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Coast To Coast In 12 Crashes
Only the rudder and a strut or two remained ol his original plane and he was on crutches, but CaI Rodgers flew from sea to sea and lived—just barely
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
The engine of the EX ran perfectly, and CaI didn’t have to worry about an emergency landing in the streets of New York. He followed Broadway up to Madison Square, then turned west toward New Jersey, where he planned to rendezvous with his special train, waiting on the Erie Railroad tracks. The train consisted of an engine and three cars: a white “hangar car” decorated with Vin Fiz slogans and carrying a second airplane, a Palmer-Singer automobile, spare parts, supplies, and baggage; a day coach that was used as a lounge and observation car; and a buffetPullman in which CaI, his wife Mabel, his mother, his cousin Lieutenant John Rodgers (later a famous Navy pilot), chief mechanic Charles Taylor, and other members of the party were to live for the next few weeks.
Profiting from Ward’s confusion over Jersey City, CaI had told his crew to mark the Erie tracks with strips of white canvas. He had no difficulty picking up his train and on his first hop flew as far as Middletown, New York.
Nine thousand people were waiting for him. Some 500 autos had been parked in a circle to mark off a landing area at the fair grounds, but the crowd just wouldn’t stay out of the way. “I had to herd them up before they would clear a space,” CaI said. “But I came down so easily it didn’t knock the ashes off my cigar.”
All in all, it had been a most satisfying day. “No man ever had a truer machine and a more perfect engine than I did today,” said CaI. “There was not a miss of the cylinders and not a swerve of the machine.” He had left Sheepshead Bay around 4:30 P.M. and had covered the eighty-four miles to Middletown in 105 minutes. “It’s Chicago in four days,” he said, “if everything goes right.”
It actually turned out to be Chicago in twenty-one days, three crashes, and a thunderstorm. Cal’s troubles began the very next morning, when he tried to leave Middletown. As he took off, his undercarriage struck a willow tree at the end of the field. The plane faltered, and though he recovered momentarily, CaI could see that he was too low to clear some power lines looming ahead, so he cut his engine. The Vin Fiz hit a hickory tree, tipped over, and plummeted straight down into a chicken coop. Cal landed on his feet in a tangle of wire, wood, and fabric, his head bleeding from a vicious clout he had received on the way down. Somehow he had managed to hang on to the cigar he had lit just before take-off, but his beautiful plane was badly smashed.
The citizens of Middletown immediately pitched in to help rebuild it. The armory was thrown open to him, and the mangled aircraft and replacement parts from the train were hauled there for reconstruction. The Middletown Electric Railway offered $1,000 to help defray his expenses, and Rodgers and his wife were overwhelmed with invitations from hospitable townspeople. Under Charlie Taylor, the mechanics worked around the clock and put the airplane back together in forty hours.
While Cal was stuck in Middletown, Fowler was still held up in California. Ward, also following the Erie Railroad through New York State, continued to have problems with his engine. After repairing the damage done at Owego, Ward flew on to Cornina:, where he made a fine dead-stick landing after his engine ran out of oil and stopped in flight. By Wednesday, September 20, he was ready to go again, but he made only eleven miles before a hose on his radiator worked loose and sprayed him with hot water. He landed in a pasture and fixed the faulty connection, only to smash his landing skids and lower wing trying to dodge the crowd which had gathered to see him off.
On learning of Ward’s troubles, Rodgers sent him this telegram: TOO BAD OLD MAN. SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE DOWN AGAIN. GRIT LIKE YOURS IS BOUND TO KILL THE JINX AND WIN. A GRAY KITTEN CAME INTO MY CAR THIS MORNING AND CHASED THE HOODOO. HOPE TO TAKE THE AIR THIS AFTERNOON. VERY BEST WISHES. C. P. RODGERS .
It was the next afternoon, however, before CaI could get away from Middletown. Then for awhile it seemed as though the gray kitten really had “chased the hoodoo.” He flew from Middletown to Hancock, New York, covering ninety-five miles in seventy-eight minutes. There were some minor problems, but the day’s run was exhilarating. In setting down his thoughts about the hop for the New York American , CaI gave one of the finest surviving impressions of flying in those early days: I was above the air currents going faster than the wind and the engine went on singing a sweet song. I lit a fresh cigar and let her go.
An airman cannot tell too much about the country he goes over. There are no signs up where he is and little towns come so fast that a new one seems to begin before an old one ends. All I could see was a ribbon of silver below me coiling around heavily wooded mountains. There was a glint now and then of the tracks, but the river was my guide.
Town after town followed until I picked up Callicoon by the long strips of canvas on a broad level field. I made a quick study of my engine and although I could tell the water was going fast, I made a jump for Hancock, twenty-five or twenty-six miles away. I seemed to be right up on the town when plop! Out flew a defective spark plug. I shot down to the first field I saw ahead of me.