Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Flight of the Vin Fiz—Coast to Coast in 90 Days

Rogers at the controls of the Vin Fizz

They sing of Lucky Lindy and fair Amelia Earhart, even Wrong Way Corrigan.  Chuck Yeager is a legend and all of those Astronauts get their due.  But alas for poor, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, dashing and daring-do pilot of the first transcontinental aircraft trip, is hardly a household name.
Phineas Fogg went ‘round the world in 80 days and intrepid girl reporter Nellie Bly beat that time for real.  Back in 1903 Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, a companion, and pit bull named Pud, had driven from San Francisco to New York City in 63 days, a feat seldom duplicated since then due to the terrible conditions of American roads and their failure to connect for any sensible route.  And you could buy tickets in the Big Apple and with good connections in Chicago be in L.A. in about four and a half days.  In 1911, only seven years after the Wright Brothers first took off in 1903 Rodgers completed the coast-to-coast trip in 90 days.
Rogers was born on January 12 1879 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to a wealthy family with deep connections to the Navy.  Commodores Oliver Hazard Perry and Matthew Calbraith Perry were in the family tree and his cousin Lt. John Rogers was among the first pilots of the infant Navy Aerial Corps which had exactly on airplane.
Standing 6 foot 4 inches tall, handsome and lantern jawed, chewing a perpetual unlit cigar, Rogers had settled, sort of, in  Havre de Grace, Maryland and married a lovely, patient girl named Mable.  He was always active and adventurous, a football player in school, and later a yachtsman and auto racer.  Due to scarlet fever he had lost hearing in one ear and was hard of hearing in the other—which turned out to be an asset when exposed to loud engines.
After his cousin John learned to fly from Orville Wright, and unable to enlist in the Navy himself due to his hearing loss, in the spring of 1911 he took lessons from Wright privately at his Flying School in Dayton, Ohio.  He got exactly 90 minutes time from the great man, all that was expected to be necessary to learn to fly the crude aircraft.  The young man was hooked and probably to Wright’s amazement became one of the first individuals to ever buy one of the planes that he was having so much difficulty peddling to the military services of the world.
Even before he completed his certification from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale—its 49th registered pilot—in August, Rogers was making a name for himself setting endurance and distance records in his new airplane despite the fact that he was probably the largest and heaviest man aloft.
In one of his patented circulation building stunts, in 1910 publisher William Randolph Hearst announced the Hearst Prize for the first transcontinental flight in less than 30 days with a jaw dropping $50,000 award.  Hearst was confident, given the primitive state of aviation, that he would never have to pay off before the prize expired in November of 1911.  Danish born James J. Ward tried to win it in a Curtis Model D push plane.  He took off on September 13 from Governor’s Island and made it as far as Addison, New York nine days later before a crash ended the attempt.
Rogers wanted in on the action, but knew that he was not wealthy enough to pay the expenses of the flight himself.  He would need a sponsor.  One of the advantages of coming from a “good family” and having connections was knowing the right people or the right people to introduce you to the right people.  For Rogers, the right person was meatpacking baron J. Ogden Armour who literally had money to burn.  Armour, who was being sued that year by the Federal Government in one of the first big prosecution under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, could use some good press.  He also had a new product to promote taking advantage of the national soda fountain craze—a purple pop he called Vin Fizz.
Vin Fizz would go on to business failure and obscurity, but its name gained glory when it was emblazoned on the under wing and tail of Rogers’ plane.  Underwriting the hasty arrangements for the flight of the aircraft named after is soda would not be cheap for Armour.  Two new long winged Wright Model R aircraft specially modified for the trip and given the extension EX.  One would be assembled at Sheepshead Bay for the flight and the other would remain crated and loaded onto a special three car train that would shadow the flight as an extra.  There were also plenty of spare parts, a linin wing covering in a complete maintenance shop occupying one car.  The services of ace Wright mechanic Charlie Taylor, a second technician and two helpers were secured for $70 a week payable to Wright.
The train also contained a comfortable private car for not only the crew but Roger’s wife Mable, his mother, and Charlie Wiggin, an old pal.  Most night away from big cities, the pilot would sleep there as well.  Of course, Armour made sure that Vin Fizz was plastered all over the attention getting train.
