On the Wings of a Prayer
Calbraith Perry Rodgers had little else to keep him aloft during the first transcontinental airplane flight that brought him to Pasadena a century ago.
By Bettijane Levine 06/01/2011
On Nov. 5, 1911, some 10,000 people from near and far packed Pasadena’s Tournament Park, drawn by the promise of a history-making aviation event — which might or might not happen.
If the plane could stay aloft, if the pilot could find his way and if winds and weather remained copacetic, the world’s first transcontinental airplane flight would land right in front of them, on a space marked on the playing field by white sheets.
By late afternoon, the plane still had not arrived and the crowd had grown subdued, concerned about the pilot’s fate. Then a young boy shouted, “It’s up there!” and pointed to the sky. Calbraith Perry Rodgers, 33, was swooping and twirling his spindly Wright Brothers Model EX biplane above the roaring crowd, proving his prowess before slowly spiraling down to earth.
Rodgers’ trip from New York to Pasadena had taken 49 days. Twenty-four of them were spent flying the plane with a 35-horsepower engine that topped out at 50 miles per hour and an altitude of 1,000 feet. Twenty-five days were spent on the ground, recovering from 16 crashes along the way. By the time Rodgers reached the West Coast, he had suffered multiple cuts, bruises and broken bones. His plane had been completely rebuilt, bit by bit. The only original parts left were the oil pan and one strut.
The tall, handsome pilot was mobbed by waiting reporters and the cheering crowd. He was carried aloft to the carriage that would take him to Pasadena’s Maryland Hotel for the first of many celebratory feasts. The course of travel on planet Earth had changed forever.
Telegraph operators tapped out the news, and newspapers around the globe hailed Rodgers’ death-defying feat, dubbing him “a hero for the ages,” a man who had “defied the laws of nature,” one whose name would forever be inscribed in textbooks and on monuments. “A Feat For The Ages,” blared the Los Angeles Times in a front-page headline, adding that it “would have been totally impossible” just two years before. “A man has flown across the American continent…unaided and in constant peril of his life,” the paper continued. “Rodgers’ name will forever be penned in every history of world events.”
Of course, that didn’t happen. Rodgers had indeed made history — but then was quickly forgotten by it. Text and history books don’t mention his name. Schoolchildren learn about Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, but never about Calbraith Perry Rodgers, whose plane was much more primitive than theirs, and who preceded them by more than a decade. His achievement has been ignored for no logical reason; it’s just a glitch in historical recordkeeping, say those who have studied the case.
Yet no amount of purple prose could overstate the magnitude of Rodgers’ achievement. Consider his plane, named the Vin Fiz after a grape-flavored soft drink now as forgotten as he is. Rodgers’ aircraft was reportedly made of spruce, cotton fabric, wire and glue. It had no cabin, not even a windscreen to protect him from the elements. It had no brakes, no instruments and, of course, no means of ground-to-air communication.
The pilot’s seat, which looked something like a kitchen chair with the legs sawed off, was covered in corduroy to prevent Rodgers from slipping around on it. Chains connected to the propellers were ready-made for bicycles. The spoked wheels, also off-the-shelf, looked suitable for the bicycles or baby buggies they were probably built for. The gas tank, attached directly behind the pilot’s head, was perfectly positioned to decapitate him if it broke loose. And an 8-inch-long string, described by some reporters as a shoelace, dangled directly in front of the pilot — his only indication of which direction he was flying in and whether he was banking too steeply. “In flight, the string should fly straight back,” wrote Eileen F. Lebow, author of Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz (Smithsonian Institution Press; 1989), the most comprehensive book on Rodgers. “But if the plane was side-slipping, the string would be at an angle. The aviator had to correct the error by flying in the direction the string pointed.”
The pilot navigated this contraption cross-country through mountain passes, through updrafts and downdrafts, around flocks of birds and other hazards that could prove — and already had proven — fatal to those who had tried to fly even short distances. He had no aerial maps to study, no ground beacons or markers to chart his route by, no landing strips to aim for in times of trouble.
It was only three years earlier that the Wright Brothers had shown the world that sustained flight was possible. When Rodgers arrived at their Dayton, Ohio, compound in June 1911, they had just released the newest version of their flying machine to the public for purchase. Rodgers took just 90 minutes of flight training from them and was extremely adept at it. He loved being airborne and promptly bought a plane from them for $5,000. He became the 49th person to obtain an official pilot’s license. At that point, he had no inkling of exactly what he would do with it.
