U. S. Transcontinental Flight
confident-looking Cal Rodgers before his take off from
Sheepshead Bay. He was a steady cigar-smoker, even when he
Perry ("Cal") Rodgers, an inexperienced 32-year-old pilot,
in 1911 made the first transcontinental flight across the
United States. He reached Pasadena, California, on November
5, 1911, and Long Beach, California, on December 10, flying
between Sheepshead Bay, near New York City, New York, and
the West Coast in a Wright EX biplane. He carried the first
transcontinental mail pouch and was accompanied on the
ground by a support crew that repaired and rebuilt the plane
after its numerous rough landings and crashes.
Rodgers was the grandson of the
famed Commodore Oliver Perry of the Battle of Lake Erie in
the War of 1812. He was an excellent football player,
yachtsman, and automobile and motorcycle racer before
becoming a pilot, all in spite of deafness that resulted
from a childhood bout of scarlet fever. Somewhat of a
risk-taker, Rogers had taken only about 90 minutes of flying
instruction from Orville Wright in June 1911, at the Wright
School in Dayton, Ohio, before attempting a solo flight. He
carried out the first aerial photography of industrial
plants and in August 1911, won an $11,000 prize in an
international air endurance contest held in Chicago. He also
was the first private citizen to purchase a Wright
"aeroplane," a long-wing biplane Model B that was modified
for his transcontinental flight and designated a Wright
Flyer EX (for Experimental).
The $50,000 prize that renowned
publisher William Randolph Hearst offered to the first pilot
to fly across the United States within 30 days undoubtedly
helped motivate Rodgers to tackle this formidable challenge.
Air flight was new to the nation. There were no airports or
aircraft mechanics along the way and no air navigation maps,
control towers or beacons to warn of hazards or guide the
pilot. Rodgers would have to follow railroad tracks,
recognize landmarks, and talk with his ground crew during
periods on the ground. Also, the venture would be expensive,
and Rodgers needed a sponsor.
J. Ogden Armour, a Chicago meat
packer, was willing to sponsor Rodgers in return for
advertising his new grape soft drink "Vin Fiz." Rodgers
printed Vin Fiz on the rudder and under-wing areas of the
plane, and Armour paid him three to five dollars for each
mile flown, providing a total of $23,000. Armour also
provided and outfitted a three-car support train, which
would prove vital to Rodgers' success. This train was loaded
with a crew, including his wife, his mother, a close friend,
two mechanics, and two assistants as well as supplies, fuel,
repair parts to rebuild the plane, and even spare engines.
One car had a much-needed repair shop, and the crew had the
capability to rebuild the aircraft at least twice if
necessary. All cars advertised the sponsor's product--Vin
Rodgers had secured the backing of the Armour Corporation,
which was promoting its new grape soda, "Vin Fiz."
brothers' biplane that Rodgers flew was made with relatively
light materials: a spruce airframe that was covered with
canvas and linen and a small 35-horsepower (26-kilowatt)
engine. The plane had two eight-foot (2.4-meter)
push-propellers driven by a chain-drive transmission and
could fly at 45 to 60 miles per hour (72 to 97 kilometers
per hour). The Vin Fiz had no instruments, other than the
reported use of a shoelace to indicate vertical and lateral
motion, no heater, and no navigational aids. But with what
proved to be considerable foresight, Rodgers had crutches
strapped to a wing.
Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay Speedway in New York on
September 17, 1911, in an attempt to cross the United States
off from Sheepshead Bay, New York, at 4:30 p.m. on September
17, 1911. He followed railroad tracks and avoided mountains,
storms, and other hazards. Along the way, he landed around
70 times, which included at least 16 crashes some that put
him in the hospital. Damage to the Vin Fiz was so extensive
that the plane had to be rebuilt at least twice. Only a very
few pieces of the original Vin Fiz made it all the way a
vertical rudder, a couple of wing struts, and possibly the
original engine oil pan.
Rodgers suffered numerous crash, engine malfunctions, and
other mishaps on his transcontinental journey in 1911.
Another of Rodgersï many crashes.
days later, on November 5, Rodgers landed in Pasadena,
California, He had missed Hearst's deadline by 19 days. So
that he could say he had reached the Pacific Ocean, he took
off again on November 12, to cover the remaining 20 miles
(32 kilometres) to the ocean, only to be forced down twice,
once suffering a broken ankle. But on December 10, 1911, he
flew on to the beach at Long Beach, California, and taxied
the Vin Fiz into the Pacific Ocean. The entire trip of
approximately 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometres) (authorities
differ on the exact number of miles) had taken 84 days,
although only about 82 hours were spent aloft!
Rodgers wets the wheels of the Vin Fiz in the surf at Long
Beach, California, after flying more than 4,000 miles in 84
determination and thorough preparation for the flight
enabled him to be the first to make his way across the
country by air, even though he missed the time deadline for
the $50,000.00 prize.
The public recognized his
triumph over life-threatening challenges. The number of
onlookers grew from a handful of people wishing him well at
his initial takeoff, to newspaper reporters and crowds
cheering him on as he crossed the continent, all the way to
national celebrity status, with some 20,000 witnessing his
November 5 landing in Pasadena.
The final crash of the
Vin Fiz into the Pacific Ocean.
But as was
the case with so many early pilots, tragedy struck. Almost
five months later, on April 3, 1912, while making a test
flight in Long Beach, near the site of the end of his
record-setting flight, he flew into a flock of birds--a
problem still facing aviators today. One bird, probably a
seagull, was believed to have stuck in his plane's controls,
causing the plane to crash into the surf. When pulled from
the wreckage, Cal Rodgers was dead of a broken neck.