October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
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.
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.”
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.
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.
He followed the Erie across the northwest tip of Pennsylvania and on into Ohio and kept going to Akron. “When I got within about three miles of the city and made out hills everywhere in the dusk,” he said later, “I swung about and made for a field. It was so dark then that I could not see whether there were ditches or furrows but I had to take it. I lit on hard, smooth turf and stopped without a single break.” He spent the night in Kent, Ohio, after covering 204 miles since morning. It was his best day’s flight so far.
The following day he was grounded by bad weather, but on Saturday he got an early start and logged another 2OO-mile day. “When I was sailing above Akron it was as enjoyable as any day I have had on the race for the Hearst prize,” CaI said. “I could light cigars with ease at any stage of my flight.” He made stops for rest and fuel at Mansfield and Marion, and then was forced down when his engine quit just across the Indiana line at the little town of Rivare. Cal’s “hoodoo” was still with him.
The weather was threatening the next morning, but CaI took off anyway. He was caught up almost immediately in the roiling fury of a thunderstorm. His account of how he got through it alive appears to be the first recorded report of such an experience: I turned to the northwest pointing along the Erie tracks ready to buck the gale which was steadier up there. I noticed right ahead of me a full-grown rainstorm coming right at me. I saw the milky water falling and the cloud weaving … the only thing left for me was to try and run around it.
I turned and scooted to the east and rounded-to on the outer edge of the cloud outside the rain only to find another one sweeping down on me. I had to turn and run away again, and this time I saw to the northwest a third big cloud bearing down on me. There was a space between the two clouds and I made for it. It was clear enough but I had forgotten the thunder and lightning. That was their little playground.
The first thing I knew I was riding through an electric gridiron. I didn’t know what lightning might do to an aeroplane, but I didn’t like the idea so I swung her and streaked it for the east only to run bang up against a big rain cloud in active operation. I seemed to have run into a cloud convention.
If you have been out in a hail storm you know how that rain cut my face. I had taken off my goggles for fear that I might become blinded by moisture, and I took off my gloves and covered what I could of the vital points of the magneto. It was a cold and painful situation.
I looked for my engine to stop on me any minute and began searching for a place to alight. I couldn’t find one because a big cloud had quietly rolled in under me and the earth had disappeared. It was lonesome. I might be a million miles up in space. I might be a hundred feet from earth. I breathed better when I sailed over the edge of the cloud and saw the misty land beneath me.
It was raining but even that seemed friendly compared with the whirling mists that make up a cloud. I saw a little village off to the right and another just under me. I had to find a windbreak. Luckily I found one, a cup surrounded by woods, and dropped down, landed all right and climbed under my machine to get out of the wet.
I hadn’t more than lighted a cigar when a couple of men came running out of the woods. They said I was near Geneva about 18 or so miles off my course … I got away from there at 3:40.
CaI continued on to Huntington, Indiana, where he met his train and called it a day. The weather next morning, Monday, October 2, was still unsettled, clear but gusty. Accounts of his attempted take-off at Huntington are confused, and CaI himself wasn’t too certain about just what went wrong. Apparently he tried to take off downwind rather than buck the gusts. He couldn’t gain altitude, and he hopped and skipped across the field, then headed toward a group of spectators. Rather than plow into the crowd he slewed his plane to the right, still desperately trying to become air-borne. The Vin Fiz passed between two trees and under some telegraph wires. The left wing snagged on a small rise, the plane crumpled, and CaI was thrown clear. He was uninjured, but it was a bad smash, and his machine had to be rebuilt for the third time.
On Sunday, October 8, CaI finally flew into Chicago, where he exhibited his plane for a few hours at Grant Park on the lake front. He had been en route now for three weeks exactly and had made only a little over 1,000 miles. He estimated he had been in the air for twenty-three hours and thirty-seven minutes in the twenty-one days; at this rate it was obviously impossible for him to reach California before October 10, the end of the thirty-day limit stipulated by Hearst. A Chicago reporter asked Rodgers if he was going to quit. “I am bound for Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean,” CaI replied stubbornly. “Prize or no prize that’s where I am bound and if canvas, steel, and wire together with a little brawn, tendon, and brain stick with me, I mean to get there. The $50,000 prize, however, seems to be practically out of the question. But anyway it doesn’t matter much. I’m going to do this whether I get $50,000 or 50 cents or nothing. I am going to cross this continent simply to be the first to cross in an aeroplane.”
