The year was 1911, and I was fourteen, just emerging from a wonderful boyhood in Sheepshead Bay, New York. Even though Sheepshead Bay was part of Brooklyn, it was so rural in those days it might as well have been Kansas. At the time, we were living in a farmhouse on the estate of a millionaire horse breeder named James Ben AIi Haggin. Lucky for me, the house was right across the road from the racetrack of the Coney Island Jockey Club.
A few years before, Charles Evans Hughes, the governor of New York, had abolished betting at racetracks throughout the state. As a result the racetrack in Sheepshead Bay lay idle. However, it soon became an ideal flying field for America’s pioneer pilots. Aviation was just beginning to attract public interest, and fliers like the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss were being taken seriously.
Curtiss regularly brought groups of student pilots to the racetrack to practice and stage exhibitions. Other fliers who appeared there from time to time were Clifford B. Harmon, a New York real estate magnate who flew a huge French-made Farman biplane, and Lawrence Sperry, whose father, Elmer, invented the gyroscopic compass and later founded the company that would become Sperry-Rand.
For boys like myself all this activity was a magnet, and we haunted the place whenever we were free from chores at home. We considered it an honor to run errands and do other little jobs for these glamorous “bird-men.” To be able to touch an “aeroplane” was awesome to us.
At any rate, on the hazy Sunday morning of September 17, 1911, I had just returned from Mass with my family at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church in Sheepshead Bay when I learned from some of my chums that the daredevil aviator Calbraith Perry Rodgers had arrived at the track with his specially built open-seat Wright biplane. What’s more, Rodgers, a rangy motorcycle racer with only sixty hours of flying experience, was about to attempt to fly across the country in fewer than thirty days in a bid for a fifty-thousand-dollar prize put up by the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. When I heard the news I ran over to the track to join a group of locals who had already gathered around Rodgers and his plane.
The sponsor of the flight was Armour & Company, the large Chicago meat-packing firm, which was promoting a new soft drink called Vin Fiz. Accordingly, painted on the underside of the lower wing of Rodgers’s plane were a bunch of Concord grapes and the words Vin Fiz .
For the next two hours the plane was readied. The fuel tank, which was suspended from the upper wing, was filled with naphtha. (All it took was ten gallons.) The thirty-five-horsepower engine was tuned; the twin wooden propellers were checked. Meanwhile, we boys, feeling very important, hustled around, bringing funnels, stepladders, rags, and wrenches and other tools.
Finally, Rodgers, a tall rawboned chap who was always chomping on a cigar, climbed into the pilot’s seat. He never fastened his seat belt because he had none. The props were spun, and Rodgers revved his engine. Meanwhile, I and five or six others held the struts on the lower wing to restrain the plane until Rodgers could generate enough power to take off. Suddenly Rodgers waved his arm. We let go. And this flimsy contrivance of spruce wood, piano wire, fabric, and hardware-store fasteners jolted, rattled, and buzzed its way down the field. After only a couple hundred yards, with us running in gleeful pursuit, Rodgers became airborne.
That Rodgers took off so quickly was no surprise, because his biplane was, in effect, little more than a box kite with a motor. His “instrumentation” consisted of his wife Mabel’s corset lace dangling from a crosswire. By watching its drift he could tell which way he was turning or whether he was rising or falling.
All along Rodgers’s route people waited in suspense, cheering him wherever and whenever he landed. Following the courageous flier across the country was an Armour-financed three-car train equipped with a workshop, stocked with four thousand dollars’ worth of spare parts, and carrying his wife, mother, and mechanics.
Finally, on November 5, 1911, after forty-nine days and nineteen crackups, Rodgers reached Pasadena, California. He had failed to win the Hearst prize, but that did not deter a crowd of twenty thousand from hailing the successful completion of the flight and draping the airman with a flag.
During the 4,231-mile journey, Rodgers made more than eighty stops, twenty-five in Texas alone, logging only eighty-two hours and four minutes in the air. And because of all the crashes, the plane that finally touched down in Pasadena was almost completely different from the one that I’d watched lift off from the field in Sheepshead Bay. In fact, at journey’s end, only the rudder and a single strut of the original frame remained.
Five months later, during an exhibition, Rodgers crashed once again—this time in the Pacific—and was killed.
More than half a century later, in May 1965, the Vin Fiz and I were reunited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where my picture was snapped standing next to this restored relic of both my happy boyhood and aviation history. At the time, the Vin Fiz sparkled with a new coat of aluminum paint. The paint’s metallic gleam not only made the Vin Fiz look a lot more substantial than it really was but also reminded me that I too had become silver with time.