The First Across the Continent
A 100th anniversary remembrance of Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz.
- By Charles Wiggin, As Told To Howard Eisenberg
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
THERE WERE TWO OF US in the shed that served as a hangar at the Wright brothers flying school that bright June morning: Al Welsh, the Wrights’ chief instructor, tinkering with one of their tomato-can engines, and me, an eager kid holding a wrench for him.g When the tall man in the well-cut business suit strode in, he looked more like a stockbroker than a nut who’d try to fly from ocean to ocean in one of Wilbur and Orville’s motorized matchsticks.
Cal Rodgers was an impressive man. Firm-jawed, confident, and, at 32 almost twice my 16 and a half years, he quickly became my idol. He spent part of June 1911 learning to fly, and at the end of the month, he made me a proposition.
“I’ve bought an airplane, and I’ll need a mechanician, Wiggie,” he said. “I’ll pay you $15 a week, and I’ll teach you to fly.”
I was getting two dollars more road-testing autos for Stoddard-Dayton, but I’d never been happier to take a pay cut. Back home at the Atlanta Speedway a few months before, I’d seen a barnstorming Demoiselle. It hadn’t quite flown, just hopped along the ground that day. But the sight of that almost-bird bewitched me. I left home with two clean shirts and five dollars, and found the Wrights at Simms Station near Dayton, Ohio. I had pleaded to join their exhibition team, and when the answer was no, took a job nearby. My heart was at Simms Station, though, and every spare moment, so was I. I tried to make myself useful: squirting oil, carrying bundles of struts and braces, shooing Mr. Huffman’s cows out of the way when an airplane was ready to fly, shooing them onto the “runway” when the grass needed clipping, tugging at a wingtip when extra hands were needed to swing an old Model A—on wood skids instead of wheels—onto its takeoff track, thrilled at the chance to be part of the miracle of getting an airplane into the air.
On August 7, Cal pocketed Aero Club of America license no. 49—choosing to ignore the fact that many of the 48 who had won their wings before him in the eight wreckage-littered years since Kitty Hawk were already dead. Next came Chicago, and the international aviation meet at Grant Park. Cal took off after the biggest jackpot of the meet: the duration prize. The aviator who stayed aloft the longest would win $5,000. One unfortunate aviator, cracking up after a wobbly 18-second flight, won only 60 cents. But Cal bucked tricky lakefront winds—on some days, for three and a half hours—to win. Together with prize money from other events, he took away more than $11,000.
More important, his 27 hours aloft convinced him that if a man straightened out nine part-time days like those he’d just spent circling Chicago, he could be halfway across the continent. In 1911, that meant halfway to collecting $50,000. William Randolph Hearst had announced on the front page of the New York American 10 months earlier that he would award $50,000 to the first person to fly coast to coast in 30 days or less—offer good for one year, ending October 10, 1911.
That didn’t leave much time, but Cal and his wife Mabel got to work looking for a sponsor, and in late August, Cal left Chicago with a signed contract in his pocket. He would pilot a flying billboard across the nation to introduce to America a new soft drink—Vin Fiz. And the company making it, Chicago’s Armour Meatpacking Company, would pay him $5 a mile east of Chicago, $4 a mile in the thinly populated west, at the end of each flying day. In addition, the bottler would provide a supply train and pay all expenses en route. We headed jubilantly for Simms Station to purchase a brand-new single-seater Wright airplane.
To our surprise, the Wrights were ambivalent about selling one for the contest.
“There’s not a machine in the world that wouldn’t vibrate itself to death in 1,000 miles,” Orville said.
“It can’t be done,” said Wilbur.
“I think it can be done,” Cal said slowly, “and I’m going to try. Somebody’s got to be first.”
After some wrangling, the Wrights agreed, and on September 17, photographers and reporters by the dozen and curious New Yorkers by the thousands surrounded Cal and the airplane at Sheepshead Bay race track in Brooklyn. Cal had also arranged for the Wrights’ mechanic, Charlie Taylor, to come along with us. Charlie had been with the Wrights since even before the day at Kitty Hawk when the Air Age began.
Cal took a cigar from a box, lit it, and stuffed the remainder of the box’s contents into his suit pockets. Then he climbed into his seat, and we took up our stations. Charlie Taylor and Frank Shaffer counted to three, then each simultaneously jerked down hard on a propeller. I kicked the rocks from the wheels, and the Vin Fiz bounded down the human corridor and, shortly after 4 p.m., lifted onto the new road in the sky that Cal Rodgers hoped to build to connect New York City in the east to Pasadena in the west.