Last week we learned about Calbraith Perry Rodgers, a young deaf man from a historic military family who fell in love with flying as did many men of his generation. On a whim he met his cousin John Rodgers, a Naval Officer that had been assigned to the Wright Brothers Flying School, and they enrolled at Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio. The Wrights charged $60 an hour for a minimum of four hours of training. Rodgers was a fast learner and “aced the program” after only four lessons. He soloedonly 90 minutes of training in the flying machine and secured Aviation license #49 on August 7, 1911. By August 10th he was flying in the Chicago International Aviation Meet, the first Aviation meet of its kind that was able to distribute the prize money across flight time, drawing aviators from all over the US and Europe. Young Cal Rodgers was among the top of the group taking a number of influential prizes and placing his name in the record books. Taking the prize and the record for endurance of 27 hours aloft in intervals, he netted the most in total prize money at the Chicago Meet with a total of more than $11,285 in 1911 dollars – about $250,000 in today’s inflated US currency.
The Hearst Prize
In October of 1910 William Randolph Hearst, the owner and publisher of the largest chain of newspapers and magazines in the world, had taken a ride in an airplane and sought to further the cause of aviation and boost the circulation of his newspapers (probably not in that order). He offered $50,000 (about $1.2 million in 2016 dollars) to the first aviator to cross the United States in an airplane in under 30 days. Experts had warned Hearst that because aviation was in its infancy and the primitive airplanes were fragile and unreliable, this was an absurd notion that would bring nothing but ridicule. Hearst ignored them and went forward with the offer. This was just what a swashbuckling money winner of the Chicago Aviation Meet needed to spur on his aviation ambitions.
The Transcontinental Flight Deal
Before the ink was dry on the money and the records won at the Chicago Meet, Cal secured a sponsor to begin his quest for the “Hearst Prize” and be the first to cross the continent in an flying machine. At the time, Chicago-based Armour Company, a traditional meat packing enterprise, was introducing a new grape-flavored soft drink called “Vin Fiz” and Cal Rodgers became a major part of their advertising campaign. Armour provided a special train plastered with the Vin Fiz logo and some other railroad cars to support Rodgers’ family and his support crew. They also supplied a support car, a rolling workshop with spare parts to maintain the plane over the long flight, and an automobile to pick up Rodgers when he landed far away from the railroad line. Rodgers’ end of the bargain was to pay for fuel, oil, spare parts and the airplane itself which the Wrights had agreed to build. The airplane he flew was a Wright EX, built by the Wright Brothers at a at a cost of $5,000, about half of his winnings in Chicago. It was a a smaller version of the Model B, usually preferred by exhibition and later military flyers. The EX had a wingspan of 31 feet and weighed 903 pounds. Constructed of spruce and reinforced with wire, the framework was covered with cotton duck fabric sealed with linseed oil. The airplane’s bottom wing, stabilizer and rudders carried advertising for “Vin Fiz, The Ideal Grape Drink.” A water-cooled, Wright four-cylinder engine producing 35 horsepower supplied power. Bicycle chains drove two eight-foot wooden props. A 15-gallon fuel tank allowed three hours of flying time at a top speed of 55 mph.
For every mile flown east of the Mississippi, Cal would receive $5 per mile and as he moved westerly he would get $4 for miles flown west of the river. For additional income, Cal planned to do exhibition flights enroute in a Wright Model B carried on the train, taking passengers aloft for a fee. Even Cal’s wife, Mabel Graves Rodgers, contributed to the cause by arranging a semi-official airmail service with the U.S. Post Office and selling Vin Fiz postcards and stamps. To keep the Vin Fiz going along smoothly the chief mechanic was none other than Charles Taylor who had worked for the Wright Brothers since 1901, first in the bike shop and later built the engines for the Wright Flyers, including the famous one made the first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. For $70 a week (a large sum at the time) Charlie followed the flight by train, frequently arriving at the next rendezvous point before Rodgers. He would make any required repairs and prepare the Wright EX for the next day’s Vin Fiz flight.
The Trip Across the Continent
At 4:30 p.m. on September 17, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, deaf in one ear and half deaf in the other, dressed in a business suit and tie, several sweaters and a sheepskin vest, took off from the racetrack at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, NY. Clenched between his teeth was his ever-present El Ropo cigar. A bottle of Vin Fiz was strapped to a strut. According to the sources of the time, he circled over Coney Island, dropping promotional cards touting the grape drink and his flight, and then headed west, flying over Manhattan. Traffic came to a standstill, and office workers leaned out of windows as New Yorkers marveled at the sight of an airplane high above the city’s skyscrapers. The Hiller Aviation Museum reported that Rodgers arrived in Pasadena, California on November 5, 1911. During the Vin Fiz ordeal of some 84 days, Rodgers’ actual flying time was a little over 82 hours. Although the number of crashes was never recorded, they numbered somewhere between 16 and 39. He made 69 stops.
On November 12, he took off from Pasadena, bound for Long Beach. Near Compton, California, however, the engine quit and Rodgers crashed while attempting to avoid power lines. The Vin Fiz was almost totaled. During much of the transcontinental flight, Rodgers was covered in one or more bandages. He suffered numerous cuts, bruises and abrasions, but this time his injuries were serious: a broken ankle, a badly sprained ankle, broken ribs, severe burns and a concussion – but Rogers was determined to reach the Pacific Ocean. After Charlie almost completely rebuilt the Vin Fiz, it was ready to fly on December 10. Rodgers, with both ankles in plaster casts, lashed his crutches and the indestructible bottle of Vin Fiz to the airplane’s struts and flew the last few miles to Long Beach, where he rolled the airplane’s wheels into the Pacific Ocean. According to Charlie Taylor, the only original parts of the Vin Fiz to survive the trip were one rudder, one wing strut and the engine’s oil pan. His detailed records state that they had replaced six sets of wings, two radiators, two engines, eight propellers and four propeller chains, as well as countless struts, skids, control wires and miscellaneous parts, and yards and yards of fabric. The flight cost Armour $180,000, with Rodgers receiving $23,000 in 1911 dollars.
Cal and Mabel Rodgers remained in Pasadena, and he was crowned king of the Tournament of Roses Parade. Rodgers had carried his original Wright Model B in the baggage car on the trip west. He assembled the airplane, and in January 1912, flew along the parade route, dropping carnations onto the crowd. Three months later, he took the airplane up for a test spin and crashed into the surf at Long Beach, less than 100 yards from where the flight of the Vin Fiz had ended. When rescuers reached him, they found Rodgers dead of a broken neck. Although no official reason for the crash was established, some observers believed that Rodgers flew into a flock of seagulls, and one of the birds became wedged in his control surfaces.
The courageous deaf pilot died April 3, 1912 and a young aviation career was ended much too soon. The Vin Fiz now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. USA.
Clark, P. (2010). Cal Rodgers, The Vin Fiz, Transcontinental Flight. Pennsylvania Center for the Book. Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved June 21, 2016.
Hiller Aviation Museum (2011). Wings across the continent. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
Just the facts (2016). 1911-1912 Wright Model EX. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
National Aviation Hall of Fame (2016). Calbraith “Cal” Rodgers: Dare Devil. Honoring Aerospace Legends to Inspire Future Leaders. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (2016). The first transcontinental flight. Barron Hilton’s Pioneers of flight gallery. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
Wentz, C. (2011). Who was Calbraith P. Rodgers? American Philatelist. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
Ambrose, D. (2011). Vin Fiz image from 1912. Retrieved June 21, 2016.