Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz
America’s First Coast to Coast Airplane Flight

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College
207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840

In 1911 Calbraith Perry Rodgers brought the wonders of air flight to Val Verde County. Rodgers was making the first transcontinental air transit in his Wright Brothers plane called the Vin Fiz. It was the age of daredevils, and the public was fascinated with the new flying machines. Air shows had become the rage, and everyone was wondering exactly what would come from this new dimension of the communication and transportation technology.

In 1910 William Randolph Hearst offered $50,000 to the first person to make a transcontinental flight. The conditions were few: coast to coast, stop in Chicago, use the same aircraft. The prize with rich; the danger great. Cal Rodgers was a motorcycle racing daredevil who had just earned his pilot’s license and ready to take on the challenge. Throw in some killer androids from the future and Nicole Kidman and the story would have all the scenes for a Hollywood blockbuster. When it was all over, 4231 miles later, “Calbraith Perry Rodgers had done the impossible.”1

Calbriath Perry Rodgers was born January 12, 1879. His father died before he was born; his mother raised him and his siblings on an Army widow’s pension. Family connections, however, would provide money and contacts that opened doors during his schooling and later. Rodgers grew to adulthood in Pittsburgh. The metal and the mechanics intrigued him, though scarlet fever left him partially deaf. Apparently, the latter proved no handicap, and the former made technology familiar. He was tall, athletic and charming; he met his future wife, Mabel Avis Graves, while sailing. They married on May 4, 1906.2

Meanwhile, down on the coast, the Wright Brothers had made the world three-dimensional. Their flight of December 17, 1903 started the revolution in transportation; though not until 1908 did they prove (in Europe rather than the U.S.) that air flight could be made for sustained trips over several miles.

When the U.S. Navy heard about the air flights, they sent John Rodgers to learn how to fly. John was cousin to Cal and spoke to Cal enthusiastically about his experiences. In 1911 Cal paid for flying lessons at the Wright [Brothers] Flying School. The two men bought one of the planes the Wrights were building. (Cal knew that his cousin’s naval duties would give Cal more flying time.) While at school, Cal met Frank Shaffer, who would be his mechanic for the big flight, and Charles Wiggin, who would be a general helper and mechanic and who would gather photographs for a book about the flight.3

Rodgers earned his wings on August 7, 1911 with License #49 and the right to be called “aviator.” In that very same month, he entered Chicago’s aeroplane competition and was the third overall money winner (at $11,285) and the champion at duration flights.4

During the competition he spoke with his wife suggesting that he was capable of winning the Hearst Prize. The Hearst Prize was a $50,000 reward for flying one of the new-fangled aeroplanes from one coast to the other across the United States. It was a great deal of money, but it was not a sure thing, and it did not provide the aviator with operating funds for the trip.

Within weeks of the Chicago competition, Rodgers had cut a deal with the Armour Company of Chicago. They would sponsor the flight, and Rodgers would promote a new drink, a grape-flavored soft drink marketed under the name Vin Fiz,” hence the name of the aircraft. In addition to the hoped for prize money, Rodgers would receive five dollars from Armour for every mile flown east of the Mississippi River and four dollars for every mile west. (The western states had fewer people, hence fewer people to see the advertising.) The aircraft literally was to be a “flying billboard.”5

Upon the announcement of the flight, the leading aviators and aircraft builders of the day supported the concept. Said Glenn Curtis: “Think for a moment what it means to fly from the Atlantic to the Pacific…. When an aeroplane has linked the Atlantic coast with the Pacific slope by a successful flight, the stamp of complete practicability will be placed on all heavier-than-air craft. Its effect on the commercial phase of aeroplane industry will be simply incalculable.”6

Two other aviators started before Rodgers, one from New York and one from California. Both were in route but grounded due to weather and wrecks when Rodgers began his attempt. Both men would make successive attempts to continue, but both failed. The aviator flying from New York crashed one more time and walked away. Perhaps the fact that odds makers were betting that he would get himself killed before making Buffalo prompted the change of heart. The aviator flying east from California could not fly over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The lack of power in those early engines simply could not lift a plane that high. Such is the reason why Rodgers path veered south through Texas and Val Verde County. The canyon country near Del Rio worried Rodgers, but the Rockies could not be flown over.7

Vin Fiz route
The route of the Vin Fiz led Cal Rodgers to Del Rio, Langtry, and Val Verde County.

