In his lengthy career as barnstormer, military pilot and path-finding entrepreneur, Basil Rowe was an unsung stalwart of the aviation industry.
Born on February 10, 1896, in the settlement of Fox Hollow in the midst of New York’s Catskill Mountains, Basil L. Rowe was the middle child of three sons and two daughters for Edward C. Rowe and the first two of his three wives. He was no different than most rural boys of the time, kept busy with the usual never-ending chores around the house. His most responsible charge was tending the chickens the family kept in a coop out back. To earn pocket change, he delivered Grit, a weekly paper, pedaling his bicycle around the town’s dirt roads.
Basil developed what he called “airplane fever” in 1911 when he heard that a town some 75 miles away was to be an early stop on America’s first great air race, a coast-to-coast marathon for which William Randolph Hearst had put up a prize of $50,000. Taking along a sack of food that he supplemented by apples picked in fields along the way, he made the long trip on his bicycle. After arriving, he stayed for four days, sleeping in a hayloft at night, but finally ran out of patience—and things to eat. Like several others who had hoped to see the cross-country fliers, he returned home disappointed, without catching sight of any airplanes. Had they waited two days longer, they could have watched Cal Rogers, the eventual winner of the race, come in for a perfect landing with his Vin Fiz, a Wright EX biplane.
Basil quit school not long afterward and started hanging around a garage and automobile livery at Lexington, in Greene County. There, he learned the rudiments of engine mechanics, for which he apparently had a natural flair. He managed to make a few dollars driving a taxi and fixing broken-down automobiles. His talents were soon in demand from those brave souls who had exchanged their horses and buggies for Model T Fords. Prominent among his clients was the local country doctor. When Doc Persons’ tin lizzie acted up, he sent word for Rowe, who rode the horse-drawn mail stage 11 miles through the Deep Notch to Lexington, where he soon had the automobile back on the road, running like a top.
Basil Rowe finally got to see his first airplane in 1914, when the fairgrounds at nearby Prattsville announced that a flier would make daily ascents there if the weather was right. Driving his new automobile, a cut-down Model T without muffler, doors or a top, the young man went to Prattsville with great expectation. The aircraft was there all right, a marvel of the day, a flimsy-looking biplane with an open spruce-and-bamboo frame, bamboo struts, bicycle wheel landing gear and a pusher engine, all held together by a confusion of wires. Its pilot was Turk Adams, one of the earliest barnstormers—as Rowe later described him, a “lean, grimy, hatchet-faced man with a wide mouth and a nose like a cleaver, always chewing furiously on a cigar butt.”
People came from far and near to see the demonstration, arriving in buggies and buckboards and a handful of automobiles. When the plane took off, it was a beautiful sight to Rowe, “soaring through the air like a lazy old buzzard, doing a few slow, flat turns… while the engine popped and banged.” But the show ended abruptly when Adams vainly tried to pull up as a buggy cut across his approach path while he was coming in for a landing. The toe of his long tail skid hooked on some low trees next to the Batavia Kill and flipped plane and pilot into the creek bottom. Rowe raced to the wreck, where he found Adams standing beside the smashed-up airship, still chewing his cigar.
The barnstormer’s greeting was magical: “Hi, kid. Want a job? Help me keep the crowd from picking this wreck apart for souvenirs.”
Rowe helped Adams move the plane piece by piece to the barn of an obliging farmer. When the excited youth arrived home that night, he informed his family he had become a flier’s assistant and would soon be traveling all around the country. His father spent hours trying to talk him out of it, but the youngster was determined. Before anyone was up the next morning, Basil packed his belongings and drove off in his Model T, headed for life in the clouds.
Adams and his new assistant spent the winter of 1914- 15 in the farmer’s barn near the Prattsville fairgrounds rebuilding the wrecked biplane. As they worked, Adams explained the fundamentals of flying and told him how the controls worked for taking off, landing and keeping the plane on an even keel. With the coming of spring, Rowe’s education continued in the air.
In Adams’ plane, the pilot was ensconced in a bucket seat fastened to a board in front of the lower wing, while the passenger—or in this case the student—had to perch on the wing and hold onto one of the struts. After demonstrating a few techniques, Adams switched positions with Rowe in midair, and the youth repeated the same maneuvers.
It wasn’t long before Adams decided that his young pupil was ready to solo. “Well, go ahead and bust her up,” Adams said as he chewed on his ever-present cigar. Rowe was anxious to show that he was up to the challenge. Instead of “busting her up,” he put the patchedup biplane through its paces, then brought the old crate down to a smooth landing on a green field along the Batavia Kill.
