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Calbraith “Cal” Perry Rodgers, his Wright EX and a new grape soda — the making of aviation history

13 February 2012

Calbraith “Cal” Perry Rodgers, his Wright EX and a new grape soda — the making of aviation history

Only seven years after the Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk William Randolph Hearst offered an unbeleivably high (at the time) prize of $50,000 USD  (almost $1.2 million today) to the first who could fly the breadth of the United States and taking less than 30 days to do so. This was no small challenge. Though we can drive or fly with ease across the U.S. — taking one of the four interstates or any of the multitudinous airline flight options — back in the day one would have to opted for the train. There simply was not a contiguous road system. As we know, airplanes were mechanically unreliable, to be kind, and flying was not well understood with everything from ground effect to weather remaining to be better understood.

The Wright EX known as "Vin Fiz" in the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall — photo by Joseph May

Only the adventuresome would think of Hearst’s challenge and one such remarkable person was Calbraith Perry Rodgers. Unusually tall for the day, even this day, at 6″ 4″ (~1.9m), Calbraith organized sponsorship with a new soft drink — Vin Fiz — and what a sponsorship. Armour and Company (owners of the Vin Fiz product) provided a train and car to carry supplies and enough parts to completely rebuild the Wright EX, which was slightly smaller than the Wright Flyer B and used in exhibition flying.

Closer view of Vin Fiz showing the engine, radiator and fuel tank to the right of the pilot — photo by Joseph May

He began his flight on 17 September 1911 in Sheepshead Bay, NY and finished in Pasadena CA on 10 December 1911 — well over the 3o day limit to collect the prize. But it’s not the destination its the journey that is the story. Hard landings and bad luck injured both plane and pilot, with Cal hospitalized at least twice. A blown engine cylinder sent shrapnel into his right arm while at 4000 feet (1212m) but he successfully made an unpowered landing.

Ultimately, he completed the flight and became the first to fly across the United States. Fate would not be kind, though, as he died in a crash of his Vin Fiz two months later after colliding with birds. This man is remarkable, too, for his accomplishments though almost totally deaf from Scarlet fever in his childhood. His world was not one that made accommodation for the deaf but that did not deter Rodgers, not in the least.

Why, then, is the Vin Fiz suspended in the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall? Wasn’t the aircraft destroyed in that fatal crash, just mentioned?

Well, yes and no …

The Vin Fiz was repaired and rebuilt so often during the cross-country flight that parts were continuously exchanged. When it was all said and done, enough was remaining to build another Vin Fiz from the parts from the journey — most of which assuredly flew in the historic journey.

Several Vin Fix replicas may have been built. I’ve been lucky to see two of them — one in the Hiller Aviation Museum and one in the Oakland Aviation Museum — and at least one other has been built by The Collings Foundation.

The two replicas I’ve seen will be the subject of posts this later this week.


More info:

Here is the web page on their Vin Fiz from the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall

An excellent summary, full of facts and explanations, can be found at this page of the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission

An historical pamphlet can be found at this page of Assoc. Professor Philip Koopman’s home page at Carnegie Mellon University. It is quite well done — copyright issues prevent me from posting the pamphlet more directly.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. David "Mac" McLay permalink
    13 February 2012 07:32

    Great story, Joe – and well-researched! (The phrase “intrepid aviator” comes to mind . . .)

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      13 February 2012 09:38

      Thanks Mac. I was slow to learn about Cal Rodgers. He was an intrepid aviator, I agree. He likely only questioned how many times he would crash during his cross country venture, not if he would. I don’t believe they understood about ground effect or cross control potential while in it during his day — not to mention his aircraft used wing warping instead if ailerons. A brave man.

  2. bert Lasky permalink
    13 February 2012 14:13

    For the full story see “Flight of the Vin Fiz? by E.P. Stein (Arbor House).
    And click on [turn on your audio]
    Bert Lasky

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      13 February 2012 14:35

      I missed this source! Thanks !!!

  3. 18 February 2012 18:00

    Ahh! The ‘Vin Fizz’…it obviously suffered from the ‘Washington’s Axe Syndrome’ !

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