Jl Wright brothers’ airplane (a model B, modified for the flight) would be the first airplane to fly coast-to-coast in the United States in 1911, piloted by a nearly deaf, cigar smoking 32 year old motorcycle racer and yachtsman of independent means. This was Cal Rodgers, great-grandnephew of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry (who defeated a British squadron at the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812), and the great-grandson of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (who was in command of the U. S. Navy contingent that sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853), the latter being credited with the opening of feudalistic and xenophobic Japan to U. S. and international trade for the first time. Cal Rodgers wanted to follow in his esteemed forefathers’ footsteps, but he was denied admission to the United States Naval Academy due to the hearing deficiency that had resulted from an onset of scarlet fever when he was six years old.
It could be said that Cal Rodgers had been at loose ends for most of his adult life. At six feet four inches tall, he had excelled at football in college, but thereafter he seemed to be unable to find his niche. He was never required to work for a salary due to his financial station, and he spent his days after college in “gentlemen’s” pursuits and in amateur sports adventures. Cal’s cousin, Lt. John Rodgers, was in 1911 a recent graduate of the Naval Academy, and he had been assigned
to take flying lessons at the Wright brothers’ flying school in Dayton, Ohio (Huffman Prairie) as a part of the fledgling Naval Aviation program. It was there during the first half of 1911, while visiting with his cousin, that Cal Rodgers encountered his first airplane up close.
Cal received ninety minutes of flight instruction from Orville Wright and considered that he was ready for solo flight. Orville disagreed, so Cal just bought one of the Wright’s Model Bs and took off on his own. He entered his first aerial competition in July 1911, and in August, he won $ 11,000 at the International Aviation Meet in Chicago for endurance aloft.
Not quite one year earlier, in October 1910, publisher William Randolph Hearst had offered a prize of $50,000 for any person who could fly coast-to-coast within a period of thirty days from start to finish. In spite of no serious threat to the prize money from anyone else, Rodgers decided that he could win that endurance prize as well. Orville Wright, again, disagreed with the brash Rodgers, believing that the state of the aviation art had not progressed to the point where any flying machine could endure such a trial. Undaunted, Rodgers lined up financial support from the Chicago meat packer J. Ogden Armour, who had just inaugurated a new five cent soft drink called the “Vin Fiz.” Armour seized on the idea of a crosscountry publicity campaign as being just the right
promotion for his new drink and agreed to finance the venture. (See Figure App 6-1.)
The modified Model В was dubbed the “Vin Fiz” and carried the designation “EX,” which denoted that it was for exhibition flying. The primary distinguishing characteristic of the Model В was the absence of the forward elevator, or canard, which had been the primary vertical control device on all prior Wright models, including the “A.” The Model В was larger than the EX, with a wingspan of 38.5 feet to only 32 feet for the exhibition model. Both craft used twin pusher-type propellers chain driven by the 35 horsepower water-cooled motor, but the EX was built specifically for the stresses of exhibition flying. It carried no instruments, and Rodgers sat in an open chair located on the lower wing structure, completely exposed to the elements.
Armour also agreed to commission a three – car train to accompany the cross-country effort and to carry a contingent of mechanics and support personnel, including the famed Charley Tay
lor, who had built the Wright internal combustion engine used in the first successful flight of the Flyer at Kitty Hawk. The train, known as the “Vin Fiz Special,” was pulled by a steam engine, and consisted of a day coach, a Pullman sleeping car, and a “hangar” car containing tools, spare parts, and a Palmer-Singer automobile with which to fetch Rodgers and return him to the Pullman at the end of each day. Both Cal’ s mother and his wife, Mabel, went along for moral support, as did a revolving assortment of friends, dignitaries, and newspaper reporters.
