The next time you’re flying coast to coast in the relative comfort of Seat 19B, take a second to think about the guy who did it first, 100 years ago this fall. Calbraith Perry Rodgers perched his lanky frame on a stiff seat fastened to the lower wing of a Wright brothers biplane that cruised at 55 mph and had the structural integrity (and offered as much protection as) a well-designed kite. He took off from Brooklyn, New York, on September 17, 1911, and landed in Pasadena, California, 49 days—and 15 crashes—later. On October 9 of that year, residents of Middletown, Illinois, could have witnessed this scene, as the pilot approached the fairgrounds in Springfield.
Rodgers died in an airplane crash only a few months after he made history. Several years later his widow married the young mechanic Charles Wiggin who had been among the entourage traveling by train to assist Rodgers on the cross-country flight. The two dedicated themselves to keeping the memory of Cal Rodgers in the public mind, and in 1961, on the flight’s 50th anniversary, they published a book of photographs they had collected on that first cross-country journey. This gallery is a selection from that book, First Transcontinental Flight.
Rodgers’ sponsor The Armour Company, maker of the Vin Fiz grape drink, provided a train with two specially fitted cars containing spare parts, two engines, a Palmer-Singer automobile, a first-aid center, and a repair shop. As Cal flew, Armour company executives, officers of the railroad, his mechanics, and newspaper reporters took the train.
On occasion, the airplane had to be transported overland from whatever cow pasture or baseball field Rodgers had landed in. Local citizens were always willing to lend a hand; sometimes the Palmer-Singer car was employed as a tow truck.
It was almost impossible to predict where—and how hard—the Vin Fiz, as the aircraft was named, would land. Sometimes repairs could be made on the spot—in fields, or nearby barns, or right by the railroad tracks.
Kid mechanic Charles Wiggin poured gas into the Vin Fiz tank, surrounded by the crowd of onlookers that quickly gathered almost anywhere Rodgers came down.
Rodgers (far left) became famous for the cigar he was never without, even in the air. It was his cousin John Rodgers (center) who first talked Cal into learning to fly; the two attended the Wright Brothers flying school in Dayton, Ohio, together. John Rodgers helped Cal plot the route he flew across the country. (The third man is unidentified.)
High over Texas, Rodgers wondered if he’d ever see the finish line. “This state is longer than any three other states in the Union,” he wrote in one of the almost daily reports he filed to newspapers during the journey. “Today, I have been flying miles and miles and can’t see the end of Texas yet.” He added: “But they sure know how to extend hospitality.”
Insulation and Know-How
Rodgers not only learned to fly at the Wright Brothers school, he learned how the aircraft was made and how to service it. Here, he tightens the guides connecting the chains that ran from the engine to the propellers. The pilot wore a vest inside his jacket and frequently stuffed the vest with newspapers for insulation against the cold he felt while traveling 55 mph thousands of feet in the air.
The Vin Fiz was easier to carry than to roll, and word traveled fast whenever Rodgers landed, this time somewhere in Texas. Frequently souvenir seekers would pull pieces from the airplane, and hundreds of people signed their names to the fabric covering its wings. (In her book Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz, author Eileen Lebow writes that when Rodgers landed at his final destination, Long Beach, “In the crowd was young Edith Alsenz who managed to write her name on the right wing of the airplane near the spot where, months before, 13-year-old Charlie Brown had signed his name in an Indiana pasture. In time, the two met and married, linked by, among other things, their touch with the historic flying machine.”
In Pasadena, California—Rodgers' original destination—Cal was greeted by officials of the city’s Tournament of Roses Association (and a cast of thousands). After the Association’s chairman draped an American flag around Rodgers’ shoulders, the Pasadena Board of Trade presented him with chrysanthemums.
Perhaps Cal Rodgers should have left well enough alone. Pasadena was close, but it wasn’t the Pacific, so Rodgers took off again, determined to fly all the way to the coast. He crashed in Compton, and spent the next month recuperating and allowing his sprained ankle to heal. On December 10, he lashed his crutches to the airplane and flew to Long Beach, crossing the final dozen of the 4,321 miles he traveled. On April 3, 1912, he died in the crash of a Wright Model B he had bought at the same time he purchased the Vin Fiz.