Though he was forced to stop piloting in 1959 for medical reasons, his incredible
career remains the story of American aviation itself, and his skyward journey
crossed paths with the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Gloria
Swanson, Wiley Post, Will Rogers, Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
He would have been 105 this year, but he was still in his Eighties when we met.
My brother Wendell worked occasionally for him, saw photos around his house
signed by Presidents and other dignitaries, and heard that Bob wanted someone
to help him put together his autobiography. Eventually we got together and
decided to go ahead with the project.
I had already authored and ghostwritten a
number of books by then, including three
bestsellers, and though I wanted to do a
professional job, I went into the project with no
great expectations. It was a very interesting
story. I would do the writing. We'd say our
goodbyes. We would exchange Christmas
cards. I had been through this enough times to
expect no more or no less.
But this time was different. I grew to love Bob
and his elegant wife Fay, not just for the
storybook life they had lived, but for the
relationship that grew out of working so
closely together. I spent hundreds of hours
interviewing him in both Stillwater, Oklahoma,
and Key Biscayne, Florida.
I kept a tape recorder going during each visit, capturing every memory from his
storybook life, yet we spent lots of time walking on the beach discussing many
things besides the book while Fay and my wife went on their shopping safaris.
Dinner was always a major production, whether eating in or going to one of their
favorite restaurants where everyone always knew who they were. Both savored
every bite of food, memories, love and life. They were an amazing couple!
In the beginning, he treated me like the literary "hired gun" I was. And he could
be a curmudgeon, for sure, mostly because he was so deeply concerned that I
helped tell his story correctly. But as our relationship grew over the months and
years, there was a strong, durable bond that developed.
Finishing the book required much more than either of us had envisioned. The
original plans for a 250-page book grew to more than 700 pages of great material
(including a number of stories he told that I promised him no one else would ever
hear), then went through many editing stages that eventually produced 360
published pages of remarkable, one-of-a-kind remembrances.
This INTERVIEW SPOTLIGHT is much more than a remembrance of an aviation
pioneer who was "a great pilot" (as American astronaut Frank Borman referred to
him) or recollections from a book that was "The best American-boy-makes-good
story I've ever read!" (as Bob's dear friend and positive-thinking, bestselling
author Dr. Norman Vincent Peale called Born to Fly), it is an attempt to honor an
amazing man who impacted thousands, even millions, of people during his
storied, trailblazing life. Including me.
DH: How did you get started flying?
BD: I'm not sure that anyone can explain how they know what they want to do. I thought
about doing a lot of things. I was born in Oklahoma Territory, two years before we became
a state. As I grew up there were lots of heroes and people around to admire. I certainly
looked up to my parents and worked hard in my father's grocery store in Stillwater, but I
didn't really want to spend the rest of my life in the family's store. I had graduated early
from school and attended one year of college in California, but that wasn't for me. What
really excited me were the stories of World War I ace pilots, and how a number of them
came back home to start what would become a vast aviation industry. Back then, though, it
was mostly guys and a few women who saved enough money to buy an old airplane that
they would use for barnstorming from city to city. It was definitely not what it would soon
DH: Do you remember the first time you saw an airplane up close?
BD. Absolutely! It was as if my entire life changed in just a few moments. Though it
happened that day in 1921. I heard an airplane overhead. I had seen them before in the
air, but this one sounded like it was coming in for a landing. I was delivering groceries, and
I raced to the site near town where it
landed. It was an old war-surplus
Curtiss Jenny. I got there as the engine
sputtered its last gasps. My heart was
pounding. Then I saw the pilot getting
out of the plane. It was J. W. Cantwell,
the college president's son. J. W. was
a friend of the family, and I delivered
groceries often to his parents. He said
my name, then asked if I wanted to go
up in the plane sometime. Would I? As
the others who came rushing up
crowded around J. W., I went over to
the plane, eventually sitting in the cockpit. Everything about those moments flooding
through me, from the smell of the banana oil that coated the wings to the strange and
wonderful sights insight the cockpit. As J. W. and the crowd drifted toward his parents'
house, I was all alone inside the Jenny, completely lost in my thoughts and dreams. I knew
this was what I wanted to do. I also knew that I would pay any price and do anything to
spend my life as a pilot.
