Special Section: True Grit

Aviation’s Stories of Determination

A defining characteristic of the American hero, right up there with frontier spirit in the list of traits that make the type unique, is grit: a combination of stamina and boldness, usually portrayed in Westerns. But cowboys aren’t the only ones with grit. The inspiration for this collection of five stories is a blue-blooded easterner, the first to fly across the United States. Calbraith Perry Rodgers inherited his nerve from his grandfather and great-grandfathers, all celebrated U.S. Navy officers, along with a resolve that some might call stubbornness. The legacy sustained him on his famous flight—completed in 49 days, after 15 crashes, in a flimsy biplane 100 years ago this November.

The phrase “true grit,” in common usage in the 19th century American West, was appropriated by Charles Portis for the title of his 1968 novel. In the book, a wily desperado (played by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 film adaptation and by John Wayne in 1969) and the 14-year-old girl who hires him as a bounty hunter venture into hostile territory to hit back at an attacker. If that’s what it takes, the Doolittle Raiders, who flew the 1942 reprisal against Japan for its attack on Pearl Harbor, are prototypes of the truly gritty.

True grit also demands the ability to remain steady in a crisis—as the five air traffic controllers do in this collection when they guide imperiled airplanes to safe landings. And it requires doggedness: If at first you fail at rescuing an air crew from a frozen wasteland, you try again…and again…and again. We wondered whether engineers could design grit into an airframe. Of the many types of aircraft that have performed heroically, which deserve to be singled out for endurance?

Finally, in bringing us his story of Cal Rodgers, author Howard Eisenberg showed his own brand of true grit. For the article, he interviewed Charles Wiggin, who as a teenager accompanied Rodgers on the 1911 adventure. Wiggin told his story to Eisenberg in 1961, the 50th anniversary of the flight. That same year President John Kennedy committed the country to another epic journey, from Earth to the moon and back. Surely the tale of Cal Rodgers’ triumph would have inspired the astronauts and engineers of the Apollo program, who were about to face their own long shots and setbacks, and a number of editors were interested in the Cal Rodgers story that year. Another author’s account beat Eisenberg’s “as told to” article into print. He sadly stuck it in a drawer—and held onto it for 50 years before submitting it to Air & Space. Now, on the 100th anniversary of the flight, here is the story of Cal Rodgers for a new generation of readers.

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