Viewport: Across the Country in 49 Days
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Air & Space.
Air travel today is so routine that we may have forgotten how difficult it once was to fly an airplane. I was reminded recently by a summary showing that of the nearly 45,000 U.S. airplanes lost in World War II, almost half were lost in operational accidents, not combat. So 22,000 times, either the pilot screwed up or the airplane did, or both. It’s a good thing pilots are a determined bunch. Defying odds like that at the same time you’re defying gravity requires a certain set to the jaw.
No pilot had a jaw more firmly set than Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the first to fly across the United States, and the inspiration for the special section in this issue: aviation’s stories of determination. This year is the 100th anniversary of Rodgers’ flight, which started as an attempt to win a $50,000 prize offered to the first person who could cross the country by air in 30 days. By the time Rodgers reached Missouri, he had already lost—it had taken him 30 days to get there from New York—but he pressed on. He reached his original goal—Pasadena, California—after 49 days, but wanting to make it all the way to the Pacific, he took off again, and crashed. He ended up in the hospital. A month later, with a bum ankle and crutches tied to a strut, he climbed back on the airplane and flew to Long Beach. That’s what I call determination.
If you look at the Wright aircraft Rodgers flew, which today hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, you have to wonder if the man was in full possession of his faculties. The airplane’s wood-and-fabric construction was so delicate that on any but the gentlest landings, a strut would crack—or worse. After each crash, the aircraft was repaired and parts replaced. The airplane that Rodgers landed in Long Beach was almost entirely different from the one that took off from New York. Practically the only thing that was the same was the logo on the wings, “Vin Fiz,” a soft drink made by the flight’s sponsor. The Museum acquired the Vin Fiz in 1934 from the Carnegie Institute, in Pittsburgh, where Rodgers’ mother had donated it six years after his flight. We believe the craft was reconstructed from repaired parts left over from the many replacements made during the flight—so every part of the airplane flew, just not all together.
Only a few feet from the Vin Fiz is the airplane that made the first nonstop flight across the country, a Fokker T-2, flown by U.S. Army Air Service pilots Oakley Kelly and John Macready. Kelly and Macready had a much more capable, comfortable airplane, but they faced difficulties familiar to pilots throughout history: Weather foiled their first attempt; engine problems ended their second. On the third, this T-2 made the trip in just under 27 hours, only 12 years after it had taken the Vin Fiz 49 days. But as Cal Rodgers often said, somebody’s got to be first. Those of us who today enjoy five-hour coast-to-coast flights in safety and comfort can be glad the record belongs to him and not us.
J.R. Dailey is the director of the national Air and Space Museum.