Rodgers ordered a customized aircraft from the Wright Brothers. The EX Flyer had a 32 foot wingspan. The 35 horsepower engine would pull the plane 55 miles per hour in calm air. (With a good tailwind, Rodgers could and did make more than a mile per minute.) The whole plane weighed less than 800 pounds and proved easier to lift and carry than to push and roll.8

Rodgers began his odyssey of flight at Sheepshead Bay, Long Island in the state of New York on September 17, 1911. A crowd of some 2,000 people watched him take off. He flew over Manhattan and then out to Jersey City. The mass of railroad tracks could have proved confusing had not the mechanics and railroad men ordered and arranged for white canvas to be placed on the track in the direction Rodgers was to fly. These canvas strips were used most of the way to Chicago, particularly at and after railroad junctions: “There is a railroad about every fifteen feet in Ohio,” Cal quipped about the problem. Without radar or radio, long distance aviators often followed railroad lines to their destinations. Rodgers would do that across the country. The system was not foolproof, but it generally worked.9

Vin Fiz in flight
The Vin Fiz attracted crowds whereever it flew.

The mechanics, Cal’s family and Armour Company representatives traveled on a support train painted with the Vin Fiz logo. The train followed him out of the New York area, and together, they made good time: 84 miles in 105 minutes. The landing was so smooth that it did not even disturb the ash on Cal’s ever-present cigar.10

Cal Rodgers with cigar
Cal Rodgers does not care for the "No Smoking" sign.

Day Two started with a major crash, grounding him for three days while repairs were effected. The ability to crash and not get killed became one of the hallmarks of the trip and probably led to the adage “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.” The aircraft was incredibly fragile. The FAA would not allow any such craft into the air today. But the crashing, rebuilding and getting back into the air was part of a macho, tough-guy attitude.11

Cal Rodgers made Chicago on October 8, 1911. He did not stay long. The one year deadline on the Hearst Prize was rapidly approaching. By Chicago, he figured he could not make the deadline, but there was hope for an extension. Later, he was informed that none would be granted. Still, Rodgers flew on, collecting money for mileage and an occasional purse offered by towns wanting the daredevil to land his aircraft in their localities. Modern-day sophisticates must remember, many people in many places had never seen an airplane.12

Texas was reached on October 17 and San Antonio on October 22, landing on Fort Sam Houston’s polo field. Soldiers were required to protect the aviator and his plane from the pressing crowds. He rested in San Antonio until the twenty-fourth while serious engine repairs were made. It was said that nothing remained of the original plane except the motor, the rudder and the elevator. Despite the crowds, newspaper accounts state that Rodgers would hold any exhibitions because aeroplane flying was so common in San Antonio that such an event would not draw paying customers. The heavy use of the equipment was putting great strains on the engine, wiring, frame and pilot. On the twenty-fourth he took off westward, experience engine trouble at LaCoste, landed well in Sabinal and Uvalde and landed in the evening twilight in Spofford.13

The next morning, October 25, some three-hundred American and Mexican spectators watched Cal climb on board, get the engine started, taxi through his “landing field” and catch a little mound of dirt with a propeller. The plane bucked; the propellers exploded; the landing skids collapsed, and the plane crumpled to the ground. Cal cut the engine and walked away unhurt.14

