Coast To Coast In 12 Crashes


There was nothing the matter with that field except that at one end there is a tract of soft ground. I lit perfectly and was slowing down when one of the skids hit this soft spot, stopped, and slewed the machine. There was a snap of breaking timber and my right skid had gone. There was nothing to do but wait for the train.

On the next day, Friday, September 22, Jimmy Ward’s engine failed once again, and he crash-landed at Addison, New York. In Chicago, odds of five to one were being laid that Ward would kill himself before he got to Buffalo; his wife and his manager persuaded the plucky little jockey to drop out of the race for the Hearst prize. Only Rodgers and Robert Fowler were still in the running.

Rodgers was having an exasperating day. He had left Hancock a few minutes before 11 A.M. , following the Erie tracks as usual. But he turned the wrong way at a junction and, having no compass, wandered many miles off course into Pennsylvania before he discovered his error. When he landed to get his bearings he was confronted with a new hazard.

The crowd as usual came up out of the ground [he said later]. They told me I was in Scranton, forty-five miles from where I ought to be. I had a hard time trying to save my machine. The crowd went crazy. There wasn’t a name on my planes [wings] when I started this morning, but in ten minutes, there wasn’t an inch free from pencil marks. They didn’t mind climbing up to get a good spot. They liked to work the levers, sit upon the seat, warp the planes, and finger the engine. I nearly lost my temper when a man came up with a chisel to punch his monogram on an upright.

The crowd was basically friendly, though, and after CaI shooed them away from the plane, they got him some gas. A local chauffeur and a fireman turned the props for him and started the engine. By midafternoon CaI was back on course. Around 6 P.M. he landed for the night at Elmira, New York.

The next day found both Rodgers and Fowler airborne. The latter, after being grounded twelve days for repairs, again headed up the steep slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. He figured he needed to climb to an altitude of 8,500 feet in order to navigate the tricky gusts and treacherous downdrafts in the 7,135foot Donner Pass. On Saturday, September 23, he spent two hours and twelve minutes climbing to 6,500 feet, then just couldn’t seem to get any higher. “It is no use,” he said when he landed. “I spent twenty minutes at one place climbing three hundred feet.” But Robert Fowler was not a man who gave up easily.

Rodgers, meanwhile, had a close call at Elmira. He struck some telegraph wires just as he lifted off, and settled abruptly back to earth. The damage was not serious but it delayed his departure for six hours. The rest of the day wasn’t much better. The spark plug that had popped out two days earlier again worked loose, and CaI had to hold it in with one hand and fly the plane with the other. He finally gave up and landed at Hornell at 3:27 P.M. When he touched down, his left skid snagged something. The plane slewed violently, throwing CaI out of his seat and smashing the left wing. Rodgers was not hurt, however, and accidents of this type had become so commonplace by now that his mechanics were able to repair the damage quickly. They had the plane ready for take-off by morning.

CaI got away from Hornell without incident shortly after 10 A.M. He landed at Olean for an hour’s rest, then pushed on again. Ignition trouble once more forced him down, this time on a farm in the AlleghenyIndian Reservation near Salamanca. “The landing was perfect,” CaI later related. “The next minute an Indian came running across the field. ‘Big bird,’ he said. ‘Biggest bird ever saw’ ”

CaI had now passed the point where Ward had given up, and was way ahead of Fowler in the race across the continent. He was anxious to keep moving and tried three times that afternoon to take off from the reservation. The third time he piled into a barbed-wire fence, and that was that. The Vin Fiz was wrecked for the second time.

On the same day the persistent Fowler was making still another attempt to get over the Donner Pass. He climbed higher and higher on favorable winds. Between the hamlets of Cisco and Tamarack on the Southern Pacific line he reached 8,000 feet. He could see Summit Station near the highest point on the Pass, and he was all set to ease over the hump into Reno when his engine boiled over and at the last minute he had to turn back. He waited at Emigrant Gap, California, for a few more days, hoping for favorable winds. But they never came, and he abandoned his attempt to get over the mountains. Fowler wasn’t completely licked yet, however; later he would set off from Los Angeles via a southerly route.

On Thursday, September 28, the Vin Fiz left Salamanca, the last stop in New York State, and with the Allegheny Mountains behind him CaI could look forward to flying over some relatively level country where the air would be smoother and safe landing fields easy to find.