By Bartee Haile
Texas History Columnist
At funeral services in Mission on Jul. 8, 1956, friends and family of “Slats” Rodgers paid their last respects to the accident prone pioneer aviator while marveling at the fact he died in bed of natural causes.
Texas’ first licensed pilot was born Floyd H. Rodgers in rural Georgia in 1889. His thin-as-a-rail appearance inspired someone to call him “Slats,” a nickname that stuck for the rest of life.
“Slats” was still in knee pants, when his parents brought him to the Lone Star State settling in the Johnson County community of Keene. He got a bare-bones education in the Cleburne schools before leaving home to work on an uncle’s farm near Waco.
At 18 he found entry-level employment with the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad. Displaying a mechanical aptitude as well as a good work ethic, he steadily advanced over the next eight years and wound up a locomotive engineer on the Cleburne-to-Dallas run.
By this time, “Slats” had even loftier ambitions that had nothing to do with trains. A childhood love of kites had blossomed into a fascination with flying on the heels of the Wright Brothers’ amazing feat at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
With the assistance of an older, more knowledgeable engineer, he began building his own aircraft in a blacksmith shop in Cleburne. Forced to vacate the premises by shortsighted city fathers, who outlawed the undertaking as a “public nuisance,” he loaded up the Oregon spruce, French turnbuckles, two-stroke engine and the rest of the materials and moved everything to Keene.
It was there in his adopted hometown that “Slats” turned his implausible dream into rickety reality. But he was in no hurry to fly it because he did not know how. “I had never seen anybody fly a ship,” he explained decades later in his autobiography. “I never had even seen one except mine.”
For the better part of a year, “Slats” contented himself with taxiing around a pasture. Then one day in 1912, a deep ditch left with him no choice but to lift off at the last second. After a maiden flight of 200 feet, the airplane slammed into the ground tearing off the wheels and right wing in what the man at the controls would claim was the first of his 29 crack-ups.
“Slats” pieced his pride-and-joy back together only to discover that the reattached wing drooped badly. He dubbed the ugly duckling “Old Soggy No. 1” and coaxed it into the sky another 50 times before putting the plane out to pasture like some derelict automobile.
In the early days of World War I, the Army was desperately short of pilots and instructors. That was how a string-bean Texan, who had never taken a lesson in his life, spent much of 1916 teaching wide-eyed cadets everything he knew about flying.
Following President Wilson’s war “to make the world safe for democracy,” “Slats” bought an Army surplus Jenny for next to nothing. He joined the fun-loving club of barnstorming daredevils, who made their living by selling five minutes in sky to anybody with the price of a ticket and by putting on death-defying air shows.
In the early 1920’s, “Slats” traded in his Jenny for a five-passenger biplane. During his days on the railroad, he had supplemented his income by carrying bootleg whiskey in the cab of his locomotive. His spacious new aircraft enabled him to ferry cases of illegal booze out of Mexico to ready buyers in Texas.
Several sources allege that the so-called “Love Field Lunatics,” of which “Slats” was a prominent member, was actually a cover for a smuggling operation. Whether that is true or not, there is no question that the public could not get enough of the stunt pilots’ risky aerobatics.
A cornerstone of the “Slats” Rodgers’ legend is that around 1926 he was issued the first pilot’s license in the State of Texas. But he had a heap of trouble holding on to it due to his aerial antics.
“I guess the government had my license more than I did,” “Slats” told a newspaperman in 1950. “They’d always get to feeling sorry for me, though, and give it back in two or three months.”
One of the stunts that resulted in the suspension of his pilot’s permit involved flying between two Dallas skyscrapers to win a wager. On another occasion, he dropped a lookalike dummy from his plane to give spectators down below the false but exciting impression that he was falling to his death.
The end of Prohibition and the barnstorming era compelled “Slats” to seek legitimate employment. Always creative, he invented crop-dusting by cutting a couple of holes in the floorboard of his craft. When failing eyesight made that practice too dangerous even for him, he tried his hand at ranching and opened steakhouses in Bandera and McAllen before his death at age 67.
Original article can be found here: http://www.yourhoustonnews.com