Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Dwight Schafter

By Paul Wankowicz

I suggest that the model for the American pilot-of-fortune Dwight Schafter in "Round the Bend" was in actuality a man called David Fowler. The evidence for this is circumstantial, but comes from what I know of David. I am convinced of it, but you can make up your own minds about the connection.

I first met David Fowler in 1961, about a year after the Smithsonian Institution posted me to Shiraz in Iran as the engineer for the Satellite Tracking Station #8. The Smithsonian had undertaken to do optical satellite tracking for IGY (The International Geophysics Year), and had set up twelve stations around the world, using the Baker Nunn camera for precision tracking. David, a rangy Oklahoman as smart as a whip, was then based in Shiraz flying a DC-3 for SECAT, an oil exploration transport company owned by an Iranian general. We were both multi-engine pilots, I having been trained by the Royal Air Force in WW II in the British Empire Air Training Plan (BEATP) in Canada. Although his experience was vastly greater than mine, we became friends. My wife Sue also liked David's wife Nora. Sometimes when I was free of work, I'd fly in the right-hand seat of his DC-3. I had not touched controls for a long time since the war.

Shiraz, located in south-central Iran, was a little atypical of Iranian cities. One of its wealthy patrons had forced some modernization on it, including a modern hospital and water-works as well as an electric plant run by a Siemens engineer. The modernization ended at the town boundary; from there the countryside remained much like it had been in Biblical times. The road leading to the airport was rutted dirt; for transport, we drove a Land Rover left over from the war. The Kasbah-like Middle Eastern warren, home to the poorer native population, was away from the modernized part which had villas patterned on the Western style. More than a dozen Euro-Asians and Americans who worked in town lived in those villas. My wife and I and David and Nora were part of that foreign crowd.

David Fowler could well pass for Dwight Schafter. He was tall, red-headed, always in half-heeled Oklahoma-style cowboy boots. He had the easy surety in movement that a good pilot has, and a dry sense of humor. He appeared to care for no man or law, unless it suited him. Not much of a party man, he did, however, like to be invited to our house when we had a party of our own, where he played the barman. (My kids told me recently that they liked him very well. When he'd spot them peering out of the bedroom, watching the guests, he'd smile at them and never snitch a word to us!) I don't remember that Nora ever came with him to our parties. But she'd invite us over for Indonesian curry, and sometimes if David was overdue or in trouble on a flight (she had a radio com in their house), she'd call on Sue. My wife would then go over and make talk with her, making Nora's wait easier, and I'd drive out over the dusty road to the airport and wait for him there. Nora was Dutch-Indonesian and had, according to David, been tortured by the Japanese as a pre-teen girl. This much we knew: the Japanese were not easy on the Dutch during the occupation of Indonesia.

He occasionally would stop to tell some story of his life, which is how I learned that Nevil Shute had consulted with him on how to fly contraband in unfriendly skies, and how to survive if government fighters flamed you. He met Shute in Jakarta on one of Shute's flights through. I can well imagine the two of them in a dimly-lit bar furnished with heavy Dutch-style mahogany furniture, discussing the business of flying and smuggling. Both, of course, were ardent pilots, and did as airmen are liable to do on any occasion. It's anyone's guess whether Shute was already writing Round the Bend and had developed the need in his story for a man like Dwight Schafter, or whether meeting David gave him the idea for the character. I suspect the former. David Fowler was probably not unknown in Jakarta for the type of flying he did. Shute may well have well asked around and been steered to him. As I later found out, David was not unknown among aviators either.

Pertinent to this is David's story of how he married Nora, as he told it to me. Having finished in Indonesia, he was going home. So he went to his mistress and said: "Well, Nora, goodbye. I'm going back to the United States."

"Mister Fowler," she replied, "if you don't take me with you, I go straight to the Communists and tell them you who you are !" He'd been going by the name of David Flower in case of arrest. He planned to explain that his name was Fowler, and obviously they had made a mistake, arrested the wrong man. Nora could well spill the beans.

"So what could I do ?" he said. "I married her !" And as in the fairy tales, they lived happily ever after, until her death. Nora died in the early eighties, as I remember, long after David retired to take care of her as she progressively failed.

At the time, in Shiraz, I was really not interested in Indonesia and naively took what David told me. It was only later, when I started writing novels, that I began to wonder a little about his history. For instance, when he once told me that he was flying Dutch gold out of Indonesia to keep it from the Communists and was paid off in gems and uncut diamonds, I had assumed it was Dutch Treasury gold. Visualizing the situation later, I realized that any legal governmental export of gold would be paid for in the country's currency - and that, in these cases, he must have been flying out the accumulated wealth of the Dutch Indonesians to keep it from the newly-independent Indonesian government, something not quite within the country's law. Also, he was probably flying arms to rebels, of whom there were aplenty in the post-war years all over South East Asia - some, it appears, supported by the U. S. Naval intelligence for which David claimed to have worked in Indonesia.

Tying in with this is the story, he told me of a night takeoff in a DC-4. "I was copilot on that trip. We were on a jungle strip. The night was dark, overcast, the strip was boxed in by the jungle trees and short for a DC-4," he recounted. The way he told it, the vision of that take off lives still in my imagination. It could have been Schafter's strip, as described in Round the Bend. The night was dark, with low clouds; I'd seen many like that in Southeast Asia. The walls of the jungle clearing surrounding them like black cardboard sides of a shoebox. No lights but for glow-worm-like pointers of the instruments in the black instrument panel. The round-faced dials alive: oil, fuel pressure, temperature, all standing upright in the green. The noise of the idling engines subdued.

Standing any longer will oil up the plugs. Time to go. I have no picture of the pilot, but I can picture David relaxed in the right-hand seat, but leaning slightly forward, as if to see better.