As if to prove his resolution, he left Chicago in the late afternoon and headed southwest along the Chicago and Alton Railroad tracks. Two days later, having bypassed St. Louis because the city had reneged after offering him $1,000 for an exhibition, Rodgers reached Marshall, Missouri, halfway across the state. He flew over 200 miles that day and at times made a good ground speed of better than seventy miles per hour. CaI had now travelled 1,398 miles and had broken Harry Atwood’s cross-country record. Hearst’s deadline was past, but Rodgers had no thought of giving up.
On Wednesday he flew into Kansas City, Missouri, giving the populace “an aerial thrill the like of which it never had experienced before,” according to the Star . CaI was the first aviator to fly over the city and he did it with verve, proceeding up the Missouri River at 700 to 800 feet, then hedgehopping over the business district. Schools were let out so that children could see him pass. He landed before a crowd of 10,000 at Swope Park shortly before noon.
By the following Monday, October 16, he was in Oklahoma, landing at Muskogee before a crowd of “thousands” at the fairgrounds race track. “To those who saw Rodgers alight and step from his machine,” the local newspaper said, “there came a sensation as if they had just seen a messenger from Mars.”
CaI didn’t tarry in Muskogee. The flight was going well now, and he seemed anxious to push on as fast as he could. He flew from Muskogee to McAlester, Oklahoma, before nightfall, then made it to Fort Worth, Texas, the following day, a record distance for CaI of 265 miles. On Wednesday, October 18, en route to the state fair at Dallas, CaI was alarmed when a curious eagle flew near to inspect the Vin Fiz . The big bird made a head-on run at the plane, then veered off at the last minute. “Amid tumultuous applause from an eager crowd of 75,000 persons, CaI P. Rodgers, seato-sea aviator glided gracefully down the infield of the State Fair race track at 1:50 P.M. ,” reported the Dallas Morning News . “After hovering over the Fair Grounds for fifteen minutes in the most thrilling exhibition of aerial navigation ever seen here, he headed his biplane south and started again on his long journey to the Pacific Coast.”
He flew on to Waco that afternoon, where a purse was made up for him by the Young Men’s Business League. The following day he reached Austin, where he received another purse. He left there around 4 P.M. , after circling the dome of the state capitol. Seventeen miles south of Austin his engine failed, and he glided to a safe landing in a farmer’s field near the town of KyIe: a piston had “crystallized,” and the entire engine had to be taken out and replaced with the spare carried aboard the train.
Sunday, October 22, found CaI at San Antonio. By now the strain of the trip was beginning to tell. He had lost fifteen pounds since leaving New York, and his leathery, wind-burned face was gaunt. Two days later, at tiny Spofford, Texas, he had his fourth serious accident. As he took off, his right propeller struck the ground. The plane swerved out of control and lurched to the left, splintering both props, demolishing the undercarriage, and crumpling the wings. “These wrecks are part of the game and are to be expected,” Rodgers remarked philosophically, “but of course are unwelcome.”
His crew was extremely proficient by this time and had the plane ready to go next morning. By November i he was in Tucson, Arizona, where his approach was watched through a telescope at the University of Arizona by the indomitable Robert Fowler, who had left Los Angeles October 19 for a second west-to-east effort. The two men chatted briefly, then Rodgers was off again.˗
˗ Fowler kept pushing eastward and despite a heartbreaking series of mishaps finally reached the Atlantic Coast at Jacksonville, Florida, on February 8, 1913—149 days after his original start.
After leaving Tucson, he went on to Maricopa, Arizona, and then to Phoenix before running out of gas and being forced to land at Stoval Siding, a small oneman Southern Pacific station sixty miles east of Yuma. When his train caught up with him it was too late to continue, so CaI and his party spent the night on the desert.
By now the end of his odyssey was in sight but, as if in a last effort to thwart him, the troubles that had plagued Rodgers all the way across the continent suddenly seemed to intensify. After leaving Stoval Siding early on the morning of Friday, November 3, he flew on into California. Over the Salton Sea his number one cylinder exploded, driving metal shards into his right arm. He glided down for a perfect landing next to the Southern Pacific station at Imperial Junction. It took a doctor over two hours to remove the cylinder fragments.
