout of the wing resemble that of the Grunau Baby designed in Germany, and because Hawley's astute business sense told him that a 'Baby' version of his Senior Albatross had valuable built-in name recognition.
The earliest known drawing of a Baby Albatross dates to February 1936, therefore Bowlus had probably begun to think about the design in 1935. The designer must have considered the special needs of amateur builders from the beginning. By adopting a simple and inexpensive aluminum tube to connect the cockpit pod and the empennage, he saved the builder considerable time fabricating and assembling a more conventional fuselage built up from many wooden or metal parts. Bowlus designed the wooden pod that enclosed and streamlined the cockpit in such a way that he and several crafts persons could prepare the parts and mail them to builders for final assembly.
In September 1936, with the help of Don S. Mitchell, Bowlus began building the first of four Baby Albatross prototypes in a lean-to adjoining his backyard shop in San Fernando, California. Years later, Mitchell designed an interesting series of all-wing ultralights including the Mitchell U-2 Superwing (see NASM collection). Bowlus and Mitchell stated working early in February 1937 and completed the aircraft one year later. While Mitchell worked almost around-the-clock for several months, Bowlus could spare only nights and weekends as he struggled to support his wife, Ruth, and their four children. The first prototype differs from the later versions in some important ways: Bowlus used cables for aileron control rather than heavier, but more precise, push rods. He also skinned the ailerons with plywood but chose not to rig them to move differentially to minimize adverse yaw. The elevators are the same type fitted to the Senior Albatross. According to one account, the first prototype Baby Albatross, registered NX18979, is fitted with the aluminum nose cap from the Senior Albatross number 3, registered G13780.
Hawley Bowlus would sell to those that could afford it a factory-built and ready-to-fly Baby Albatross for $750.00 in 1938, minus instruments and cockpit cover. This option was not popular during the Depression, however and the company recorded only one transaction of this type. Bowlus also invited builders to construct their Baby Albatross aircraft at his San Fernando factory and a number of them did so. By far the most popular
option was to build the sailplane one mail-order sub-kit, or unit, at a time. A builder could finish each unit as time and money allowed before ordering another. The method was quite inexpensive as the following list of sub-kits and their cost, circa 1940, shows:
Unit #1, Rudder - $35.00Unit #2, Elevators - $40.00
Unit #3, Struts - $25.00Unit #4, Fins - $25.00
Unit #5 and #6, Wings - $125.00 for bothUnit #7, Ailerons - $25.00
Unit #8, Boom (aft fuselage) - $75.00Unit #9, Pod (forward fuselage) - $75.00
Unit #10, Covering materials - $20.00
Bowlus offered to sell the units in 'packages' of two or three at a time to save on shipping fees, or all ten units could be bought at once for $425.00, shipping not included.
Builders received parts that had been 85% completed by Bowlus crafts persons. They carried such critical tasks as the precise alignment of parts requiring the time-consuming construction of jigs to hold the pieces in position during assembly. Builders assembled the major components and finished the sailplane by applying fabric, varnish, and paint. Bowlus left easily fabricated parts such as the canopy and windshield for builders to design and form, based on the type of flying they planned to do. The designer did not equip the Baby with spoilers to improve glide path control but a number of owners installed them later. The omission was significant in a glider aimed at a large public market composed of pilots of varying skill levels, but Bowlus deemed the tradeoff worthwhile as it made the wing considerably easier to build.
To further simplify and speed construction, Bowlus used an aluminum tube to join the fuselage pod with the empennage. It may look like irrigation pipe, but it was actually an extrusion manufactured by Alcoa from 17ST aluminum alloy. The designer used the extrusion on the first 65 Baby Albatross aircraft but thereafter, he adopted a boom rolled from 2024-T3 aluminum sheet and riveted at the seam by workers in the Douglas plant in Santa Monica, California. The pod-and-boom fuselage set the Baby Albatross apart from other sailplanes of the late 1930s but the aircraft was unique in other ways, too.