DH: Speaking of paying the price, let's talk about how you bought your very first airplane.
BD: (Laughs) My father went to Oklahoma City for gall bladder surgery. I stayed in
Stillwater to keep the grocery store going. I was out making deliveries in his truck one day
when I heard an airplane overhead. Unlike J. W. Cantwell's Jenny, this one was a Standard
OX-5, a training plane used during the war. I drove out to the place it landed, and out
stepped a couple of guy. One of them was Jess Atherton who had grown up in the
Stillwater area. He introduced me to his pilot, Brownie. Both were in their twenties. It was
obvious that I wanted to ride in the airplane. They asked if had ten dollars. I didn't, but I
had something even better—"I have a couple of boxes of groceries in the pick-up over
there. I could trade you a box for a ride." Both boxes already had a destination, but my
desire to fly in an airplane overwhelmed the fact that I would have to do some creative
marketing later on.
DH: What was it like to actually go up in an airplane for the first time?
BD: I had already lived it a thousand times in my dreams, and it was everything I had
hoped for and more. My heart pounded inside my chest. I felt the wind pelting my goggles
as we picked up speed and lifted off the ground. We began circling Stillwater. I picked out
our house and my father's grocery store. I belonged in the airplane. I was part of it, and it
was part of me. It felt absolutely natural to be soaring over the meadows and dirt fields
below, darting around the billowing clouds. Everything came together for me during those
moments. I knew what I would be doing for the rest of my life. I didn't know how, but
someway I would be a pilot. That was for certain. And I knew, long before the ride ended,
that my life would never be the same.
DH: How did that lead to actually buying the OX-5?
BD: I went out with Brownie again the next day. The engine quit in mid-air. When the
aircraft came in for a hard landing, Brownie misjudged and caught the right wing on the
ground, and we flipped over. I was thrown from the airplane. Brownie was hanging upside-
down, still strapped in, his goggles pulled over to one side of his face. He grinned and
sadid, "Whadju think of that one, Ace?"
DH: So you bought a wrecked airplane?
BD: No. It took a few weeks for Jess and Brownie to put the airplane all back together. I
went back to tending my father's grocery store. Meanwhile, he stayed at the hospital in
Oklahoma City long enough for me to get the "missing" inventory settled. Eventually I got to
fly the plane, then the two guys got in some obvious financial problem and asked if I
wanted to buy it. Did I? We worked out a deal for $400, and Brownie promised to teach me
all there was to know about the art of flying. Soon afterward, right after a very quick
education, he left town with the sheriff not far behind.
DH: What year was that?
DH: How did you explain
it to your father?
BD: He was still in the
hospital in Oklahoma
City. I covered my
financial tracks before
he got back. One of the
ways, as I got more
confident, was to take
some of my friends up
for rides for a few bucks
each. When Dad and Mother got back home, they would say things like, "Did you see that
airplane buzzing around town today?" I'd say, "Yes, I saw it." I wasn't really lying. I just had
a very up-close view.
DH: How did they find out?
BD: In a relatively small town like Stillwater, my little secret was bound to be uncovered
before long. Finally, one day when I told a couple of my cousins that I wouldn't give them
free rides, they made a beeline to the grocery store and told my father. He just told me to
get rid of it. For some reason I just was never able to find a seller. Imagine! My mother
eventually asked me for a ride. Thankfully, that flight went off without a hitch, and she gave
her blessing to the newfangled contraption. Eventually, he had to make a quick trip. It had
been raining between Stillwater and Enid. Mom talked him into having me fly him there.
Again, thankfully, the seventy-mile ride there and back was uneventful.
DH: What did he say to you afterward?
BD: He was a man of few words, but I at least thought he might say, "Nice ride, son," or
something like that. He didn't. But later that day in the grocery store when he thought I was
out of earshot, he boasted to his friends, "I went riding in my son's airplane this morning,
and I was surprised as hell at how good that kid drove that thing."
DH: That had to feel good.
BD: Not so good as the clincher that Dad added: "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if someday
he and those planes actually amount to something!"
