On a clear November day in 1911 the news of Robert Fowler’s approach in the Cole Flyer preceded him causing great excitement in the small West Texas town of Sweetwater. In fact, a holiday had been declared for the occasion and schools were even closed so everyone could witness the incredible landing of an airplane in an open field about a mile south of town.
There was a $50,000 prize offered by the publisher William Randolph Hearst to the first pilot to complete a transcontinental flight across the U.S. in less than 30 days. Mr. Fowler had originally started his race at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but crashed trying to cross the towering Sierra Nevada range in the Wright biplane. His Wright B was a wash-out, Fowler fortunately walked away with minor injuries and his ambition intact. Upon acquiring sponsor J J Cole, president of Cole Automobile Company in Indianapolis, a second try at the eastward flight was made, but from Los Angeles instead, favoring the less mountainous southern route for his rebuilt Wright Cole Flier.
He repaired and regrouped and on a second attempt, avoided the highest of the mountain range by departing from Los Angeles and in a few weeks found himself winging across Texas.
The race for the prize tested the skill of the pilots as well as the air-worthiness of their small planes and was a dangerous, life-threatening mission. Major Bennett Monde wrote in his book, Wings Over Sweetwater, “The little Wright B. Flyer rattles across Roscoe, Texas, at ten o’clock in the morning to the accompaniment of fire bells, sirens and steam whistles from the surrounding cotton gins. School children flocked outside to see history in the making, and cheered as the Cole Flyer winged its way onward to Sweetwater…” “The businessmen of Sweetwater were well prepared for this historical event. They selected an open spot behind the newly-completed Trammell home on Sam Houston Street and being unfamiliar with the requirements of an aircraft, they spread a large, white sheet on the most level spot around for the pilot to land upon. Amid resounding cheers from the awed and delighted populace, Mr. Fowler made an unusually good landing in as much as the machine stopped undamaged; although, it is doubtful that he confined his landing roll to the proffered bedsheet”.
Major Monde wrote, “After some minor adjustments to his machine, land a quick re-fueling, Robert Fowler bounced off again on his epic flight toward the east. Tuesday, Nov. 24, 1911, thereby became forever a part of Sweetwater’s history as the Cole Flyer faded from sight across the Rolling Plains of West Texas.
Although edged out by Cal Rodgers' historic first crossing of our nation by air, Robert Grant Fowler's reverse path was none the less a pioneering effort.