The appeal of cresting the Sierra Nevada in some sort of winged machine was immediate as soon as human air travel became possible. Today, flights over the Sierra Nevada are a commonplace, everyday event. But, in the pioneering days of aviation, these passages were heroic adventures.
The aspiration arrived early. Experimental glider flights occurred near Luther Pass in the 1890s, but actual attempts to cross the Sierra by motorized aircraft did not occur until 1911. The trips were extremely perilous. Even with today’s more powerful airplanes, the Sierra Nevada is forbidding—rarefied air, turbulent cross currents, and unexpected updrafts make the crossings constantly dangerous. As the first pilots soon discovered, early aircraft were underpowered and flimsy. This made the flights even more dangerous.
Over the Sierra
The first pilot to attempt flight across the Sierra was Bob Fowler in 1911. Fowler was competing for a $50,000 prize for the first transcontinental airplane crossing. The prize was to be rewarded for the first pilot to successfully complete the flight in thirty days or less. Fowler tried a route that would traverse Donner Pass. But, enroute, near Colfax, his airplane, a Wright Flyer, flipped in blustery winds and crashed. Fowler was briefly marooned in the treetops, but escaped injury. His plane was repaired in ten days. Fowler tried again. Three more times, in fact. Each time he failed. Finally, he flew south to Los Angeles, crossed the desert and flew across country. He did not win the award—his flight took forty-five days.
- Bob Fowler (right) at the controls Source: Collections of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection
- Bob Fowler Source: Collections of the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space Museum