Rowe was soon eager to try his flying capabilities farther afield. As the United States was not yet officially involved in World War I, the budding pilot decided to join the Canadian Aviation Corps. Fate stepped in, however, and Rowe did not get beyond a hospital in Albany, N.Y., where he was operated on for a ruptured appendix. Once he had recovered, he volunteered for the aviation section of the U.S. Signal Corps. As he later recalled, that effort also came to grief when he “got tangled up with a propeller that threw me 15 feet and tore a lot of ligaments on my starboard side.” Rowe later lamented that he had become a casualty of war without ever leaving the ground—except for that 15 feet—or the country. He spent the remainder of World War I giving exhibition flights in support of Liberty Loan drives.
The youthful pilot managed to save $500 during the war years, hoping to find a plane he could buy. In New Hampshire he finally located what he described as an “old, beat-up open-cockpit two-seater,” which he purchased with a view to barnstorming around the MidAtlantic states.
Barnstormers took flying from a curiosity to a business during the postwar years, and many were lost along the way. The roster of pilots Rowe flew with during those days includes more than a few legends—Wiley Post, Glenn Curtis, Eddie Stinson, Roscoe Turner, Bert Acosta, Igor Sikorsky and Jimmy Doolittle, among many others.
Rowe eventually set up his own barnstorming business in a farm field outside New Brunswick, N.J. He bought a second plane and hired a pilot and a mechanic. He called his troupe the Rowe Fliers. The mechanic, apparently a man with nerves of steel, was the wing-walker and stunt performer and also one of the first wing-walkers to successfully transfer from one plane to another while both planes were flying in front of a grandstand. The Rowe Fliers garnered even more publicity when a girl parachute jumper was added to the troupe.
Rowe himself remained the star of the show. His trademark trick was to fly close to the ground in front of the spectators and knock out a lighted bulb with the wingtip of his plane. In addition to the standard barnstorming moves, Rowe—like many other stunt fliers of his day—was always interested in flying under bridges. One female spectator reportedly became so excited when she watched him fly under the Philadelphia-Camden Bridge that she asked if he would repeat the feat with her as a passenger. He not only took her along for a repeat of the stunt—he looped the bridge the next time around. Watching that stunt was a local police inspector, who soon paid Rowe a visit and warned him not to try it again.
Rowe also decided to try flying through the U.S. Navy’s dirigible hangar at Lakehurst, N.J. He apparently failed to do adequate research before that stunt. As he neared the hangar, he saw that it was occupied by one of the massive airships, leaving him nowhere to maneuver. He hurriedly zoomed up and banked sharply to the right, barely clearing the hangar’s peak.
In between his barnstorming adventures, Rowe occasionally returned to the Catskills. Local newspapers heralded his visits and covered the flights he made while there. One report also described an errand of mercy he undertook on October 23, 1923, when he flew Dr. D.C. Mulbury of Windham to see his mother in Middleburg, where she had been injured in an accident.
About this time Rowe was involved in three crashes. Curiously, he would mention none of them in the autobiography he eventually wrote. One was a particularly close call with a tree that was in the wrong place. According to the newspaper account, “Basil Rowe, the Sidney aviator, who is well known to Greene County res idents from his flying exploits, with two other flyers, narrowly escaped death at Binghamton, lately, when their machine crashed into an apple tree.”
The other two accidents were far less serious. One occurred while Rowe was taxiing across an open field after a landing and dropped nose-down into a cellar hole that had been dug since his previous visit home. The second was another landing mishap. This time, a sudden crosswind hit the plane, which swerved to one side. The tip of one wing clipped a chicken coop and took off its roof.
Charter flights were an important part of the early aviation business, and many of those trips took barnstormers to Florida during the winters. In the 1920s era of Prohibition, Florida served as a main point of entry for rumrunners funneling illegal spirits from the Caribbean Islands to Miami. Flying the demon rum was a lucrative sideline for the “booze brigade,” as Rowe and his colleagues called themselves.
Returning north in the spring, Rowe joined forces with Clarence Chamberlain. The Chamberlain-Rowe Aircraft Corporation settled at the site of the present Teterboro Airport in northern New Jersey. Their business was multifaceted. They reconditioned Army surplus planes, gave flying lessons and flew passengers on hops and charter trips. When the government decided to sell the remaining equipment left over from the war, it cut off the fledgling firm’s main source of supply. The partners closed down the business and split the assets, with Rowe getting three aircraft as his share.
