First Across the Continent

A 100th anniversary remembrance of Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz.

When Calbraith Perry Rodgers took off from New York on September 17, 1911, bound for California, he blazed a sky trail that hundreds of thousands would follow. (NASM SI-2004-30408)
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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.

Our little 90-horsepower, 90-mph Palmer-Singer racing car—to be used for local transportation and for speeding to Cal whenever and wherever he landed—dashed across the city toward the six-car train that awaited us in the Jersey City yards. The Vin Fiz Special, with its sleeping, dining, lounging, and hangar cars, would serve as airplane repair shop, Vin Fiz sales and promotion office, and temporary home for Cal, his wife Mabel, his mother Mrs. H.S. Sweitzer, we three mechanicians, a maid, chauffeur Jimmy Dunn, and a dozen assorted managers, press contact men, and Armour VIPs.

Now the Vin Fiz forged into view over the yards, and Cal waggled his wings, signaling that he had spotted us. The white muslin streamers bound to the roof of the Special—Mrs. Rodgers’ idea—would make it easy for him to see us and let us guide him out of large cities through the labyrinths of criss-crossing railroad tracks leading in so many directions.

The Wright EX had been rated at 62 mph, “in still air,” in her Ohio test run, and now Cal showed us his tail. When we shuddered onto a siding in Middletown, New York, he had been waiting for us for two hours. Impatiently—he was out of cigars.

One hundred and five miles in 104 minutes. The mood of the parlor car that night was unrestrainedly optimistic. “Two weeks oughtta do it!” “Just keep the tank full of gas and Cal’s pockets full of cigars!” “California, here we come!”

Our mood was just as cheery next morning, renewed by Cal’s exuberant 5:30 a.m. shout the length of the silent Pullman: “Up and at ’em, fellas—let’s get flying!”

But an hour later, when our Palmer-Singer careened up to a scene of havoc and confusion in a Middletown back yard, our mood was somber. The takeoff pasture had been short, the trees at the far end tall, the down drafts tricky. The crumpled Vin Fiz, wings pierced and twisted by hickory limbs, dangled limply—nose buried in a chicken coop.

Cal, his forehead bloody and his jacket torn, stood beside it, stunned and tight-lipped. He didn’t seem to hear the constable and the doctor urging him to come with them to the hospital to have that wound dressed. They led him away from the wreck finally, still dazed, still sick at heart. But not until he’d spoken for the first time the words we were to hear so often in the days ahead: “Fix her up, boys—I’ll be ready.”

We fixed her, in three nonstop days and nights of work—and Cal seemed to inch his way across New York. At a waddling takeoff on the 24th in Cattaraugus County, within a New York Indian reservation, we leaned forward and shouted, “Up, UP!” as though we could push or wish him over the rusty hooks of the barbed-wired fence just ahead. We couldn’t. We sprinted up to find the airplane impaled, a total wreck. We found Cal, still puffing his cigar—unhurt, but with another three-day repair job ahead and, on his eighth day, still a long way from California.

By October 8, with only two days left to claim the purse, Cal had made it to Chicago. Reach California though he might, after October 10, he could not claim the prize. But he masked his disappointment behind a screen of cigar smoke, and told reporters: “I’ll keep going. I’ll be the first man to cross the continent by air, no matter how long it takes me.”

Sitting out front with his toes toward California, Cal found the turtleneck sweater and leather wind-breaker under his jacket did little to keep him warm. He had stuffed layers of newspaper under the jacket, and they chafed and rubbed and rattled, but did little more. His cigars, which he chain-smoked because he couldn’t light a match up there, were his portable furnace and chief comfort. And when he was all smoked out—as, wind-blown at 60 mph, he quickly was—he “smoked” a pencil stub. Cal had lost 15 pounds—partly from tension, and partly from the monotony of the menu that alternated now between ham-and-beans and beans-and-ham. Though tanned, he was drawn and tired-eyed.

The long list of towns where Cal landed—or crash-landed—reads in my mind like an odd blend of gazetteer and machine-shop catalogue: Blue Springs, Missouri—blown magneto plug; McAlester, Oklahoma—cracked cylinder and oil leak (and on the 16th of October at that, the 30th day Cal had confidently expected to spend in California); Waco, Texas—cracked wing; west of Austin, Texas—transmission trouble, with Cal landing in what we were told was the only level patch of land for miles around; Spofford, Texas—a fence came up to meet him. The Vin Fiz was made of wood, but the man was made of iron.

Cal flew on, with the Vin Fiz Special churning in pursuit. We never knew where we’d find him, or when, but we were always relieved when we did. He hit another fence at Sanderson, Texas, one month after he’d left Brooklyn. One month was the length of time Charlie Taylor had signed on for—he had taken only a leave of absence from the Wrights—and in Sanderson he got news that his wife was ill. He wished us all good luck and goodbye.

Overheated by overwork, the bearings in the plane’s transmission chain cracked in mid-air near Willcox, Arizona, setting up such a terrific vibration that Cal had to cut his power and glide to earth. “We’re stuck for a week,” Cal said philosophically when we reached him. “I’ll wire the Wrights for another chain.”

But there was a barn nearby, we had lanterns, and in 3,000 miles I had learned a trick or two. I hand-peened with a ball-hammer, removing defective bearings and filling in with good ones cannibalized from what remained of Cal’s old Wright two-seater. When he walked in at dawn, he beamed, “Masterful job, Wiggie.” I was nine feet tall.

