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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“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.”

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