Coast To Coast In 12 Crashes


It was a flawless September Sunday in 1911. At the race track at Sheepshead Bay, Long Island, some u,ooo people watched as a young lady from Memphis awkwardly poured a bottle of grape drink over the landing skids of a new Wright biplane. She dubbed the craft Vin Fiz Flyer in honor of the grape drink.

Then the pilot came forward, tall and taciturn. He accepted, a four-leaf clover from another lady in the crowd, climbed into the seat of his fragile-looking machine, lowered his goggles, lit a cigar, and waved to his helpers to start the engine. The plane’s two wooden propellers came to life and scattered the spectators who had crowded too closely around. The Vin Fiz then gathered speed over the race track infield and gracefully took to the air. For better or for worse, Calbrahh Perry Roclgcrs was on his way across the country from New York to the Pacific coast. Eighty-four days later he landed on the sand at Long Beach, California, taxied to the water’s edge, and washed his wheels in the Pacific Ocean. He was the first to fly across the United States, anil he had flown farther than any man in the world.

It had been a rough trip. CaI was on crutches by the time he made Long Beach. His plane had been wrecked and rebuilt so manv times that only the ruder and a strut or two remained from the machine that took oft from Shccpshead Bay. En route Rodgers had five disastrous crashes. He had seven other take-oil and landing accidents which required major repairs. His engine quit in flight six times. Things got so bad at one point that a rumor began circulating that the special (rain accompanying him carried a coffin.

But with his cigar clenched between his teeth, (JaI Rodgers persevered. Jn doing so he not only became our first transcontinental flyer but he also set an example of determination and raw courage that has seldom been equalled. And, as nothing else could, Cat’s cross-country odysscy vividly brought home to thousands along the way, and to millions more who followed breathless accounts of the trip in a score of newspapers, just how far aviation had come in the eight years since the Wright brothers’ lyo-foot first flight at Kitty Hawk.

Rodgers’ coast-to-coast adventure climaxed a year of great achievement for the airplane. In June the French aviator Edouard Nieuport had set a speed record of 80.15 miles per hour in a plane of his own design. Un September ) another Frenchman, Roland Garros, had climbed to a retord altitude of 13,943 feel. Meanwhile, in August, an American named Harry N. Atwood had shattered all previous records for crosscountry flight by coveting the 1965 miles from St. Louis to New York in eleven days. It was this fine flight, accomplished without difficulty or serious mishap, that reawakened interest among American aviators in a $50,000 prize put up by William Randolph Hcarst in the fall of 1910 for the first coast-to-coast flight completed in thirty days or less.

The offer was good lor one year only; to win the $50,000 the transcontinental flight had to be made before October 10, 1911. By the end of the first week in September, eight pilots had formally entered the race. Atwood was one of the first to sign up. So was Rodgers. Robert G. Fowler, one of the most skillful graduates of the Hying school run by the Wright brothers at Dayton, Ohio, made daring plans to cross from west to east in a Wright biplane via the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From Boston tame word that Earle Ovington would also try, Hying his last Blériot monoplane. Cocky little James J. Ward, a former jockey, entered the contest with a Curtiss biplane. Three other competitors dropped out without getting oil the ground. Atwood later abandoned his plans too: he could not gel financial support. Ovington got started so late that he had no chante at (he prize: when he crashed on taking oil from New York, he quit right than and there. That left three: Fowler, Ward, and Cal Rodgers.

Fowler was the first to get under way. On September ii he took oil from San Francisco s Golden Gate Park and blew 129 miles to Auburn at the foot of the high mountains. A big six-foot teetotaler, Fowler was a wellknown West Coast automobile racer who held the auto speed record from Los Angeles to San Francisco. About the aerial venture he was wildly optimistic. "1 have planned for 20 (lying days,” he said. “My average is set at 175 miles…but I hope to have a couple of days of 500 miles or better.”

The following day, as Fowler followed the Southern Pacific railroad tracks up through the mountains toward the Donner Pass, his rudder-control wire snapped. By using brute force on the wing-warping lever he managed to prevent his plane from plunging completely out of control, but, unable to find a safe landing place as he spiralled down, he finally crashed in some trees near the village of Aha, California. Fowler was not seriously injured, but his plane had to be completely rebuilt and twelve days passed before he could take to the air again.

Meanwhile Jimmy Ward readied his Curtiss biplane on Governors Island in New York Harbor. On September 13 he was on his way, but almost immediately he became lost. It was a gusty day. “It kept me so busy with my machine,” Ward said later, “that I could only look down once in awhile.” Over the maze of railroad tracks leading out of Jersey City he failed to spot the special train he had hired as his mobile living quarters, repair shop, and spare-parts depot. Hc didn’t find it until late afternoon, and had to spend the night in Paterson, New Jersey, only twenty miles from his starting point.