The engine was hopelessly wrecked by the explosion; chief mechanic Taylor had no choice but to put in the old one he had removed at KyIe, Texas, and overhauled. CaI set out again on Saturday and got as far as Banning, California, before he gave up. The spark plugs had again come loose and the radiator had begun to leak. It was just like old times.
The next day, with only seventy-five miles to go before reaching his official destination at Pasadena, CaI left Banning and was soon forced down by a broken gasoline line. He finally reached his goal at 4:08 P.M. on the afternoon of Sunday, November 5, forty-nine days after leaving New York. He had covered 4,231 railroad miles in three days, ten hours and four minutes of actual flying time, for an average speed of about 52 miles per hour.
CaI landed at Tournament Park, where 10,000 wildly cheering people rushed onto the field and swarmed around the plane. CaI was escorted from the Vin Fiz by policemen who had to punch the crowd back with their night sticks. The hero was wrapped in an American flag, driven around the field, then taken to the Hotel Maryland, where he celebrated—by drinking a glass of milk and eating some crackers.
By this time, there wasn’t much romance left in flying as far as CaI was concerned. “I am glad this trip is over,” he said to reporters. “I am not in this business because I like it, but because of what I can make out of it; personally, I prefer an automobile with a good driver to a biplane. But someone had to do this flying and I decided it might as well be I.
“My record will not last long,” he went on to say,˗ and he ventured the opinion that “with proper landing places along the route and other conditions looked after, the trip can easily be made in thirty days or less.”
˗It was broken in October, 1919, by Lt. Belvin W. Maynard, U.S.A., who flew a de Havilland from Hazelhurst Field near Mineola, N.Y., to San Francisco in the elapsed time of 3 days, 8 hours, 41 minutes, 30 seconds, cutting about an hour and a quarter off the Vin Fiz ’s time. Taking a more direct route than Rodgers, Maynard flew only 2,701 miles, at an average ground speed of 108 m.p.h.
The present coast-to-coast record (not counting the orbiting astronauts) is 2 hours, 58.71 seconds—at an average ground speed of 1,214.65 m.p.h.—set by Captain Robert G. Sowers in an Air Force 6-58 Hustler on March 5, 1962.
Despite the sense of finality occasioned by his arrival in Pasadena, CaI did not consider his trip over until he reached the Pacific Ocean. On Sunday, November 12, he left Pasadena and headed for Long Beach. Halfway there, while attempting an emergency landing, he crashed in a plowed field. For the fifth time the Vin Fiz was badly cracked up; CaI was hauled from the wreckage, bruised and unconscious. The next day he revived, sat up in bed, smoked a cigar, and talked to his family and a few friends.
“I don’t know what may have caused it,” he said. “Something may have broken or I may have temporarily lost control. I can’t say. Anyway I know I hit the ground a mighty hard whack. But it’s all in the ball game. I am going to finish that flight and finish it with that same machine.”
But his ankle was broken, and it was almost a month before he was well enough to be up and around again. On Sunday, December 10, he hobbled through an alfalfa field near Compton, climbed aboard his plane, tucked his crutches behind him, and took off for Long Beach. He landed on the sand and wet his wheels in the ocean as a gigantic crowd of 50,000 cheered him from the boardwalk. His historic flight was finally over.
There is not much more to the story of CaI Rodgers. He was broke now; he had failed to win the $50,000 Hearst prize, of course, and had spent every penny paid him by the Armour Company to keep the Vin Fiz going. For a few weeks more he was a hero honored across the land. He received a gold medal from the Aero Club of America and drew big crowds whenever he made exhibition flights.
But CaI seemed a little lost. He wanted to fly to San Francisco, but never got around to it. He spoke vaguely of starting his own aircraft factory, but no plans materialized. Then, on the afternoon of April 3, 1912, he took off for a quick spin around Long Beach in the spare aircraft that had travelled across the country aboard the special train. Out over the water, a few yards from the beach, his plane hit a flock of sea gulls and plunged out of control into the ocean. CaI was immediately pulled from the wreckage by some swimmers, but it was too late: his neck was broken, and he died a few feet from the spot where, less than four months before, he had made history.