Del Rio sources rumored that the Vin Fiz support train carried all the parts needed to fix the aircraft, but also carried a coffin.15 It turns out that that rumor was not a common one for the entire flight; it was started in Texas, in Spofford after the horrible crash there. While his aircraft was being repaired, Rodgers did some advance scouting by rail, checking out the terrain between Del Rio and Comstock. “The aviator is encountering much difficulty in locating prospective landing places as this section of Texas was not laid out with a view to accommodating aviators in their flights. The ground is so completely covered with mesquite and chapparal, making a landing very difficult.”16

Repairs required a day and a half, and on October 26, Cal was in the air. He was traveling well—no mechanical problems, no bad weather—so he did not want to stop in Del Rio. However, a stop was scheduled, and a purse had been offered. The arrival of the first airplane to the city was such an event that the schools were closed and the children let out to see the Vin Fiz land. A white “wagon sheet” was staked to the earth to identify the landing field east of San Felipe Creek south of the railroad tracks. (The exact site is unknown but is supposed to be along U.S. 277 as it leaves town southward to Eagle Pass. The marker will be placed in a park in the general vicinity.) He was supposed to circle the town but didn’t; with everything in good working order, he did not want to up the valuable time. The crowds were well-behaved—an important contrast with some crowds cutting pieces of canvas from the aircraft or writing their names on the wings and puncturing the surfaces. The train followed Cal in. He ate lunch while mechanics guarded the plane. He picked up a load of cigars, which he smoked even while flying and prepared the Vin Fiz for takeoff. The takeoff started the horses, but no injuries were reported. By 2:50 he was airborne and gone, flying with the Rio Grande on his left wing and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks on his right.17

During the entire trip, Cal Rodgers was submitting reports to the New York Times as well. His report about Del Rio was short, perhaps because it was one of the towns in which no crashes occurred and no other gremlins struck his plane. It is clear that Rodgers was concerned about the upcoming leg of the flight, so it is likely his mind had already skipped past Del Rio to the canyons ahead.
“I halted at Del Rio half an hour for the special and then went on board and had lunch, returning to the field and getting started again at 2:50. After clearing the crowd I got away bound fro Sanderson, my schedule stop to-night. As I met the worst flying country in the West, I determined to get through it as soon as possible.
After working to an altitude of 4,000 feet I started for Sanderson. The railroad twisted and wound in and out, but I laid the m most direct course possible having the railroad on one side and the Rio Grande River on the other.
The scenery was wonderful, especially the Pecos Canyon, over which the next to the highest bridge in the world is built. I flew as near an air line as possible, and the mail that I carried raced its destination sooner by a couple of hourse [sic] than if it had been on the special train.
When I left Del Rio I flew over the border into Mexico at that same time the train left Del Rio. I soon left the train behind and crossed back into the United States, and then flew across into Old Mexico again….18 The big advantage of following the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks to Del Rio and then on west was that this part of Texas had only one rail line. The tracks would lead him without error to El Paso and then all the way to California. The line also avoided the mountains that he would have to face if he traveled any other route across the country. Without Del Rio and the towns along the SP line, this trip would not have been possible.

The country ahead seriously worried Rodgers and the support team. One of the news accounts carried a sub-title: “Most Feared Part of Journey Across the Continent Is Between Del Rio and El Paso.” No one had ever flown over canyons such as those in Val Verde County. Wind is known to swirl through the Devil’s and Pecos River Canyons, and that wind could easily smash an aircraft into the ground. Cal’s eye also told him that in case of trouble, there was no place to land, no level ground, no ground clear of brush and rock. When he arrived at Langtry, he kept going. He landed at Dryden, but did not wait for the train. He found some lubricant oil locally, fixed the engine, and got back into the air. Less than half an hour later, he was landing in Sanderson as the sun set.19

