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Birdman lands in Bisbee

A biplane sits at Bisbee Country Club, where Birdman Fowler would land on his cross-country trip.

A biplane sits at Bisbee Country Club, where Birdman Fowler would land on his cross-country trip.

In November 1911, R.L. “Birdman” Fowler made a stop at the Bisbee Country Club on a cross-country air trip and became the first man to fly into the copper mining camp (Didier Masson whose plane appears in this photo was the first to fly out of Bisbee in February 1911, but his biplane was shipped into Bisbee by railroad.)

Fowler had only been flying for three months, but already had broken records. On the Yuma to Maricopa leg of his trip, he flew continuously for four hours and 26 minutes, longer than any other aviator to date.

On the day he was scheduled to arrive in Bisbee, he got lost. He left Benson at 2:45 p.m. and made an unexpected stop in Hereford, startling some cowboys when he landed his Wright biplane in a pasture and asked for directions. The cowboys eventually regained their composure long enough to tell him he was headed in the right direction, and he took off again having only been on the ground about 20 minutes.

He had planned on landing at Bisbee’s Warren District Country Club by 4 p.m. His advance man had staked out an area across the railroad tracks, making sure that it was far enough away from the crowd so as not to impede his landing. But when 4 p.m. came and went with no plane in sight, the spectators at the country club grew nervous.

Finally at 4:48 p.m., a black dot appeared on the horizon to the south — it was Fowler. He had flown a mile and a half into Mexico (either by chance or design) before heading north towards his destination at the country club.

A Bisbee Daily Review reporter described the landing: “The airship sailed gracefully through the air about 500 feet from the ground and dipped easterly as it neared the country club grounds. He slowed as he came abreast of the clubhouse and looking down saw the flags waved to him from the landing place. The rudder was turned gently to the west and (the) airship described a spiral staircase as it descended. The landing was a perfect one.”

Upon landing, his first words were, “It was cold up there.” He continued by explaining, “I am amply protected from the cold air currents, but at Hereford I was 6,000 feet in the air, and I suffered from cold somewhat…my average height in the air is between 500 and 600 feet, which is not high enough to make it very cold…The only exposed part is my face and that (has) not been frostbitten yet.”

Fowler stayed the night in Bisbee and flew out the next morning intending to fly to Hachita, N.M., for fuel and to spend the following night in Deming, N.M.

Bad weather got in his way. After leaving Bisbee, he ran into a rainstorm, and 35 minutes later was forced to land in Douglas.

At the first sight of the aircraft, the mine whistle blew bringing citizens into the streets to see what was up. Fowler circled Douglas looking for a spot to land. An eyewitness described him “making a beautiful dip over the (YMCA) building. He did this twice (and) on the third time around the circle he alighted on the grounds back of the (YMCA) building.”

Fowler decided to stay in Douglas for the night and the next morning left to continue his trip, following the Southern Pacific Railroad as far as New Orleans, then cutting across Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia before turning north to follow the Atlantic coast to New York.

— Arizona Capitol Times archives. Photo courtesy Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, Crocker Collection.

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