Bowlus shaped the complex curves on the fuselage pods of the four prototypes by gluing, screwing, and nailing small pieces of 'scarf-jointed' plywood onto a plywood frame. The scarf joint refers to the careful and time-consuming method of shaping the plywood edges to meet at precise angles with no gaps. Wood workers had to shape each piece differently to fit the continuously curved surface of the pod. Precision was important to give the weak casein glue as much surface as possible with to bond. To manufacturer pods for the kits, Bowlus abandoned the laborious scarf-jointed pod and adopted a technique similar to that used by Lockheed to build fuselages for the Vega, Orion, and Altair monoplanes flown by Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner, Charles Lindbergh, and other record-setting flyers during the 1920s and 1930s. Crafts persons layered .07 cm (1/32 inch) mahogany and poplar plywood veneer into a wooden mold with glue sandwiched between the layers. They then placed an inflatable bag over the wet layers, and lowered a concrete male mold down into the wooden mold and bolted it securely a few inches above the bag. The crafts persons inflated the bag so that it evenly applied about (10 lb/in²) to the whole inside of the pod skin, and set aside the mold aside to dry. After waiting several days, they removed the finished halves, trimmed and dressed them, and glued and nailed the shells to the internal framework. A molded pod sped construction because it required only six frames versus eleven for the scarf-jointed pods used for the prototypes.
The cockpit was too narrow to accommodate a conventional, three-axis, control stick. To permit the pilot to roll the sailplane, Bowlus copied the arrangement he had used in the Senior Albatross and mounted a smart-looking 'butterfly' wheel on top of a stick. By pushing a set of conventional rudder pedals, the pilot controlled yaw, and a simple panel presented the essential instruments: altitude, airspeed, and compass. A competent pilot could fly the Baby Albatross at a maximum lift-to-drag ratio of 19:1 at 56 km/h (35 mph). Bowlus set the never-exceed speed, at 100 km/h (62 mph). The Baby Albatross was capable of doing well in soaring contests in the hands of experienced pilots. Unfortunately, the design of the elevator control made the aircraft sensitive about the pitch axis, something that new pilots had to approach with great care. Operating the aircraft for several years revealed that that neither the streamlined wooden shell around the cockpit, nor the aluminum castings used for fittings in areas subjected to high stress, were durable enough. Despite these shortcomings, the design became the most successful aircraft that Bowlus developed. Such respected names in the aviation industry as Jack Frye, president of Transcontinental & Western Airlines, Rubin Fleet at Consolidated Aircraft, engine builder Al Menasco, Glenn L. Martin, Jack Northrop, and Donald Douglas backed the production of the kits and kept the cost down to less than one-third the price of a Senior Albatross. Hawley Bowlus might have sold many hundreds had World War II not intervened.
Factory records suggest that Bowlus produced parts for about 90 aircraft. Pilot and historian, Jeff Byard, has attempted to trace the histories of each known Baby Albatross serial number. His work has shown that enthusiasts probably built and flew from 50 to 60. Among the group were pilots who accomplished significant flights at the controls of their Baby Albatrosses. Eastern Airlines Captain J. Shelly Charles of Atlanta made a number of impressive flights. He flew 423 km (263 miles) on one occasion and later soared to an altitude of more than 3,040 m (10,000 ft). On 6 June 1939, Woody Brown flew his Baby Albatross, "Thunder Bird," a distance of 451 km (280 miles) from Wichita Falls, Texas, to Wichita, Kansas, a U. S. National record for distance flown to a declared goal. Dick Johnson's first win at the U. S. nationals came in 1940 at the controls of a Baby Albatross. According to Bowlus records, Florence "Pancho Barnes" Lowe, bought serial number 118 and kit units 1, 2, 3, and 4 were shipped to her by 15 December 1939, but no further information is known. After World War II, a saloon owned by Lowe at Muroc, California, called the Happy Bottom Riding Club, became a favorite meeting place for test pilots such as Scott Crossfield and Chuck Yeager.
