Coast To Coast In 12 Crashes


That same day CaI Rodgers loaded a new, custommade Wright racer—a Model EX biplane—aboard a train in Dayton, Ohio, and departed for New York. With a wing span of thirty-two feet, the EX was somewhat smaller than the standard Wright Model B. Its four-cylinder, thirty-five-horsepower, water-cooled engine gave it a top speed of fifty-five miles per hour. There was no throttle on the engine; and though some adjustment in r.p.m.’s could be made by advancing the spark, there were really only two speeds—wide open and stop.

For controls there were two levers. One, at the pilot’s left, made the aircraft climb or descend by bending the elevator plane at the rear. A somewhat similar lever on the right could be moved forward or rearward to warp the wings and cause the craft to bank—a function performed in modern aircraft by ailerons. The top of the right-hand stick was hinged so that it could be moved left or right; this controlled the rudder. There was no windshield, the single seat was hard, and there were no arm rests. While the EX was said to be a sweet plane to fly, flying it was exhausting.

Cal Rodgers looked as if he could take the punishment. Thirty-two years old, he was six feet four inches tall and weighed close to two hundred pounds. He had learned to Hy at the Wright school in June, showing such aptitude that he was allowed to solo after only an hour and a half of instruction. He prided himself on his physical stamina: in August he had entered an air meet in Chicago and had set record after record for endurance; simply by staying air-borne longer than anyone else in the nine-day show, Cal had won top money, $11,285.

Reporters meeting him in New York when he arrived on Friday, September 15, found him shy and difficult to talk to. He was partially deaf, and sensitive about it among strangers. Already his handicap had made him abandon a boyhood dream of a military career and a way of life that had become almost traditional lor the men in his family as far back as the Revolutionary War. He was related to some of the country’s most illustrious and adventurous military figures. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who opened Tapan to the West in 1954, was a great-grandfather; Oliver Hazard Perry of Lake Erie fame, a greatgrandunclc. Several ancestors served the Union with distinction during the Civil ar, either on land or afloat. Cal's father, a cavalry captain. had been killed by lightning while returning from a patrol against the Indians in Wyoming Territory just six months before CaI was born.

Cal spent his last day in New York attending to final arrangements for his trip. The Armour Company of Chicago had agreed to finance him if he would advertise Vin Fiz, its new grape soft drink: Armour would pay five dollars for every mile Cal flew with Vin Fiz advertisements lettered on the wings and tail of his plane. The company also arranged and paid for a special three-car train that was to accompany him all the way to California. The pilot himself would pay for fuel, oil, repairs, and spare parts.

Sunday, September 17, the day of Cal’s departure from Sheepshead Bay, found Fowler still stuck in California with a wrecked aircraft. Ward was stalled for repairs in Owego, New York: his engine had failed on take-off and he had piled into a barbed-wire fence.

The start of Cal’s long journey was magnificent, “the most daring and spectacular feat of aviation that this country or even the world has ever known,” one newspaper extravagantly called it. After leaving the race track at Sheepshead Bay he circled Coney Island, dropping Vin Fiz advertising leaflets. Then he thrilled Brooklyn residents by skimming overhead at an altitude of 800 feet.

He crossed the East River at the Brooklyn Bridge, passing over the battleship Connecticut as she steamed upstream toward the Navy Yard. At that moment a reporter for Hearst’s New York American had a fleeting, prophetic vision. He wrote: “From the aeroplane, flying so true and free, to the sluggish battleship below confined forever to its narrow element … was the space of an age that may spell the doom of the battleship for all time.”

Rodgers was hailed by the papers as the first man in history to fly over Manhattan, and its blasé residents were impressed. “Thousands of persons from windows, housetops, sidewalks and streets witnessed the most inspiring sight of their lives when Rodgers, at a height of more than half a mile, sailed across the city,” says a contemporary account. “That a man was in control of the dazzling white machine with its glints of gold and silver when it caught the full rays of the declining September sun, and that he was daring what no man had ever dared before in flying directly over the city with its death-trap of tall buildings, spires, ragged roofs, and narrow streets gave a new and never-to-beforgotten vision to all who were fortunate enough to see him.”