The wire reports show that the canyon country was not as bad for flying as Rodgers and his crewed feared. (Even so, the Pershing Expedition’s First Aero Squadron did not fly to El Paso and New Mexico, but rode on flatcars on trains. In 1919 Army pilots flying from San Antonio to El Paso found no landing fields except for “small (always too small), somewhat level piece[s] of rough ground.” At least two pilots crashed at Del Rio.20)
DEL RIO, Tex. Oct. 26—Cal P. Rodgers, in his coast-to-coast flight, reached Del Rio Thursday afternoon at 1:42 o’clock having made the thirty-seven miles from Spofford in thirty-four minutes. He approached his landing place here at an altitude of about 3,500 and after circling the field once effected a perfect landing. He reached this place fifteen minutes ahead of his special train.
After spending an hour, during which time his machine was carefully gone over, he rose gracefully from the ground to an altitude of about 2500 feet and made a detour over into Mexico and then returned to this side and followed the Rio Grande westward. His start from here was made at 2:50 o’clock. He passed on westward over Comstock, Langtry and in Dryden where he made a landing….21

LANGTRY, Texas, Oct. 27:--C.P. Rogers, coast to coast aviator, passed here at 3:41 p.m., sailing 60 miles an hour and about 3000 feet high. His aeroplane appeared to be wokring [sic] fine and flying very smoothly. He covered 64 miles between Del Rio and this place in 50 minutes.22

Wind in Sanderson made landing difficult and made taking off the next morning impossible. It swirled between the mountains and continued the next day; however, it lessened enough to put Cal into the pilot’s seat. The engine was started, and the plane picked up speed. A gust of wind caught the plane and ran Cal into a fence. More repairs were required, but he was in the air that afternoon, October 28.23

Most of the rest of the Texas was kinder to the Vin Fiz. Stops in Alpine, Marfa, Valentine and Sierra Blanca were made; although, there was a fog at Alpine. He was late into El Paso; more repairs and maintenance were needed in Sierra Blanca and Fort Hancock. Cal Rodgers flew over a thousand miles of Texas leaving the state on October 31 having made 23 stops in various towns. After attending various events in El Paso, Rodgers flew across the New Mexico and Arizona Territories, for the most part, uneventfully.24

California proved more hazardous and most satisfying. Crashes there cost great amounts of time. The first one forced the crew to rebuild his engine. The second happened after the official end of the trip, but knocked Rodgers out of the air for a month. Rodgers flew into Pasadena on November 5 to great fanfare and celebrations. He was honored as “King of the Air” for his heroic, first ever, cross-country flight.25

It was not enough, though. Rodgers scheduled one more flight—to Long Beach—where he would land the Vin Fiz on the beach and therefore have literally flown coast to coast. He took off on November 12 for the twenty-three mile flight. Engine trouble forced him to land and make repairs. Takeoff went well, but in flight, the airplane plummeted, the last 150 feet were straight down. The causes were never verified, but Cal Rodgers was out of the air for a month.26

Cal finally completed his quest on December 10. He was still walking on crutches, but he finished the flight to Long Beach and landed on the beach. The crowd of well-wishers carefully pushed the Vin Fiz to the surf, letting the wheels taste the Pacific Ocean. The trip was complete.27

Only two pieces of the original made it to Long Beach; all other parts had been broken, snapped, worn down—replaced. The flight cost $180,000. Cal crashed fifteen times. The support train carried parts to build two complete aircraft and a machine shop, and sometimes that was not enough. In California when the engine exploded, Cal had to land the plane with shards of engine metal embedded in his arm. He spent 49 days on the road, three days, ten hours and four minutes in the air.28

This was a feat was not duplicated for eight years.29

The accomplishment was significant, but Cal Rodgers is often overlooked in aviation history. The Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart are better remembered. Cal Rodgers has slipped through the cracks. He died in April 3, 1912, just five months after his feat, crashing at Long Beach just a football field’s length away from his historic landing. Death took his name out of the spotlight too quickly, particularly in an age when aviation records were being set and broken constantly. The second coast-to-coast flight was made eight years later, but cut the travel time nearly in half. Later flights cut the time even more, setting new speed and endurance records, but Rodgers was not there to set them.

