Friday, December 8, 2017

Cal Rodgers: Pilot’s 12 crashes didn’t stop 1911 cross-country flight that stopped in San Antonio, Texas

By Mike Lentes 

Mike Lentes is a pilot and early aviation history writer. He built the website, where a 4-square-inch swatch of original wing fabric from the Wright Vin Fiz aircraft is available. The site also offers other aviation relics and is keeping aviation history alive.

Pilot Cal Rodgers is ready for takeoff with a crowd in the background.

The year is 1911, and most Texans are concerned about the high cost of living. The price of bread has risen to 4 cents a loaf, a quart of milk is 8 cents, and if you have to grab lunch away from home, a hot beef sandwich costs 10 cents.

The average annual income stands at $983, and the workweek is six 12-hour days. If you can afford one, a new Ford Model T sets you back $650 — but you can say “fill ’er up” with gas at 5 cents a gallon. And there is a flurry of inventions such as air conditioning and the electric potato peeler. And then there’s that “newfangled flying machine” built by the Wright brothers in Dayton, Ohio.

Only 2 percent of Americans had even seen an “aeroplane” in 1911. So when a Wright biplane was expected to land at Fort Sam Houston, it was a must-see spectacle for the thousands of Texans waiting there.

The pilot, Cal Rodgers, began the flight just a month before in New York and was bold enough to think that he could fly coast to coast and win the $50,000 prize offered by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. As Orville Wright told Rodgers: “I’ll sell you one of our ‘aeroplanes,’ but they’re not meant for that kind of punishment — you won’t make it as far as Chicago.”

Four months earlier, after only 90 minutes of instruction at the Wright Flying School in Dayton, Rodgers soloed and proclaimed: “A man could become drunk with flying. Everything I’ve done up until now doesn’t matter.” He immediately bought a “Model B” from the Wright brothers and spent that summer barnstorming. At a flying contest in Chicago, Rodgers was awarded first place for most time aloft and attracted the attention of Ogden Armour, owner of the Vin Fiz Co. Armour wanted to introduce his new Vin Fiz grape soda to the country and agreed to sponsor the flight. Armour would pay Cal $5 for each mile flown east of the Mississippi and $4 west of the river in return for advertising the grape drink. It was the first-ever “flying billboard.” Painted on the underwing of the aircraft was: “VIN FIZ — THE IDEAL GRAPE DRINK .”

Without aerial charts or airports in 1911, Rodgers used the railroad tracks as his “iron compass,” at the same time keeping him close to his support train, The Vin Fiz Special. His only other “navigational aid” was an 8-inch string from his wife’s corset that was attached to a cross wire in front of him to indicate when the aircraft was in a climb, a descent or a bank. The Katy (Kansas to Texas) tracks led him to the Alamo City, where everyone was waiting to witness a historic event. The San Antonio Express was following the flight with great interest and reporting on it.

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