September 17, 1911. Sheepshead Bay, Long Island. Three years to the day after the world’s first aviation fatality, Cal Rodgers lifts off in a modified Wright B Flyer, intending to fly all the way across the country. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst has a standing offer of $50,000 to the first aviator who flies from coast to coast in either direction within thirty days, using start- and end-points at New York (or Boston) and Los Angeles (or San Francisco) and passing through Chicago. For eleven months after Hearst’s announcement of the prize, which will expire on October 10, no one has even tried. Cal Rodgers, 32, is the third aviator to start an attempt in September 1911. Rodgers has fewer than one hundred days of experience in the air. And he is completely deaf.
Calbraith Perry Rodgers was born in 1879 into a family that had already produced a number of high-ranking American naval officers, but scarlet fever contracted as a child led to a profound hearing loss that rendered him unfit for military duty. The wealthy Rodgers developed a fondness for sailboats, racehorses, fast cars, and cigars.
A younger cousin, John Rodgers, happened to be serving as a lieutenant and assistant gunnery officer aboard U.S.S. Pennsylvania when Eugene Ely made his historic landing on that warship in January 1911. John volunteered for aviation duty shortly thereafter, was assigned to learn from the Wright Brothers at Huffman Prairie (near Dayton), and would soon be formally designated Naval Aviator No. 2. Cal went to Dayton to visit his cousin in June, became enthusiastic about aviation, learned to fly, and bought an aeroplane of his own.
The next major international meet in America would be held at Chicago in mid-August 1911. To be eligible for prizes, each competitor had to hold a license from the Aero Club of America. Rodgers obtained his license on August 7 and headed off to Chicago, where he won more than $11,000, including a substantial prize for endurance flying after logging a cumulative twenty-seven hours in the air. His experience in that event persuaded him that a transcontinental flight was feasible, and he determined to go after the Hearst prize.
With no dedicated airfields along the way, and in anticipation of needing numerous repairs, Rodgers knew the undertaking would be expensive. He persuaded Armour & Company, the producer of a new Vin Fiz (loosely, “bubble wine”) grape soda, to sponsor his attempt. The aeroplane was christened the Vin Fiz Flyer, and the soda’s name was prominently lettered on the wings and tail. In return for turning his machine into a flying billboard, Rodgers received from Armour a support train, reimbursement of all his expenses, and an additional payment of $5/mile from New York to Chicago and $4/mile thereafter—the thought being that, because the country was more sparsely populated west of the Mississippi, the advertising was less valuable. Rodgers generated an additional source of income by charging to carry air mail, for which he had special twenty-five cent stamps printed. His wife Mabel served as his postmistress.
Rodgers left Sheepshead Bay on September 17, well aware that the Hearst prize would expire by its terms hardly three weeks later, but believing he had a chance to beat the deadline. Because he had no navigational instruments, he planned to follow railroad tracks, with the white-painted Vin Fiz support train alerting him to any confusing route issues. Unfortunately, a combination of navigational errors, mechanical difficulties and repeated crashes slowed his progress to such an extent that he didn’t reach Chicago until October 8; there’s even some thought that his deafness may have prevented him from hearing when the engine misfired. Nonetheless, motivated by his contract, as well as a desire to see the thing through, he kept on.
Rodgers flew with his pockets full of cigars, which he chain-smoked to give himself a bit of warmth. He wanted to avoid the Rocky Mountains, so he flew south from Chicago to Texas, and he was in Dallas on October 19 when he learned of Ely’s death that day in a crash. Although Rodgers himself wasn’t flying a Curtiss machine, as Ely had, the news reportedly made him concerned about possible mechanical issues with the Vin Fiz Flyer. He made a special inspection and discovered frayed wires that, it was said, would have caused a potentially fatal crash had they not been replaced.
Although Rodgers had by then already covered nearly three thousand miles in the air, he had taken more than the allotted thirty days to do it. Two days after Ely’s death, Rodgers formally gave up on the Hearst prize but continued the transcontinental flight. At Tucson, Arizona, he passed Robert Fowler, an aviator attempting to make the first transcontinental flight from west to east. Fowler had left San Francisco six days before Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay, and he would not arrive at Jacksonville, Florida, until February 1912.
Cheered on by crowds numbering in the thousands, Rodgers reached his intended destination of Pasadena on November 5. The trip had covered more than 4100 miles and had taken 49 days—twelve days more than Norman DeVaux needed in 1896 to bicycle across the country. Rodgers nevertheless predicted that transcontinental air travel in less than three days would become possible just as soon as a way was devised to protect passengers from the cold, by seating them inside some sort of aerial cabin.
The following week, as Rodgers attempted to fly a final twenty-three miles to the ocean at Long Beach, where he had been offered $1000 by the city to land, he was overcome with drowsiness and crashed, badly injuring himself and wrecking his machine. On December 10, he symbolically completed the transcontinental trip by landing on the beach. Rodgers was still using crutches; spectators pushed the machine down wet its wheels in the Pacific Ocean.
Rodgers stayed on at Long Beach for several months, giving passenger rides. On April 3, flying solo, he plunged into the surf within a few hundred feet of where his transcontinental trip had ended. The engine behind him broke loose and crushed him. Earlier in that final flight he had chased a flock of seagulls, and there’s some speculation the fatal crash was caused by a “bird strike.”
Rodgers was 33 and had flown for less than ten months, but he was something of a national hero. His death led Mathilde Moisant to quit flying altogether and others, like Walter Brookins, to call for an end to sensational flights. Within two weeks of his death, Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel; although she died on July 1, her likeness would be appropriated posthumously and used to market Vin Fiz.
Cal Rodgers was buried in his home town of Pittsburgh. The epitaph on his headstone reads: I endure. I conquer. He was one of the first aviation pioneers to be enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.