The Smithsonian Institution and its National Air and Space MuseumSmithsonian Institution and its National Air and Space Museum have remembered Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz. The National Air and Space Museum’s Pioneers of Flight Gallery offers visitors seven key aircraft dating from 1911 to 1977. The 1911 aircraft is the Vin Fiz. (A copy of a photo of the Vin Fiz as displayed in the NASM is included in the application—from Bryan, pages 118-119.)

It is time for Texas to honor this great achievement as well. Val Verde County is ready to place the marker for this extraordinary event in American history.

 

Bibliography—
C.D.B. Bryan, The National Air and Space Museum, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979, pages 117-118.
This is the Smithsonian’s website for the Vin Fiz.
Ima Jo Fleetwood, “Oldtimers Recall Flight Vividly,” Del Rio News-Herald, October 12, 1961, page 2.
Hinkle, Stacy C. Wings Over the Border: The Army Air Service Armed Patrol of the United States-Mexico Border 1919-1921. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1970.
Eileen F. Lebow, Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz: The First Transcontinental Flight, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Penny Nixon, “’Vin Fiz’—first plane to land in Del Rio,” Del Rio News-Herald, May 27, 1990, page 1B.
Terrell County Historical Commission, Terrell County, Texas: Its Past, Its People, San Angelo: Anchor Publishing Company, 1978.
Charles S. Wiggin, The First Transcontinental Flight, [n.p.]: 1961, [no page numbers].

And reports from—
New York Times
San Antonio Express
San Antonio Light
El Paso Herald
El Paso Times

 

Attachments—
1. Picture of the Vin Fiz on display in the National Air and Space Museum.
2. Two pictures of Cal Rodgers and his aircraft in Del Rio.
3. Map of the route taken by Rodgers.
4. A copy of an Alamo Beer advertisement appearing in an issue of the Val Verde County Herald from the 1910s. The aircraft in the ad may or may not be the Vin Fiz, but the adventure associated with the flying is similar to ads today.

 

The current Del Rio map shows the proposed marker location on San Felipe Creek south of the railroad tracks.
The VVCHC does not have a specific location for the marker site. The area in the photo shows an area between San Felipe Lions Park and Moore Park. The immediate area looks bad, but a creekwalk is being developed connecting several creekside parks. The Vin Fiz marker will be placed somewhere in the area in the photo alongside the finished crushed limestone trail.

 