The adventure began on September 17, 1911 at the Sheepheads Bay Race Track on Long Island, where he lifted off to begin the first leg of the 4,000-mile odyssey (See Figure App 6-2.). His route would necessarily follow railroad tracks in order to make use of the “Vin Fiz Special” maintenance crew, but also because there were no navigation aids to guide his progress, nor were there any aerial charts, airports, or support facilities of any kind. The “iron compass,” the railroad tracks that would still be used to guide
the first airmail pilots later in the decade, ran westerly toward the great city of Chicago, on the far side of the daunting Allegheny Mountains. These same mountains would provide the greatest obstacle to the establishment of successful cross-country airmail in the years to come, but now they lay directly ahead of Rodgers.
Although exact historical sources are scarce, it appears that Rodgers elected to proceed northwest from Sheepheads Bay, to Middletown, New York, for his first leg of 84 miles, which he accomplished easily and, as he said, he “didn’t even knock the ashes off my cigar.” But this pleasant beginning was not to be a harbinger of good things to come. Although the northwest route would avoid the harshest portions of the vaunted Alleghenies, flat land it was not. The troubles began as he left Middleton when he crashed on takeoff. Difficulties continued as he made his way west toward Elmira, New York, then down into Pennsylvania, and finally on into the flat country of Ohio.
By October 9, 1911, Rodgers had made it only to Chicago. He was just one third of the way across the country and it was becoming obvious that the Hearst time limitation for the prize money
could not be met. He reached an accommodation with the Armour organization, nevertheless, to press on, prize or no prize. At Chicago the route turned south, partly because of the established rail lines and cities lying in that direction and partly to prepare for the southern circumvention of the highest portions of the Rocky Mountains. At stops along the way, crowds increased in size and enthusiasm. In Kansas City, the authorities closed the schools to celebrate the remarkable effort.
Enroute, the mechanics were kept busy refurbishing the Vin Fiz after the constant mishaps encountered on takeoff and landings. An accurate tabulation of the number of crashes over the course of the journey is not available to us, but estimates range from sixteen to thirty – nine, depending on the prevailing distinction between a “hard landing” and a “crash.” Cal fared little better than the airplane, and he flew in bandages over most of the route and in leg casts over some of it.
By the time he and the Vin Fiz hobbled into Pasadena, California on November 5, 1911, it had been 49 days since he lifted off from the East Coast. A crowd estimated in number from
10,0 to 20,000 was there to greet him. He had made some 69 stops and had logged a total of 82 hours and 4 minutes airborne. But he was not quite through proving his point: he wanted the wheels of the Vin Fiz to kiss the Pacific waters. On November 12 he took off for the 20-mile hop to Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean only to experience after just 8 miles one of his worst crashes of all, at Compton. Rodgers was hospitalized with internal injuries and a fractured ankle, and his recuperation forced a further delay until December 10, when he finally was able to complete his meandering and perilous coast-to-coast expedition. Crowds cheered as Rodgers taxied the weary Vin Fiz into the lapping surf of the Pacific, his ever-present cigar clenched in his teeth. It had been 84 days since he left Sheepheads Bay.
Cal Rodgers had become a celebrity, as his progress had been faithfully heralded by the countries’ newspapers during the course of the journey. As King of the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day 1912, he flew over the gathered marching bands and floats, dropping carnations to those assembled there. He was awarded a medal by the Aero Club of New York later that month, with President of the United States Taft in attendance.
Back in California on April 3, 1912, he was observed to take off from Long Beach, not far from where he had brought his continental odyssey to its tortured end. He proceeded out over the Long Beach pier and was seen flying along with a flock of seagulls when his new Wright Model В suddenly dived into the Pacific Ocean. Calbraith Perry Rodgers did not survive. An investigation concluded that a seagull had been impacted by the airplane and had lodged between the articulating surfaces of the rudder, rendering control hopeless.
Cal Rodgers’ accomplishment has been relegated to the status of a footnote in the annals of aviation history, yet it stands as one of the many similar stories of the sacrifices of the gallant pioneers of flight. He was one of those who placed his love of flying and his capacity to endure ahead of his own safety and comfort.
« If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.»
-Wilbur Wright, from an address to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, 18 September 1901.