The next time you’re flying coast to coast in the relative comfort of Seat 19B, take a second to think about the guy who did it first, 100 years ago this fall. Calbraith Perry Rodgers perched his lanky frame on a stiff seat fastened to the lower wing of a Wright brothers biplane that cruised at 55 mph and had the structural integrity (and offered as much protection as) a well-designed kite. He took off from Brooklyn, New York, on September 17, 1911, and landed in Pasadena, California, 49 days—and 15 crashes—later. On October 9 of that year, residents of Middletown, Illinois, could have witnessed this scene, as the pilot approached the fairgrounds in Springfield.
Rodgers died in an airplane crash only a few months after he made history. Several years later his widow married the young mechanic Charles Wiggin who had been among the entourage traveling by train to assist Rodgers on the cross-country flight. The two dedicated themselves to keeping the memory of Cal Rodgers in the public mind, and in 1961, on the flight’s 50th anniversary, they published a book of photographs they had collected on that first cross-country journey. This gallery is a selection from that book, First Transcontinental Flight.
Rodgers’ sponsor The Armour Company, maker of the Vin Fiz grape drink, provided a train with two specially fitted cars containing spare parts, two engines, a Palmer-Singer automobile, a first-aid center, and a repair shop. As Cal flew, Armour company executives, officers of the railroad, his mechanics, and newspaper reporters took the train.