Only 17 Baby Albatross aircraft survived in 2006. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum owns the first prototype, serial number 101. Hawley Bowlus began building this sailplane in September 1936 and with considerable help from Don Mitchell, who joined him in February 1937, they finished the ship in February 1938. The regulating authorities assigned the registration NX18979 and Bowlus and Mitchell flew it at Arvin, California, in March. There are gaps in the airplane's history, however it is known that Mitchell clocked 273 hours while flying it. He and the sailplane were towed aloft by almost every conceivable means: automobile, airplane (40-hp Piper Cub), pulley, winch, and bungee-launch. On one memorable occasion, as eager listeners monitored his live broadcast from the cockpit, horses ridden by the Hollywood celebrities Edgar Bergan, Andy Devine, and Don Wilson, towed Mitchell and the sailplane into the air at the Grand Central Airport in Glendale, California. NBC radio carried the performance live. Mitchell and the competition pilot, Jack O'Meara, took the aircraft to the 1938 U. S. National Glider Contest held at Harris Hill in Elmira, New York. O'Meara placed fourth in the contest standings.
Frank Kelsey, president of Salt Lake City Glider Club, visited Bowlus early the following year and flew 6 flights in the NX18979 at Muroc Dry Lake. That August, U. S. Navy Lt. Horace E. Tennes purchased the sailplane and the following month, Ed W. Hudlow, Aeronautical Inspector, Civil Aeronautics Administration, issued an Airplane Tow Permit to Tennes to tow the sailplane behind a powered aircraft. During the spring of 1940, the Navy assigned Tennes to Fighter Squadron VF-6 based at Naval Air Station Coronado, California. From March 8-18, Bowlus Sailplanes Inc. carried out the following work on NX18979: "Recover Baby Albatross 100, wings, struts, elevators. Install instrument in instrument board. Check ship thoroughly." On 8 July 1941, authorities authorized Tennes to conduct "experimental testing within the 6th CAA Region." At the time, Tennes was stationed at Naval Air Station San Diego, California the details about these experiments remain unknown. Later that year, a startling development occurred when Tennes loaded his Baby Albatross aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise and sailed with the sailplane to Hawaii. Whether Tennes or anyone else flew NX18979 while overseas remains a mystery but the naval officer went on to command fighter squadron VF-86, nicknamed the Wild Hares, from June 1944 to January 12, 1945, and fighter-bomber squadron VBF-86, nicknamed the Vapor Trails, until the unit disestablished on November 21, 1945.
Tennes may have simply stored the Baby Albatross until after the war. He lost interest in flying and became a motor boat racer. In 1946, he sold the sailplane to John R. Hed and Charles H. Whitmore of North Port Airfield near White Bear, Minnisota. Hed and Whitmore enjoyed some great flying adventures before selling the aircraft to B. A. Wiplinger of St. Paul, Minnesota, on 16 December 1954, according to the bill of sale. On 3 November 1958, Wiplinger sold the airplane to Ralph P. Kliegle of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, and on 11 April 1963, Kleigle donated NX18979 airplane to the National Air and Space Museum.
Wingspan: 13.6 m (44 ft 6 in)
Length: 5.8 m (18 ft 11 in)
Weights: Empty, 140 kg (312 lb)
Gross, 227 kg (505 lb)
Maximum lift-to-drag ratio: 19:1 @ 56 km/h (35 mph)
Never-Exceed Speed: 100 km/h (62 mph)
References and Further Reading:
Byard, Jeff. "The Bowlus BA-100 "Baby Albatross, Part I - IV," "Bungee Cord," vol. XXI No. 1, XXI No. 2, XXI No. 4, XXII No. 1.
Mitchell, Don. "A Baby is Born - The Birth of the Original Baby Albatross," "Bungee Cord," Vol. VII No. 4, Winter 1981.
Simons, Martin. "The World"s Vintage Sailplanes 1908-1945." Melbourne, Australia: Kookabura, 1986.
Russell Lee, 12-20-06