A Hundred Years of Cross Country Flight
When truly personal aviation came about after the end of World War I, less than a hundred years ago, the nation was opened up to its citizens in a way it had never before been. Arguably the beginning of this tradition is the first transcontinental crossing of the United States in an airplane, the flight of the Vin Fiz by Cal Rodgers a hundred years ago. Rodgers was a beginning pilot who was deaf and chain smoked cigars, even while flying in his open cockpit Wright biplane. The Vin Fiz got its name from a brand of grape soda bottled by the sponsoring company, meatpacking firm Armour. Perry was the first private individual to buy a Wright Brothers’ airplane, a purchase he made in part with the $11,000 he won in a flying contest the summer before, despite having taken his first flying lesson only shortly before that event.
With the flight of the Vin Fiz, Perry was hoping to double down on his airplane investment by taking home the prize of $50,000 offered by publisher William Randolph Hearst for the first transcontinental flight that took 30 days or fewer to complete. But problems began almost immediately after Rodgers’ departure from Long Island in the Vin Fiz, and it was soon clear that Hearst’s prize was beyond their reach. But they kept flying.
In the end the cross-country circus that followed would require 84 days to complete, with Rodgers following a specially equipped three-car train across the nation at a maddeningly slow pace; the flight managed by some estimates an average of less than one flying hour per calendar day. Aboard the train was a moving warehouse of spare parts and a crew, including the Wright’s chief mechanic, to make the repairs they knew would be needed enroute. It was even worse then feared. As Rogers made his way west, he suffered no fewer than 16 crashes along the way, a couple of which forced him into the hospital. The mechanics had their work cut out for them, too. In the end, there were precious few parts — just three or four — of the original airplane that survived the trip.
In the end, Rodgers somehow made it to Pasadena, where he was greeted by a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands. About a week later, he embarked on what he saw as the culmination of the trip, a flight to Long Beach, where he would dip the wheels of the Vin Fiz in the waters of the Pacific. That trip of just 35 miles required a month and put Rodgers into the hospital for three weeks with a concussion and spinal injury. Eventually he made it to the Pacific and did indeed taxi the Vin Fiz into the surf.
Despite its comical difficulty and complexity by today’s standards, the Flight of the Vin Fiz was big news. As it progressed, it became even bigger, until the national press was following the flying follies on a day-by-day basis. And it made Rodgers a national hero, albeit a short-lived one. He was killed just a few months later when, while on a training flight, he was hit by a flock of seagulls and crashed into the Pacific.
Rodgers’ flight in the Vin Fiz served to give notice that a single person could travel around the country in a small airplane taking his orders from no one but the wind and the sky. For many of us, this romantic vision of what we do helps drive our continued love of aviation. Which is why flying cross country, even if it isn't truly across the country, as Rodgers' flight was, still has so much romance involved with it. It's been done before by many others. But we never know what we'll see and what we'll discover both outside and inside of ourselves.
I still imagine that ending scene, a banged-up Rodgers dipping the skids of his banged up biplane in the waters of the Pacific, and there's something magical about it, magical in a way that perhaps only pilots and other true travelers can understand.
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