Fathers of Aircraft Maintenance

The following story is about one of aviation's forgotten heroes. The information can be found in the very informative book by William Wagoner (in collaboration with Lee Dye) titled, "RYAN,  the aviator Being the Adventures and Ventures of Pioneer Airman and Businessman T. Claude Ryan". There have been, and always will be, men and women who maintain today's worldwide fleet of aircraft from every branch of the aerospace community. These skilled professionals look only to complete their responsibilities with the utmost integrity. History has forgotten their names. The AMTA will try and remember them.

Hawley Bowlus, in white shirt, with Franklin Mahoney, Lindbergh and Donald Hall.

Photo courtesy of H. A. Erickson/Missouri Historical Society

William Hawley Bowlus

 In 1918 Hawley joined the U.S. Army to fly only to learn that he couldn't get into Flight Training due to his age and lack of college education. Somehow though Hawley talked the Army into giving him a six month leave of absence so he could take flight lessons at his own expense. He enrolled at the "American School of Aviation" in Venice, CA. There he was the kind of man who does things by instinct that others can never seem to learn. Hawley was a natural mechanic.

  He was well liked by all the students. He formed a special friendship with T. Claude Ryan, who would later form the famed Ryan Aeronautical Company - builders of the "Spirit of St. Louis". Back then Hawley and Ryan would live in Ryan's family camp trailer parked at the edge of the field the school was located on. They would buy 10 cents worth of fish near the Venice pier, which would make a passable meal. And when money got tight they would collect soft drink bottles from around the hangar and redeem them.

  The schools two aircraft, a Curtiss - type pusher and a newer aircraft with the engine in the nose, something like a Jenny only far less sophisticated, were in very poor shape. All the students had to pitch in and maintain/repair these aircraft if they wanted to fly. With Hawley's abilities the aircraft were quickly looked after . The pusher aircraft had a 75 HP Hall-Scott 8 cylinder engine with individual water jackets for cooling each cylinder. The jackets were connected by little tubes that were always coming loose & spraying water in all directions. It was Hawley who helped make repairs.

One morning Hawley & the instructor climbed into the plane and roared down the dirt strip. The aircraft sputtered a bit as it cleared a row of houses along the beach. The aircraft went into a bank, slipped off a wing and plunged into the Pacific sea. Hawley and the instructor looked like drowned rats sitting on the sea wall. The aircraft had a splintered wing but otherwise was okay. The aircraft was hauled to shore by people from nearby homes but even though their intentions were good the aircraft was destroyed by the crashing breakers. Thus forcing the school to shut down.


Hawley returned to the Army and eventually moved to San Fernando where he had worked as a tractor mechanic for the local Ford dealer. He was married to his wife Inez and they were expecting a baby. When in 1923 his old friend Ryan called upon him to come work for him full time as his mechanic back in San Diego at a location on a salt flat next to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in an area called the Dutch Flats. Hawley said if Claude could pay at least $35 a week he was in. Little did they know what they would offer aviation in the coming years!

While working for Ryan Hawley Bowlus used his knowledge & skill in rebuilding surplus 2 place Jennies that Ryan used flying tourists around. Ryan soon purchased several Standard J-1 bi-planes which were WW I trainers built of wood and fabric and powered by 4 cylinder 100 HP Hall-Scott engines. They were larger than the Jenny with a 2 passenger front cockpit. Ryan wanted to convert the open cockpit into an enclosed cabin able to accommodate 4 passengers. This was an idea that at the time seemed unable to be achieved. Which immediately appealed to Hawley!

Being the early days of aviation there were not many standard practices or precedents to follow. This "conversion" process fell squarely on Hawley's skilled shoulders. The enclosure project was more of a challenge than an impediment. Hawley used his experiences to devise what he called "fingertip aerodynamics" by his colleagues and peers. 

Hawley would ride in the cabin of the Standard J-1 and he would place one hand out each window until his fingertips touched the slipstream. That distance determined the width of the cabin. With ingenuity like Hawley's the cabin was widened by 6 inches. And amazingly the pilot's reported the Standards now flew faster than before. Hawley designed the "new" passenger compartment with a hinged cover & open side windows. The fuel tank was removed from the front and replaced on top of the center section over the top wing by an airfoil-shaped tank. Hawley and crew also modified the Standards to take 150 HP Hispano-Suiza engines instead of the lower powered 100 HP Hall-Scott engines.


When Claude Ryan bought several disassembled Standards for several hundred dollars each, which were stored in Texas, he realized why they were so cheap when he received them. There were no engines & they resembled a batch of spare parts! It fell to Hawley Bowlus and others of Ryan's young company to assemble them and put them into airworthy shape. The aircraft were then used for either airline or charter use.

The 3rd aircraft assembled had the cabin widened even further than the others with a bigger 180 HP Hisso engine installed. There was a side by side rear cockpit and it had 2 upper wings instead of the smaller lower and larger upper wing design. The aircraft was named the "Palomar".


When Ryan purchased one of Donald Douglas' first newly designed aircraft, named the "Cloudster" it was again Hawley Bowlus' talents who helped "improve" it by building a 2 person cockpit forward of the seating compartment. The original bench seats were removed from the seating area and the two open cockpits were combined into a single, large enclosed cabin. Carpet, ashtrays, lights and comfortable seats were added. The Cloudster had received a look and feel of elegance thanks to Hawley. The Cloudster became the flagship for Ryan's Los Angeles-San Diego Air Line.


