Today, we fly across America -- for the first time.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Calbraith Perry Rodgers was
born in 1879. His middle name came from his
grandfather Admiral Matthew Perry who first opened
Japan to commerce, and his granduncle Oliver Perry,
hero of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.
Cal Rodgers studied at Virginia and Columbia, and
he'd been a football player.
His six-foot-four frame might've suited him better
for foot-ball, but he studied flying with the
Wright Brothers in 1911. The year before (with
airplanes only seven years old)
William Randolph Hearst had offered the
then-staggering sum of fifty thousand dollars for
the first thirty-day flight across America.
Rodgers, who'd gone into barnstorming and also set
a world's endurance record in the air, wanted
Hearst's prize. He sold the soft drink maker,
Vin Fiz, on sponsoring him. Vin Fiz agreed
to pay three dollars a mile for the flight from
Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, to Pasadena. They
outfitted a railway car to follow with a repair
shop, parts, and other supplies. They even brought
along an automobile for liaison service.
Rodgers bought a Wright airplane for five thousand
dollars and he set out on September 17, with his
41-day-old pilot's license. He flew 105 miles on
the first day. The next day he crashed in a chicken
yard and it took two days to repair his airplane,
as well as his scalp.
That continued. He had some good days and some bad.
He'd used up his thirty days by the time he reached
Kansas City. But Hearst's time limit had been just
as unreasonable as that huge purse.
Vin Fiz was still getting publicity. Rogers
On November 3rd, just as he reached California, an
engine cylinder exploded. Two more days of repair.
He finally reached Pasadena and a crowd of ten
thousand cheering people. Never mind that he'd
missed the prize by months. Or that his airplane
was so rebuilt that only the original rudder and
oil pan remained. Cal Rodgers had been first to fly
across the United States.
But it wasn't enough. He'd begun at edge of the
Atlantic. He would end with his wheels in the
Pacific. He took off and crashed yet again,
breaking both legs, a collarbone and several ribs.
A month later Rodgers flew those last twenty miles.
He landed at Long Beach, taxied his wreck of an
airplane until his wheels touched the Pacific
Ocean, and got out with the help of crutches.
His feat had taken 84 days, not including that last
twenty miles. A trained athlete might've walked the
distance in the same overall time. He'd spent 82
hours in the air, and his average flying speed had
been 51 miles an hour.
Four months later, Rodgers was back at it. He flew
an exhibition over the water at Long Beach, using a
new airplane. He zoomed through a flock of gulls,
intending only to scatter them. But one lodged in
his rudder, he lost control, crashed, and died.
And, call me morbid, but the question that I cannot
shake is -- how did the sales of Vin Fiz fare, back
in that long-ago fall of 1911?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
T. Gwynn-Jones, Wings Across the Pacific.
Atglen, PA: 1991, Chapt. 1.
For more on Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz Odyssey,
Centennial of Flight Commission
CALBRAITH PERRY RODGERS
Wright EX "Vin Fiz"
Cradle of Aviation Vin Fiz
Listener Andy Schmidt of St. Paul writes to point out an important fact
that I did not mention in this script. It was that Cal Rogers was deaf.
When one considers how strongly early flyers depended on all their senses,
Roger's feat becomes even larger.
Vin Fiz was a subsidiary of the Armour Meat-Packing
Company and it appears not to've done well.
According to one newspaper along Rodger's route,
the stuff was "a fine blend of river water and horse slop."
Rodgers crew agreed that "you had to sneak up on the stuff to get it down."
(See the excellent Hearst Prize website link in the text.)