Until then, most flying had been amusement for wealthy adventurers. It was the extreme sport of the era, demonstrated at air shows in the U.S. and Europe, where pilots competed for cash to see who could fly highest, longest and trickiest. The U.S. Government had purchased one Wright plane for experimental purposes and was cautiously considering buying one more. The phrase “air travel” was not in the lexicon. Only the most futuristic thinkers could even imagine using the flying machine as a means of mass transport. Press lord William Randolph Hearst was one of those forward thinkers. While Rodgers was learning to fly, Hearst was offering $50,000 to anyone who could make it across the continent in 30 days.
Rodgers was wealthy and an adventurer, but he was no playboy. Born with the proverbial silver spoon, his lineage was distinguished. His grandfather was Oliver Hazard Perry, the naval commander who led the Battle of Lake Erie, a decisive American victory over the British in the War of 1812. (He also helped immortalize the phrase “Don’t give up the ship.”) His granduncle was Matthew Calbraith Perry, the U.S. Navy commodore who compelled the opening of Japan to the West. Rodgers’ father was an army man who’d distinguished himself in the struggle to open up the West to settlements. His mother was heiress to a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, glass-manufacturing fortune. But there, his good luck seems to have ended.
Rodgers’ father was fatally struck by lightning before his son was born. At age 6, Rodgers developed a severe case of scarlet fever that left him deaf in one ear and hearing-impaired in the other. And yet he grew up to be strong, athletic, earnest and handsome — 6 feet, 4 inches tall, about 175 pounds, with a penchant for anything mechanical.
Refused by military academies because of his hearing loss, he was unable to follow in his family’s military footsteps, so he became something of a bon vivant after graduating from prep school. He was living at the New York Yacht Club, enjoying all the perks of the wealthy young bachelor’s life, when he met his wife, Mabel. She was on
the family yacht when her mother tumbled into the water; Rodgers, who just happened to be nearby, leapt in and saved the drowning woman, kindling a romance with her thankful daughter.
Not much else is known about Rodgers’ personality or personal life. Both his mother and wife apparently supported his yen to fly. When he heard about Hearst’s coast-to-coast contest, he decided to try for the prize. But the cost would be monumental, possibly more than the prize money itself. Because there was no cross-country flight path, Rodgers’ only option was to fly above the transcontinental railroad tracks that had recently been completed.
He had to hire his own train and crew to travel below him on those tracks, keeping him in sight as much as possible. The train had to carry mechanics and enough spare parts to repair the plane as needed. It also carried an automobile that his crew could drive to the rescue when he went down. And all those salaries for personnel, along with all equipment and other costs, were at Rodgers’ own expense.
He decided to find a sponsor to help cover the costs. The Armour meat-packing company of Chicago signed up for the job in return for promoting the soft drink division’s new sparkling grape beverage, Vin Fiz. Rodgers’ plane was named after it, the letters boldly printed on the underside of its wings for all to see as he flew above populated areas. Rodgers was also asked to drop cards publicizing the drink. And Armour pledged to pay up to $5 extra for every mile he flew.
With all arrangements in place by September 1911, Rodgers loaded his wife and mother onto the private train and took off from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York. Newspapers across the country offered daily reports on his crashes, injuries and progress; citizens on the ground reported sightings of him to the press; and crew members wrote bulletins from the train, many of which were published. It looked to even the most sophisticated observers as if this pilot and his flight would be etched forever in human memory.
Rodgers decided to fly one more time in order to dip his wings over the Pacific — a symbolic gesture to make his journey quite literally coast to coast. Only five months after his historic flight, he crashed and died in the ocean off Long Beach during what should have been a short pleasure trip.
Since then, Tournament Park, his landing place in Pasadena, has been absorbed by the Caltech university complex. There are no plans by the City of Pasadena to honor the 100th anniversary of his flight. Rodgers didn’t live long enough to be interviewed by biographers, and apparently no writers tried to research his life while his close friends and relatives were still alive.
He also didn’t live long enough to have children with Mabel. After his death, she married one of the mechanics who had traveled with her on the train. But Rodgers’ plane, if not his name, lives on. It is on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.