When Ryan was ready to design and build his first new aircraft he turned once again to Hawley Bowlus, his long time friend. He asked a simple question which Ryan would put much weight on his answer. Ryan asked Hawley to look at his new design for a single engine, monoplane aircraft and then asked what he thought. Hawley made a long appreciative whistle & replied, "We are going to make this work."

Under Hawley's supervision, with the help of fellow mechanic John van der Linde, the new aircraft took shape. It was called the M-1 (M for monoplane and 1 for the first series.) With very few precedents having been set in those times Hawley and crew knew if they weren't exact in their knowledge and skill there might not be a second M-1 to build.

The M-1 Hawley helped build was a 36' span high wing with an open cockpit and it was externally braced. The wings were made with mahogany plywood box spars and wooden ribs. The fuselage was of steel tubing and fabric covered. But after several weeks into the manufacture of this new aircraft a big problem was to rear its ughly head and threaten Ryan's future!

The engineers that Ryan hired in Los Angeles to do stress analysis and draft design documents were the same who helped Donald Doulgas build the Cloudster. It was the offices of William J. Waterhouse who did this work for the price of $1000.00. But after several weeks of working on Ryan's M-1 design Waterhouse realized that if he, not Ryan, built the first aircraft like the M-1 for aviation's future it would be Waterhouse who would become rich. So Waterhouse simply stopped sending drawings and started to build his own version.

By now Ryan was in a bind with a half built aircraft and he was fighting the clock to be the first on the market with a totally new design. What could he do? He did what he always did when he needed a true professional. He turned to Hawley Bowlus. Without engineering drawings the M-1 would have to be built the rest of the way with Hawley's "fingertip aerodynamics". The future of the Ryan Flying Company depended on the M-1. Ryan turned to Hawley and asked another simple question," Can you finish it up?" Hawley replied, "Do you thin I can?" Ryan answered, "Yes." In true aircraft mechanic form Hawley said, "Then let's go."

Finally on February 14, 1926 Hawley & crew rolled out the finished M-1. Ryan walked around the aircraft finally pausing at the nose in front of Hawley Bowlus. The two men grinned and then Ryan climbed into the cockpit as Hawley pulled the prop through a few times. Ryan fed the throttle, pointed the nose into the wind and in less than 50' took to the air. Hawley howled, She's up!" And then to himself softly said, "Beautiful."


In 1926 the M-1's success & versatility showed that a cabin model would be the next logical step. With a new Northrop-Engineered wing the versatile aircraft craftsman Hawley Bowlus was called upon yet again by Ryan. As Ryan's Shop Superintendent Hawley was capable of figuring out most engineering changes without any drawings.

This new version, the M-2, called the "Bluebird" because of the color scheme of the cabin plane, had the controls and pilot moved from the rear forward under the wing in order to provide 4 passenger seats in the aft cabin with a baggage area further to the rear. The engine was a Hisso 200 HP E Model. This was the only Bluebird cabin aircraft built. But it had led the way for future cabin models. One of which would become known around the world!


In early 1927 a young man inquired of the Ryan Company to build a single engine aircraft. One capable of flying non-stop between New York and Paris. The man in question was Charles A. Lindbergh, a 25 year old airmail pilot.

Ryan said he could build an M-2 with a 380 gallon gas capacity with a cruising speed of 100 MPH. When Lindbergh visited the San Diego company he toured the facilities with Hawley, engineer Donald Hall and a few others.

Lindbergh decided to have Ryan build his aircraft and Hawley was invited to help lay plans on the design. With Lindbergh's selection of a Wright Whirlwind engine and an order for $10,580.00 the small Ryan company, Lindbergh and Hawley Bowlus would make history.

As Factory Manager Hawley Bowlus led, not pushed, the men & women responsible for building the new aircraft. With Hawley's contagious drive the workers became a team with high morale. So in 60 days, with the help of other skilled mechanics at the Ryan Company, such as A.C. Randolph (who suggested the idea of a periscope since there was no windshield), Fred Magula - sheet metal craftsman, and Fred Rohr and Walt Crawford, the Spirit of St. Louis was finished!

During an impromptu celebration while finishing touches were added to the wing someone presented a jug of wine. Because Hawley's shouldered so much of the responsibility for building the Spirit he partook a bit freely of the wine. At some point he picked up one of the seamstresses, Peggy DeWitt, and sat her on top of the wing... with a sickening cracking sound! Several ribs had been cracked! But by morning Hawley and crew had repaired the wing. Just before the wing was completely covered most of the workers signed their names on the front spar.

On May 20, 1927 at 7:51 AM Lindbergh took off from New York to Paris. And histroy was made!


Hawley had always been a glider enthusiast. He created the Bowlus Albatross which was the leading sailplane of its day. During WW II he developed a cargo glider capable of carrying 40 troops when towed behind a flying "tug". He later made precision-built model trains and he headed Bowlus Engineering Inc. up to his death in 1967. He remained an innovator throughout his career. Even though he had not flown in years he flew an Albatross sailplane ten days before his death.

Hawley Bowlus lived a productive life as an aircraft mechanic who was proud of his past and always looked to the future, never looking for fame. Just like today's skilled Aircraft Mechanics do worldwide.

Hawley Bowlus one of aviation's many "Faces Behind Safety".

Skilled - Proud - Professional