The SP-1 sailplane was the brainchild of William Hawley Bowlus, an engineer who had worked for Ryan Airlines on the NYP – Charles Lindbergh’s history making Spirit of St. Louis. As a teenager in California’s San Fernando Valley, Bowlus had been a glider enthusiast. He designed and built 15 gliders between 1911 and 1928 and, in January 1929, completed work on the Albatross, his first true soaring plane. To make the plane as light as possible, Bowlus used craft paper with spruce in the fabrication of the wing ribs, earning the glider the nickname “Paper wing.”
Bowlus entered the Albatross in the Pacific Coast Glider Meet on July 4, 1929. Launching from San Diego’s 400-foot high Mount Soledad, Bowlus flew three quarters of a mile in 58 seconds, winning top honors. He placed second in a similar meet in September. On October 5, 1929, Bowlus launched from Point Loma on a flight lasting 14 minutes, 10 seconds, breaking the American gliding record set by Orville Wright in 1911. Later that month, the Albatross became the first American-built glider to fly for over an hour.
Bowlus made the following distinction between a glider and a sailplane. A glider, generally speaking, only glides downward, yet a fairly good operator can keep a glider up for a long while. A sailplane on the other hand, can be kept in the air indefinitely. The Model SP-1 #16 was the first sailplane built by Bowlus.
Riding the wave of public interest in the SP-1’s successes, Bowlus founded the Bowlus Sailplane Company in San Diego to manufacture gliders, with operations in the same building in which the Spirit of St. Louis had been built. He also began training other pilots – in fact, nine of the first 10 licensed glider pilots in the United States were Bowlus students flying Bowlus gliders, including Charles Lindbergh (number nine) and Anne Lindbergh (number 10 and the first licensed woman glider pilot).
The Bowlus Sailplane in the Museum is a reproduction of the SP-1 Albatross in which Bowlus made his record-setting flight on October 19, 1929. It was built from “scratch” by the Museum’s volunteer craftsmen who began construction in October 1988. A Bowlus SP-1 Albatross glider was on display in this building as early as 1936 for the California Pacific International Exposition. The current display is located very close to the spot where the original was displayed in 1936.