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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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.

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