1 Eileen F. Lebow, Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz: The First Transcontinental Flight, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989, page 4.
2 Lebow, pages 14-23; Rodgers To Resume Flight To West Tuesday Morning,” El Paso Herald, October 30, 1911, page 1.
3 Lebow, pages 23-36.
4 Lebow, pages 37-69.
5 C.D.B. Bryan, The National Air and Space Museum, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979, pages 117-118; ; Lebow, page 79.
6 Lebow, page 71.
7 Lebow, pages 76-78, 97, 102, 115, 175.
8 Terrell County Historical Commission, Terrell County, Texas: Its Past, Its People, San Angelo: Anchor Publishing Company, 1978, page 152; Lebow, pages 81-82.
9 Lebow, pages 91-94, 129, 132.
10 Lebow, pages 95-97.
11 Lebow, pages 98-109.
12 Lebow, pages 143-144.
13 Lebow, pages 172-179; “Rodgers May Reach Austin This Evening,” San Antonio Light, October 19, 1911, page 1; “Rodgers Will Land On Polo Field At Post,” San Antonio Light, October 20, 1911, page 1; “Rodgers Stops At Kyle Until Weather Clears,” San Antonio Light, October 21, 1911, page 1; “Rodgers Expects To Reach City Today,” San Antonio Light, October 22, 1911, page 1; “Incidents In Arrival Of Aviator Rodgers,” San Antonio Light, October 23, 1911, page 1; “Rodgers Still Here Repairing His Biplane,” San Antonio Light, October 23, 1911, pages 1-2; “Rodgers Off On Flight To The Rio Grande,” San Antonio Light, October 24, 1911, page 2; “Rodgers Beats Rain In Flight, Dallas To Waco,” San Antonio Express, October 20, 1911, page 3; “Rodgers Halted At Kyle; Piston Snapped In Two,” San Antonio Express, October 21, 1911, page 2; “Aviator Awaits Better Weather For Flight Here,” San Antonio Express, October 22, 1911, page 8; “Rodgers’ Landing Here Witness By Large Crowd,” San Antonio Express, October 23, 1911, pages 1 & 12; “Rodgers To Leave Today,” San Antonio Express, October 24, 1911, page 5; “Rodgers Makes Spofford,” San Antonio Express, October 25, 1911, page 7.
14 Lebow, pages 179-180; “Rodgers Partially Wrecks Aeroplane,” San Antonio Light, October 25, 1911, page 1; “Rodgers Wrecked But May Leave Spofford Today,” San Antonio Express, October 26, 1911, page 3.
15 Eight years later as Army pilots patrolled the border with Mexico quickly realized that few places on the border, if any, had the supplies they needed to keep flying. Gasoline and oil were required to be of the best grade, “and those commodities were not usually found at places such as Del Rio and Marfa” or any other small community in West Texas.” Stacy C. Hinkle, Wings Over the Border: The Army Air Service Armed Patrol of the United States-Mexico Border 1919-1921, El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1970, page 7.
16 “Rodgers May Resume Trip This Afternoon,” San Antonio Light, October 26, 1911, page 3; Terrell County Historical Commission, Terrell County, Texas: Its Past, Its People, page 152; Lebow, page 180.
17 Ima Jo Fleetwood, “Oldtimers Recall Flight Vividly,” Del Rio News-Herald, October 12, 1961, page 2; Penny Nixon, “’Vin Fiz’—First Plane to Land in Del Rio,” Del Rio News-Herald, May 27, 1990, page 1B; Lebow, page 181.
18 C.P. Rodgers, By Telegraph to the Editor of the New York Times, “Rodgers Flies High Over Pecos Canyon; Transcontinental Aviator Crosses Foothills of the Rockies 4,000 Feet Up; Six Times Over The Border,” New York Times, October 27, 1911, page 9.
19 Lebow, pages 181-182; “Rodgers Off On Flight To The Rio Grande,” San Antonio Light, October 24, 1911, page 2; “Machine Is Rebuilt,” San Antonio Light, October 27, 1911, page 2.
20 Stacy C. Hinkle, Wings Over the Border: The Army Air Service Armed Patrol of the United States-Mexico Border 1919-1921, El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1970, page 7.
21 “Rodgers In His Flight West Enters Mexico; Greeted By Crowd At Del Rio; Between 2,000 and 3,000 Persons Turn Out To See Aviator,” San Antonio Express, October 27, 1911, page 13.
22 “High Wind Is Delaying Rodgers,” El Paso Herald, October 27, 1911, page 1.
23 Lebow, pages 182-183; Coast To Coast Airman May Get Here Today,” El Paso Herald, October 28, 1911, page 1.
24 Lebow, pages 183-200; Bryan, The National Air and Space Museum, pages 117-118. The map of the flight across the county is taken from Lebow, between pages 175 and 176. “Rodgers Has To Land,” San Antonio Express, October 29, 1911, page 14; Rodgers To Resume Flight To West Tuesday Morning,” El Paso Herald, October 30, 1911, page 1; “Rodgers Off For The West,” El Paso Herald, October 31, 1911, page 1; “Birdman Will Arrive Today,” El Paso Times, October 28, 1911, page 1; “Cal Rodgers Lights Here,” El Paso Times, October 30, 1911, pages 1, 8.
25 Lebow, pages 203-210; Charles S. Wiggin, The First Transcontinental Flight, [n.p.]: 1961, [no page numbers]. Wiggin was an assistant mechanic hired by Cal Rodgers. The book was published on the fiftieth anniversary of the flight.
26 Lebow, pages 212-224.
27 Lebow, pages 224-228.
28 Wiggin, The First Transcontinental Flight.
29 Lebow, page 209.