From those small beginnings to an exciting career that spanned
the eras of flight from Jennies to Jets, Bob Dawson went from
barnstorming to piloting an airmail plane (handing off the plane
after each trip to an almost-as-unknown Charles Lindbergh), to
eventually becoming Senior Captain for United Airlines for thirty
years. He had coffee with his long-time friend Amelia Earhart
before her ill-fated flight. He was aviation's "golden boy," often
being sent on the speaker's and public relation's circuits after
tragic airplane accidents to extol the safety and benefits of
flying. He shared the stage along with such dignitaries as his
friend Eleanor Roosevelt. He flew some of the nation's best-
known celebrities. He became quite a celebrity himself through
a variety of advertisements for Gimbel's and other top New York-
based stores. Though he enjoyed relationships with some of the
world's richest and most beautiful women, he made me swear to
never reveal the details, not wanting to hurt his family or theirs.
He flew harrowing flights in the Pacific theater during World War
II. He met and married Fay, with whom he spent the rest of his
life. He knew Presidents from Herbert Hoover to the man who
would later be elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan. Along the way,
spending 37,000 hours in the air, he was selected to pilot United
Airlines' inaugural flights for each of the newest airplanes, from
the DC-4 to the DC-7. In 1959, he was scheduled to captain the
first UAL DC-8 flight, a four-engined jet airliner. Then at 54 years
of age, his world came crashing down.
DH: Let's talk about when you retired from United Airlines. It is well
known that at the time you were one of the United Airlines' largest
stockholders. You were well traveled and respected as UAL's Senior
Captain. You owned property in a number of envied places, including
an estate in Cuba's most desired region. But events in 1959 changed
BD: I guess it looked like I had the world on a string, but it started
turning around quickly. I had just bought a second villa in Cuba for my
parents near our first one. I was looking forward to flying jets for United.
Then during a routine physical, the doctors detected that I was bleeding
internally. When I went back in for more tests, I passed out. After blood
transfusions and treatment, I got better. Then while recuperating from
the bleeding ulcer in Cuba, I fell unconscious. The doctors there called
it a mild stroke. Not long afterwards the new Cuban regime under Fidel
Castro confiscated property from foreign investors. And if that wasn't
bad enough, not long after I returned to New York, the doctors
determined that it was best for me never to pilot a plane again.
DH: You describe in your book, Born to Fly, what it was like when you
officially retired from United Airlines. It must have truly been a moment
when everything literally changed for you.
BD: It was. Since it's in the book, I won't belabor the point, but it was in mid-November
1959. I drove my red Mercedes over to the UAL offices to take care of the final formalities
and sign papers. Lots of well-wishers were there. Suddenly, as it was ending, I just wanted
to get away, to be by myself. Once I was inside my little Mercedes, I let loose. I cried like a
baby. It was as if a lifetime of dreams were melting away. I had been flying for 38 years,
and all the memories washed over me. I could remember the first time I had smelled the hot
banana oil when I saw an airplane up close in the Stillwater meadow. Aviation had allowed
me to meet so many wonderful, colorful people, from Brownie and Jess to Charles
Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Will Rogers, Wiley Post, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford,
Gloria Swanson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Eddie Rickenbacker and so many
more. I had seen the world. I truly never thought that walking away from being a pilot would
be so difficult, but it was like part of me died that day. Still, when the tears were all cried out
and I was still sitting there in my red coupe, I knew that I had truly been blessed. What a life!
DH: Amelia Earhart?
BD: We had got to know each other when we were both starting out in aviation. She
was quite a determined pilot. You could tell that she was going to do some
spectacular things or die trying.
DH: What about the meeting before she left for her ill-fated flight around the world?
BD: It wasn't a big thing. We ran into each other. Sat down and had coffee together.
She seemed excited about what was about to happen. When we parted, she hugged
me and said, "Well, Bob, we've sure come a long way since the good ole days,
haven't we?" That was the last time I ever saw her. I still miss her. It was quite a
shock to everyone when the news broke about her and Fred Noonan. Pilots
everywhere were hit pretty hard. I was. As with all the aviator friends I lost, it never
got easier. You always knew it could have been your plane that crashed.