On September 11, 1911 all was finally ready.  Rogers knew that the flight was already probably taking off too late to claim the Hearst Prize, but evidently entertained the notion that if he could complete the journey anyway, Hearst would cough up the money.  He evidently did not know William Randolph Hearst.
Rogers occupied a seat bolted to the middle of the lower wing.  He wore a cloth cap and a simple business suit made bulky by layers of heavy sweaters and a sheared sheepskin vest underneath.  He would need every stitch of clothing for his late season attempt.  The plane carried some extra canisters of fuel and a small tool kit but was otherwise unencumbered by extra weight.  The plane was little more than the powered kite flown by the Wrights in 1903.  Still a fragile spruce frame with linen covered wings and tail.  It was now powered by a single 35 horse power gasoline engine operating two eight foot long push propellers by chain drive.
Rogers carried no compass, navigation devices or even maps.  He would navigate solely by closely following rail lines, both so that he wouldn’t get lost and to keep in close contact with his support train.
By the time of the flight, the pilot had logged only 60 hours in the air.  But, in 1911 that made him one of the most experienced flyers in the world.
With one thing or another, it was not until late afternoon that Rogers finally took off in front of a small cheering crowd, some of whom never expected to see him alive again.  Wheels lifted from the ground at 4:35.  Miraculously Rogers flew 104 miles in two hours that first day, landing safely in Middletown, New York.
The next day did not go as well and set a sort of pattern for the rest of the trip.  Rogers’s landing gear snagged a tree on take-off and he crashed into a chicken coop.  The irate farm wife demanded immediate payment for damages from the pilot who was bleeding from a scalp wound.  The plane, and Rogers, were patched together and took to the air again in three days.
Over the course of the long journey there would be between 16 and 39 crashes, depending on how you parsed the difference between a crash and a “rough forced landing.”  Roger tended to only consider “incidents” requiring more than routine medical treatment or a delay of two or three days for repairs as real crashes.  He was injured repeatedly, including flying with his broken leg in a cast for part of the way.  The plane would finally arrive on the west coast with one strut and one rudder the only original parts.
Progress, or the lack of it, was reported breathlessly in the press, especially in Hearst papers.  Crowds showed up in towns where ever Rogers landed or crashed.  He gave interviews and Armour got all of the publicity he desired for this grape soda.
On October 9 Rogers arrived in Chicago with all dim hope of meeting the Hearst deadline dashed.  But after a brief rest and consultation with his benefactor, Rogers determined to push on with Armour still footing the bill.  He decided that it was too late in the season to risk bad weather and getting over the Rocky Mountains.  Instead, he would fly south by southwest out of the city to Texas and turn west at San Antonio.
Since no detailed logs were kept—or at least have survived—parts of the southwestern trip are lost in detail.  Rogers had 23 stops of at least a day in Texas, many of them crashes or hard landings.  The exact rout is unsure.  Looking at railroad maps of the era, it is believed that he could have traveled between 3,220 to 4,251miles before nearly reaching his final destination.
On November 5, Rogers landed before a crowd of 20,000 at the race track of Pasadena, California’s Rose Tournament Park, 45 days after leaving New York.  At that point he had actually been in the air for 82 hours and 4 minutes averaging just 51.6 miles per hour air speed.
Some people consider this the end of Rogers’s trip. He did not.  The Hearst rules had called for coast to coast and the ocean is miles from Pasadena.  He was determined to make one final push.
But disaster struck—the worst crash of the trip.  200 miles short of his goal, the engine blew up sending shrapnel into Roger’s legs, his most devastating and painful injury yet.  This time he spent weeks recovering.
Finally he was recovered and on December 10 finally landed within sight of the ocean a Long Beach, 90 days after the start of his trip.
The whole thing had cost Amour nearly $25,000.  The whole nation was talking about intrepid Calbraith Perry Rodgers and Vin Fizz, even if they would not actually go out and buy the stuff.
Rogers and his wife stayed the winter in balmy Southern California.  By spring he was back to flying exhibitions.  This time he was using the virtually new spare plane assembled out of the crate.
On April 3, 1912 he was flying just such a flight over the Long Beach when his plane struck a seagull plunging it into the shallow surf within sight of his December landing spot.  He died instantly of a broken neck.  His wife took his remains back to Havre de Grace for burial.
Perhaps if he had lived and gone on to set more records, Rogers might now be better remembered.  Although he is enshrined in the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington displays a reproduction of the Vin Fizz, few people have heard of him.
I guess he needs a good balladeer. 

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