Bobbi Swan, a pioneer in drone technology and sexual identity, dies at 88
Bobbi Swan, whose secret lives explored the frontiers of drone technology and sexual identity, died Dec. 26. She was 88.
Born Robert Rowland Schwanhausser in Buffalo, N.Y., he was publicly recognized as an expert on military surveillance drones, which he helped develop at San Diego’s Ryan Aeronautical and its successor, Teledyne Ryan.
Much of the work was classified, involving covert missions to wartime Vietnam and the Middle East. Also secret: the engineer’s life as a cross-dresser and the growing conviction that his genuine self was female.
In January 2003, after three years of hormone therapy and living as a woman, Robert Schwanhausser underwent surgery, emerging as Bobbi Swan. He was 72.
“This is a very slow transition,” Bobbi Swan told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2007. “I’m still adjusting to myself. It’s a continual thing. It’s a healthy thing.”
Interviewed for a 2018 book, “To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews With Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults,” she stressed the ongoing nature of the transformation.
“I think people talk in either/or terms, right? Before transition and after,” she said. “But to me, it’s really development. I’m proud of both lives. I’m proud of both mes, if you see what I’m saying. And I feel it has been a remarkable thing to have happened to a person.”
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Schwanhausser served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. In January 1960, he was hired to head Ryan’s “Skunk Works,” a secret lab in an anonymous warehouse in San Diego.
Their mission: researching the military applications for remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, the term then used for drones.
With his team, Schwanhausser developed 36 drone models. He was often in the field, making under-the-radar trips to Bien Hoa airfield north of Saigon, carrying a rifle and sometimes coming under fire. “Lightning Bug,” one of the drones, flew over North Vietnam and Laos, photographing enemy installations and even dropping propaganda pamphlets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The work could be nerve-racking and perhaps contributed to the engineer’s heart attack in 1968. The next year, colleagues noticed a dramatic increase in his alcohol consumption.
His colleagues, though, praised the man and his work. They relied on him to persuade the company brass to cough up “combat pay” and cover the costs of R&R breaks in Hawaii.
“He was a brilliant man and a fine man,” Cliff Smith, one of the drone engineers, said in a 2007 interview. “He should be getting more credit for the work he did.”
He was highly regarded within the industry, receiving the outstanding contribution to aerospace award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1971. At Teledyne Ryan, he was promoted to executive vice president for international programs.
He was drinking heavily, though, and a near-fatal overdose of lithium and alcohol prompted a 1977 stay in a residential rehab program. The next year, his first marriage ended in divorce. Between 1979 and 2000, he would marry and divorce two other women.
As a recovering alcoholic, he continued to work for aerospace companies in Alabama, Ohio and North Dakota. Under his leadership, the companies thrived — he received the Golden Knight Management Award from the National Management Assn. — but he was dissatisfied. In the privacy of his own residences, he spent much of his time in women’s clothes.
In his professional life, though, the 6-foot-2 executive cultivated an image of rugged masculinity.
“Priorities,” he said, when asked why he waited until he was 72 to complete the transition to female. “My priorities were airplanes and getting established in the airplane business. Obviously, that was a man’s business.”
Once he retired, though, that was no longer a consideration. The $5,000 surgery was performed in a Thai hospital.
At her home in Clinton Township, Mich., Swan had her hair done once a week, experimented with nails — she preferred gel to acrylic — and wrote a column for TG Forum, an online publication by and about the transgender community.
Adjusting to life as a female senior citizen, Swan introduced herself to family and friends who had known her earlier identity.
Most were surprised, but supportive.
“I never picked up a clue nor had any suspicions that cross-dressing or the desire to become a woman was such a powerful part of your inner self,” Gene Timmons, a former Ryan engineer, wrote in a Christmas message to his old colleague. “I can only imagine the pain and anxiety you must have lived with over the years.
“To have overcome the staggering obstacles (emotional and physical) to make this change is quite remarkable and I am truly happy that it has worked out so well for you.”
Swan is survived by two sons, Robert H. Schwanhausser of Escondido and Mark P. Schwanhausser of Pleasanton, five grandchildren and numerous other relatives, including a cousin, Audrey Peters, an actress known for her roles in the soap operas “Guiding Light” and “Love of Life.”
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund or other organizations dedicated to transgender rights.
Rowe writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.