DH: In line with that, you talk about your faith several times in the book.
BD: I may not have seemed real religious to some people, but my faith in God was
always important to me. I never went up in the air without asking Him to help me and
fly with me, and I never got out of a plane without thanking Him for the ride. Plus, it
certainly didn't hurt to have my dear mother and wife praying for me as I counced
around in the blue mists.
DH: Were you ever scared while flying?
BD: Not really. (Grins) But there were times when I sure was concerned!
DH: One can only imagine, from what you describe about "Hell's Stretch" and "The
Pilot's Graveyard" over the Allegheny Mountains or that time over the Aleutians
during World War II when you and your co-pilot encountered the Japanese warships.
BD: Like I said, I was very concerned at times.
DH: But, perhaps more than anyone else who has flown, you had to feel at home in the air.
And it had to be a grand time, especially in the early years, when you were all alone up
BD: Oh, it was indescribable. Those were such wonderful, wonderful days! The skies were
mine. I was free. It was just me and God up there. I remember the helmet and goggles we
wore, the white silk scarves, the riding boots, the wind in my face...such wonderful
"Once you have tasted flight,"
Leonardo da Vinci once wrote,
"you walk the earth with your
eyes turned skyward, for there
you have been, and there you
long to return." That was certain-
ly true for Captain Bob Dawson.
When he was grounded for
health problems in 1959 Senior
Captain Bob Dawson of United
Airlines had spent flying hours
equivalent to four years in the
air. He and his beloved Fay
continued to travel. One of his greatest moments of honor came in 1986 when he
was enshrined into the Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame, taking his
place beside other prestigious aviators and innovators from the Sooner state.
This extraordinary man passed away on January 14, 2001. Both Bob and his wife
Fay, who died soon afterward, are buried not far from the Stillwater pasture
where he first discovered his winged destiny that would eventually take him
around the globe many times and back again.
Today we tend to forget yesterday's heroes whose determination and courage
helped create and develop the advancements that changed life forever for all of
us. Captain Bob Dawson survival skills and tenaciousness truly made a
difference for everyone who has ever stepped onto a commercial airliner, and
with this tribute, we honor his legacy, his life, his ever-ready jokes and the
effervescent smile that all his friends miss terribly!
He spent 38 years flying—from barnstorming
America's heartland to pioneering airmail and
passenger routes, as well as transporting the
rich and famous while Senior Captain for
Along the way he lived life on the edge,
literally and figuratively, as he soared above
CAPTAIN BOB DAWSON (1905-2001)
…From Teenage Oklahoma
Barnstormer to Senior
Captain for United Airlines
|Order a first edition
collector's copy of
(click here for
(click on the
(L to R) Unidentified
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.,
Mary Pickford, and
Captain Bob Dawson
|"Once you have tasted
flight, you walk the
earth with your eyes
turned skyward, for
there you have been,
and there you
long to return."
|—Leonardo da Vinci
Painter, Sculptor, Scientist
and Prototype Renaissance
Man Who Also
Amazing Flying Machines,
Including a Helicopter
and Hang Glider
|"The best American-boy-
makes-good story I've
—Dr. Norman V. Peale
Referring to Bob
Born to Fly
|"I wouldn't be a bit
surprised if someday
he and those planes
actually amount to
—W. A. "Gus" Dawson
|Award-winning reporter Ted Sherman wrote a powerful story for Inside
Jersey Magazine (October 2013) about the 1933 crash of United Airlines
Flight 23 in Chesterton, Indiana. The flight, piloted by Bob Dawson took off
from Newark, landed in Chicago for refueling, then with a new pilot, the
plane took off for Chicago, quickly exploding in mid-air
near Chesterton, Indiana. It has been called
"the first case of air terrorism in the United States."
Read Ted's remarkable Inside Jersey account of Flight 23.
|Exclusive feature for
by bestselling author
based upon hundreds
of hours spent
interviewing one of
Enjoy the airborne
adventures of this
Oklahoma Aviation and
Space Hall of Fame
member who was,
without a doubt,
BORN TO FLY!