He promptly turned to air racing. In 1925 the United States had no laws controlling and regulating flying, which meant the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale of France was accepted as the authority for air races and flying meets. The Fédération required all competing pilots to obtain a license from Orville Wright, the chairman of its committee in the States. Rowe duly appeared before Wright in Philadelphia and was issued License No. 223.
Monetary success on the fiercely competitive air-racing and stunt-flying circuits proved illusive for most fliers. In 1927 Rowe set his sights on the $25,000 prize offered for the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris, but—as he had no sponsor to finance him—he missed out when the Wright-Bellanca WB-2 Columbia that he had hoped to purchase proved to be beyond his means. Chamberlain bought the plane and was waiting on Long Island with others, including Admiral Richard E. Byrd, for a break in the weather when Charles A. Lindbergh took off in his Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis. Thirty-three hours and 30 minutes later, Lindbergh had made history.
Lindbergh’s famous flight awakened a world suddenly made smaller to the potential of aviation in expanding trade and travel. It also brought regulation to the freewheeling pilots of the 1920s. The Department of Commerce established an aviation branch to govern air commerce and license aircraft and airmen. Rumors about what new regulations were coming quickly made the rounds within the ranks of the barnstormers. Some predicted that stunt flying would be outlawed, while others believed their planes would be grounded because they would not be able to pass rigid inspections. Flying over cities and highly populated areas was sure to be banned, the pilots thought, and they feared other equally dire consequences were in store. The furor was enough to drive some pilots out of the country—including Rowe.
He bought two new Waco 9 biplanes and had them shipped to Puerto Rico, while he and another pilot followed by ship. The small island proved to be a short-lived bonanza for the transplanted barnstormers, however. They quickly ran out of audiences to watch their aerial escapades, and nearly everyone who wanted to go for a plane ride had soon done so.
Next they moved on to Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands, where they began to pick up contracts with the Texaco Company and sugar growers, flying executives and foremen from one operation to another. The idea grew in Rowe’s mind that an airline flying regular schedules between cities and islands of the West Indies could be a moneymaker, leading to bigger and better things. An existing airline also stood a good chance of winning the contract for the airmail service the United States was sure to create between the mainland and its island possessions to the south.
Rowe formed West Indian Aerial Express in 1927 with backing from some of the sugar growers and returned to the States to hire pilots and purchase planes, including a Keystone Pathfinder (a trimotor enclosed-cabin biplane) and a Fairchild FC-2 (a single-engine amphibian). When Rowe came to ferry the Pathfinder to the West Indies, however, he became ensnared in the regulation maze he had headed south to avoid. Before being allowed to take off from the mainland, he had to undergo flight tests, written examinations and physicals to qualify as an official transportation aviator. He was finally licensed as Transport Pilot No. 415.
West Indian Aerial Express started regular biweekly flights between Cuba, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico, later adding St. Thomas and St. Croix to its schedule. But Rowe’s dream suffered a tremendous blow when a powerful hurricane hit the airline’s home field in San Juan. Two of the firm’s planes were destroyed, and his logbooks, pictures, records, scrapbooks and personal possessions blew out to sea when the storm took the roof off the hotel where his office was located.
Still, hope remained. The United States soon announced it would receive bids for airmail service between the mainland and Puerto Rico. With West Indian Aerial Express the only airline already flying the proposed routes, it seemed certain to win the bid.
The only other candidate for the contract was Pan American Airways Inc., a subsidiary of Juan Trippe’s Aviation Corporation of the Americas. In order to qualify for the contract, Trippe had to demonstrate that Pan Am could fly a designated route on a regular basis by October 19, 1927. As the deadline loomed, the Fokker F. VII that Pan Am had selected for the required flight could not take off from the uncompleted field at Key West, the point of departure of the route. But then, as happened with many of Trippe’s maneuvers, fate stepped in. Cyril C. “Cy” Caldwell, a pilot for West Indian, happened to be in Key West with La Nina, the rival airline’s Fairchild amphibian, waiting for a threatened hurricane to pass. Pan Am’s representative offered Caldwell $145.50 to fly seven sacks of mail to Havana. Caldwell accepted the charter and flew the mail, a total of 28,000 letters, to Havana on the morning of October 18, when the hurricane failed to materialize.
Rowe would later lament in his autobiography, Under My Wings, “while we had been developing an airline in the West Indies our competitors had been busy on the much more important job of developing a lobby in Washington,” and so ended up with the mail contract. That analysis was true, of course, and an example of Trippe’s business acumen, which served him well throughout his—and Pan Am’s—long career.
On December 15, 1928, Pan American Airways acquired West Indian Aerial Express and hired Basil Rowe as chief pilot. As Pan Am grew, it bid for and won mail contracts to other islands in the West Indies and beyond, to South America. Since many of these routes had not been flown before, Rowe was assigned to survey them, seeking out new fields and bases of operation.