The repair seemed to have given the Vin Fiz a second wind. Crossing the Colorado River into California on November 3 was cause for celebration. But we celebrated too soon. When we caught up to him at Imperial Junction, we found him with his arm and shoulder bloody, and a hole in the engine you could stick a cabbage through. We borrowed a pair of cylinders from the remains of the other Wright engine and glued her together somehow. But it seemed a pitiful way to have to face the worst obstacle of the trip: the San Bernardino Mountains just ahead.

Now we were winding through the San Gorgonio Pass—Cal’s only possible route through the mountains. High above us on our left loomed jagged 10,831-foot Mt. San Jacinto, and 11,485-foot Mt. San Gorgonio frowned down from our right. Westerly winds, howling through at up to 60 mph, spilled off both peaks, turning the pass into a giant mixing bowl. Back in Phoenix and Maricopa, they’d tried to talk Cal out of going through it. It was sure suicide, they said. But Cal had a plan.

He’d take the Vin Fiz to its ceiling—8,500, maybe 9,000 feet. Then, nosing down, he planned to run through the perilous eight-mile wind tunnel in one long 45-degree dive—the only way he could achieve the speed he’d need to buck his way through. Cal’s arms were strong, I knew. But still, there was the airplane, dying a little more with every mile he flew.

I had the feeling I was riding a funeral train, which might at any moment be called upon to finish Cal’s flight for him—bearing a casket with a dead hero in it those final miles. Card players stopped their endless games of stud. Conversation died. Mrs. Rodgers sat silently, fighting to control her fear. The rails clicked by. And then we were over the hump and chugging down again. And there was the Banning station ahead—with more than enough time for Cal to have reached it, but no message on the station board.

But there were people on the platform, and when we asked, they reported, “Cal Rodgers landed!” We rolled out the Palmer-Singer and headed to an alfalfa field nearby.

The Vin Fiz needed work, of course. At the narrowest point in the pass, it had all but come apart. The straining, overheated radiator had sprayed Cal with boiling water. A magneto plug had popped. Operating the airplane always required two hands. Here it needed four. But Cal had jammed his knees against the control levers to hold the Vin Fiz roughly on its course.

The next morning, somehow we all felt the flight was over now. There could be nothing worse for Cal to face. He had flown nearly all the way across America. Cal Rodgers’ America. A panorama from east coast to west that no man had ever seen from the sky before.

Everywhere faces gazing upward, hands cupped to shade upturned eyes. Streamers and bunting hung up by scores of towns on the route, in the hope that Cal would land. Children in Ohio schoolyards. Track workers laying down their picks and shovels in Kansas to wave caps. An entire Cherokee tribe at Vinita, Oklahoma, waiting solemnly. And then, suddenly, there was the Tournament Park. The observatory on Mt. Wilson had signaled the assemblage below. Partially deafened by scarlet fever in childhood, Cal couldn’t hear the roar from 20,000 throats that rose to greet him. But somehow he could feel it.

All the ropes, the barriers, and the police couldn’t hold back the throngs that lifted Cal, draped an American flag about his shoulders, and bore him to an open touring car. It had taken him 49 days. And he savored the golden moment, as he paused at the desk of the Hotel Maryland on this November 5, to write nine words on the register: “C.P. Rodgers—New York to Pasadena by air.”

Officially, that was the end, but it was not quite. Cal itched to fly the last few miles to land on the white sands of the Pacific, and the city of Long Beach offered him $1,000 to make that coastal town his final destination. On November 12, he took off to fly the remaining 25 miles, but he crashed at Compton, banging his head badly, bruising his body, and spraining his ankle. He spent the next month recuperating. On Sunday, December 10, he limped to the airplane. Then, with crutches wired to the wings, he flew the last few miles to the coast.

The Aero Club gold medal came next, and offers to go into business—to use his hard-won knowledge to build airplanes stronger and sounder than those of the Wrights. “I expect to see the time,” he said, “when we shall be carrying passengers in flying machines from New York to the Pacific in three days, averaging more than 100 miles an hour. But not until a way has been devised to box in the passengers, as the wind tears one awfully at such speeds as that.”

Cal did not live to see that day. He died in his Wright B on April 3, 1912. He was dodging a flock of seagulls when a sudden gust sent his biplane into a dive in the foaming surf—ironically a few hundred yards from where he had dipped his wheels into the Pacific.

Cal Rodgers wouldn’t have qualified as an astronaut. His height was too great, his hearing too poor. But I hope that the astronaut who steps into our space capsule for the first flight from Earth to the moon will have the qualities Cal took coast to coast: raw courage and stamina, determination, love for what he was doing, and the optimism that made him able to say over and over the words I can still hear today: “Fix her up, boys—I’ll be ready.”

The trip across the country with Cal changed my life. For one thing, I met my future wife. Two years after Cal’s death, his widow married me. We often talk about the man she loved and I wanted so badly to emulate.

For another, I learned to fly. Although Cal died before he could teach me, I got my pilot’s license, number 175, in October 1912.

I got something else out of that trip that’s harder to put into words. There were many times when we didn’t think Cal could make it, and some of us—his mother, especially—wanted him to quit. But he didn’t. People remember Louis Blériot for flying across the English Channel in 1909 and Charles Lindbergh for flying across the Atlantic in 1927, and those were important flights. But they didn’t take 49 days. And I think it’s about time America remembered Cal Rodgers.

Howard Eisenberg has been writing magazine articles and books for 60 years, and hopes his next phone call will be from a movie producer asking, “How about writing me a Cal Rodgers screenplay?”

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