"Ready ?" the pilot asks.


"Lights !"

"Roger." David's hand falls on the switch running the landing lights. They flick on for a half second. Two answering headlights turn on at the end of the black tunnel of the runway. The pilot leans forward, uncages the direction indicator, then smoothly brings up the throttles, David's hand backing him on the quadrant. The brakes come off and the machine starts rolling, slowly at first - it is loaded over the normal limit. The engines roar like a thousand wild beasts. The car headlights seem to widen in the windscreen. There is a small grain of fear in David's soul: if an engine quits now, nothing can save them. David watches the airspeed indicator. Suddenly: "Rotate!" The pilot pulls smoothly on the yoke and the car lights disappear, eclipsed by the curve of the nose. A blur below them, the jungle trees whip by. The engines rumble harshly as they labor. They are flying - not well, but flying!

It must have been something like that.

David was well known among the flying fraternity, even when smuggling in Indonesia after the war. A few inquiries would have unearthed him for Shute. It was no accident that Nevil Shute ran into him to consult. Later, apparently some Pan America Airlines flying crew knew him well, too. This included Jack Barr, the line manager of the Beirut-Hong Kong segment.

The long-distance telephone system in Iran did not work like the U.S. system. One had to go to the post office telephone booth to 'receive' a telephone call from out of town. To my surprise I got one of those calls in the middle of the week. It was from David: "Paul, They are looking for me to throw me in jail. I have to leave the country."

"What for ?" My mind immediately begun thinking of how to hide him. Maybe among the nomad Quashgai tribes. Their 'King' was a good friend of mine.

"Can you do something for me ?" he continued. "The general who owns SECAT wants to get me out, own it all himself." In Iran this sounded more than plausible, although now I think there was some smuggling on his frequent flights to Dubai. Maybe he denied the general his cut after an argument. "Would you do me a favor ??"

"Sure, what ?"

"Get hold of Jack Barr and ask him to have a Pan Am second-officer's uniform left in the men's john next Tuesday when Pan Am flight 2 comes in. Would you ?" I don't remember if there was any more explanation; I did exactly what he asked. Jack Barr didn't seem at all surprised by David's request. I didn't see David again in Iran after that.

In the seventies, I spent some time as a civilian in Viet Nam, working in a province that was 90 percent Viet Cong. I liked to do relief flying for the Air America pilots, volunteering as second pilot on many of the flights over that country, often in an Air America twin Beech, radio call: 21 Zulu. (Many who flew in Vietnam will remember that worn-out kite.) Flying for Air America was about my only recreation. Sometimes I flew with the Royal Australian Air Force transport people who were running an irregular airline in the south of the country. As a result, I well know how easy it might be to have an establishment such as Shute describes in Round the Bend. The description fits better than just imagination would supply.

On one of these relief-flying trips, David's road crossed mine again in Viet Nam, when I found him digging into the innards of a Piper twin on the CanTho Airport. He was flying for Bird Inc. in Laos and had some business in Saigon. Neither David nor I were surprised at the meeting, and enjoyed our brief reunion. Again, I would hazard that this was the base out of which David flew the DC-4 with the Dutch gold.

When next I heard of him, he had bought a surplus Hanley Page four-engine Hastings transport and set up a small airline somewhere in the Pacific (probably Indonesia). I know this because he got the money with which to buy the Hastings from my son Francis, who worked for a finance company at the time. Francis later told me that David was the only one of his creditors that always paid on time and up to the mark. David ended his flying career with flying supplies to Africa out of Geneva.

After that, I didn't see him for many years, though we occasionally talked with each other by telephone. He had retired to Texas, somewhere near Austin, to care for Nora who had fallen sick with cancer, and he cared for her until the end. After that, he lived alone.

Eventually, he became very ill with a bad heart, and I went to see him. I think it was then that he told me the rest of his escape from Iran with the help of Pan Am. He had walked into the men's room at Mehrabad Airport, Tehran, dressed in his civilian togs, emerging from it slightly later dressed as a Pan American Airlines second officer, walked through passport control ("They never really check aircrew," he said), boarded the 707, and continued the flight to the U.S. in what the 707 captain called "the world's biggest damned glider."

There is some good background of the times in Asia in a novel by Wally Depew called Breakaway, a book about smuggling by air in Asia. I found a copy and, having read it, thought it was mainly about David, so I sent him my copy. He asked if he could keep it, but as to the suggestion that it was about him, he denied it, saying it was about one of his friends. I still wonder.

At some point, David told me that when the war was over he decided to be a pilot and went to school. In the late forties and early fifties, illicit flying in some less-developed country was a way to build up one's hours and experience. After I had left the RAF, I got at least one offer from a shady company smuggling arms to South America. I almost fell into it until an old dog of a pilot decided that I wasn't the type (he was right!) and dissuaded me from it. Another friend did just that, however, and came back out of South America with a fat log book, having flown drugs. She bought a flying school with the money she earned, and with the extensive experience she had gained flying in South America, she set herself as the Chief Flying Instructor. As far as I know, she is still practicing the trade. David's path was neither odd nor unusual for the times.

David is also documented in the history of CONSOLAIR as the only member of their group ever hurt by enemy action. Organized during the Second World War by the Consolidated Aircraft Company, CONSOLAIR transported war supplies to the Pacific theatre using 'civilized' B-24 Liberator Bombers built by the company. At the time, David was a flight engineer. Apparently, during a stop-over on some Pacific Island, he got out of the shelter to see 'Washing-Machine Charlie' fly over, and got hit by a fragment of the bomb that the Japanese impolitely dropped. His picture as a young flight engineer is in that book, if I remember right.

Rereading Round the Bend, whether or not David Fowler was the model for Dwight Schafter, was a great help in my understanding of a very important friend in my life.