Rowe and Lindbergh had first met in 1927, just after West Indian had been formed. They got together again in early February 1928, during Lindbergh’s goodwill tour around the Caribbean. On the tour, Rowe flew Santa Maria, as the Keystone Pathfinder had been christened, serving as official escort to the original Ryan Spirit of St. Louis. Spirit carried three sacks of mail during the tour, all of it addressed to B.L. Rowe, the only mail ever carried by that historic plane. (The few remaining covers are today valued at more than $500 each.)
Trippe, with typical flair, hired Lindbergh as a consultant-technical adviser to explore new routes in the Caribbean and South and Central America. Lindbergh advised Trippe to build his airline around Sikorsky S-38 amphibians, eight-passenger aircraft that were equally at home on land or water, powered by the vaunted Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine and capable of speeds of 110 mph.
Rowe flew the first airmail from Miami to Merida, Mexico, in November 1929 in an S-38B. Lindbergh and Rowe carried the first airmail to the Canal Zone in April 1930 in another S-38B, and to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, in yet another S-38B. These and other routes had first been surveyed by Rowe. When the Paramaribo route was officially opened, Lindbergh was at the controls, with Rowe in the co-pilot’s seat. Passengers on that flight included Ann Morrow Lindbergh as well as Juan Trippe and his wife. Word of the flight by the two pilots reached the Catskills, where locals were delighted. Newspaper headlines crowed, “Local Boy Gives Colonel Lindbergh a Flying Lesson!”
Rowe at first resented that the airline he worked for had been started with one of his planes and followed routes he pioneered. In time, however, he realized he did not miss the worry and frustration of running a business. Being chief pilot of a growing airline with money in his pockets and time on his hands was, he decided, the best of all worlds.
Rowe’s career with Pan American took him around the Caribbean and from one end of South America to the other during the 1930s. In 1941 Pearl Harbor changed all that. He returned to uniform, this time with the Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army Air Forces, assigned to ferry war supplies and wounded soldiers on the so-called Cannon-Ball route. Along with other Pan Am pilots and crewmen, he remained with the airline—its Africa and Orient Division was organized for the single purpose of carrying out the Cannon-Ball operation.
Flying this long route was done in relays, but Rowe and the others flew every stretch at one time or another. The Cannon-Ball ran from Natal, on the coast of Brazil; to Accra, on the African Gold Coast; across Africa to Khartoum; over the Red Sea and Arabia to Karachi (in what is now Pakistan); and on to India and China. Basil also flew “the Hump” of the Himalayas from Karachi to Chungking, once making a wide detour so that he and his crew could get a look at Mount Everest. They were unable to fly over the summit because the plane’s oxygen supply ran out at 20,000 feet. On another detour, he landed at Agra, India, so that they could visit the Taj Mahal.
Basil returned to Pan American’s Central and South American routes after the war. In the summer of 1948, he was transferred to San Francisco and the airline’s Pacific operation, returning to the Caribbean in the fall.
In June 1950, the Korean War began, and Rowe was soon back in the military supply and transport business. He ferried wartime materiel, passengers and replacements across the Pacific and brought wounded men back from Korean battlefields, once again taking up his airline job when hostilities ceased.
When Rowe retired from Pan Am at age 60, he settled in Coral Gables, Fla., to play tennis, write his memoirs and—as he put it—“rarely go anywhere because automobiles are too dangerous.” In 1971, at age 75, he wrote: “I still fly a few hours per month but I expect the CAA will soon be around to pick up my license. Then I will have to rely on the tennis to keep me in condition for the future—if there is any.”
Basil Rowe on died October 28, 1973. Contrary to what a visitor to the Shandaken Rural Cemetery back in the Catskill Mountains might think, he is not buried there. While his name and the years of his birth and death, along with the names and dates for his brothers and sisters, appear on the stone marking the family plot, his remains actually rest at the Woodlawn Park Mausoleum in Coral Gables.
Rowe’s long and varied career deserves better from history books than it has generally been accorded. In his more than 6 million miles in the air, the Catskills native made it to nearly every clime and locale from Prattsville to Mount Everest. He missed only the Arctic and the Antarctic in his travels.
Catskills native Norman J. Van Valkenburgh, the author of numerous books and articles on the Adirondack and Catskills mountains,interviewed members of Basil Rowe’s family as well as local residents in researching his article. Basil Rowe’s autobiography, Under My Wings, was published in 1956 by Bobbs-Merrill.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.