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 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.”

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