Articles

Wings Across the Continent

In Uncategorized on November 28, 2011 by hillermuseum

Chicago Examiner 1911

Cal Rodgers, Robert Fowler and the First Flights Coast-to-Coast
By Jon Welte

The daunting breadth of the North American continent is a defining characteristic of the United States. From the early 19th century the American flag flew from sea to shining sea, but travel from east to west across the largely uninhabited frontier was an arduous process, especially before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Aviation long held the promise of bringing east and west together. In 1910, William Randolph Hearst offered a prize of $50,000 for the first pilot to fly across the United States in 30 days or less. The Hearst Transcontinental Prize was one of many prizes offered by newspapers and other supporters of aviation achievement in the early days of flight. Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel in 1909 to win a prize offered by London’s Daily Mail, and in later years the Orteig Prize inspired Charles Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Private pilot Calbraith (“Cal”) Perry Rodgers was one of several pilots to attempt to win this prize. Perry’s family had a long history of service in the United States Navy, and his cousin John Rodgers was one of the first pilots in the US Navy’s Aerial Corps. Cal Rodgers trained with Orville Wright at the Wright Brothers’ flying field in Ohio to earn his pilot certificate.

Rodger’s airplane for the transcontinental journey was a Wright Model EX. The EX was a single-seat version of the Wright Model B Flyer modified to reduce drag and boost airspeed to 55 miles per hour, a breathtaking pace for 1911. The EX’s additional airspeed proved popular with exhibition flyers and made it an ideal candidate for the Hearst Transcontinental Prize.

To support the cross-country mission, Rodgers secured sponsorship from food processing magnate J. Ogden Armour, who christened the aircraft Vin Fiz after his company’s grape-flavored soda. The flight was planned with multiple stops across the country, a necessity given the airplane’s limited range of scarcely over 100 miles. A crucial element of the flight plan was a dedicated train that would accompany Rodgers from stop to stop to refuel and service the aircraft.

Rodgers departed Sheepshead Bay, New York, on September 17th, 1911. Rodgers was followed by the train and its support crew, including the Wright Brothers’ original mechanic, Charlie Taylor. Taylor had been hired on by Rodgers to maintain the EX during its long odyssey. 70 flights, seven weeks and over a dozen crash landings later, Rodgers arrived in Pasadena, California, on November 5th 1911—missing the deadline for the Hearst Transcontinental Prize by some 19 days. Most of the original structure of the Vin Fiz was repaired or replaced during the journey, and little of its material completed the full voyage from New York to California.

Four days before reaching Pasadena, Rodgers made a stop at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. Awaiting him there was aviator Robert Fowler in his Cole Flyer, a Wright Model B airplane. Fowler was another contender for the Hearst Prize, but his flight plan led from west to east.

By the time the two men met in Arizona on November 1st, 1911, there was little doubt that Rodgers would be the first to fly the continent. Only weeks earlier, however, Fowler had held the advantage. A Bay Area native and automobile aficionado, Fowler had taken to aviation. After an early career that included exhibition flying with both Glen Curtiss and the Wright Brothers, Rodgers secured sponsorship from the Cole Motor Company to pursue the Hearst Prize. He departed San Francisco for New York on September 11th, 1911, on a route that began across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Reno.

The Wrights themselves had counseled Fowler against taking a northerly route across the country, due to the high altitudes required. Rodgers insisted on departing from his hometown, however, and by the second day of the journey discovered the validity of the Wrights’ concerns. Strong winds approaching the Sierra crest buffeted the airplane, and a mechanical problem sent the Cole Flyer down into the trees near Alta, California between Colfax and Reno. Heroic efforts repaired the airplane in less than two weeks, but a second forced landing just short of the summit doomed Fowler’s chances of crossing the mountains before the snows of winter.

Resigned to flying a southerly route, Fowler started again in late October 1911, this time from Los Angeles. The deadline for the Hearst Prize had already lapsed, but Fowler launched nonetheless and reached Tucson in time for his encounter with the westbound Cal Rodgers. Fowler continued east and was in Texas on December 10th, 1911, when Rodgers landed on the beach at Long Beach, California, and taxied the wheels of the Vin Fiz into the sea. Two months later, after braving abysmal winter weather in an open biplane, Fowler arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, to a cheering crowd and later emulated Rodgers’ symbolic final leg with a surfside touchdown at Pablo Beach.

Despite the failure of either contestant to claim the Hearst Transcontinental Prize, both Rodgers and Fowler had each flown routes of some 4,000 miles. Wherever either man flew, enthusiasm for flight reached a fever pitch and thousands of Americans from coast to coast caught a glimpse of an airplane in flight for the first time.

Parts that flew as part of the original Vin Fiz were reassembled into two different aircraft in the years following Cal Rodgers’ death in 1912. One aircraft was destroyed in a fire while awaiting restoration, but the other was donated to the Carnegie Institution in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1917. This surviving aircraft was subsequently donated to the Smithsonian Institution, and today it is housed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The Hiller Aviation Museum displays a full size replica of the Vin Fiz aircraft.

Robert Fowler survived his days as a pioneer aviator, living to the age of 82. The airframe of the Cole Flyer was not preserved, but the four cylinder engine that powered his Wright Model B across the country is on display today at the Hiller Aviation Museum.

The Museum highlights its special role as a repository of artifacts related to the first transcontinental flights of North America on the centennial of the conclusion of the flight of Cal Rodgers. Join us on Saturday, December 10th, 2011 for a celebration of the accomplishment of these intrepid aviators.

Resources

Maria Schell Burden. The Life and Times of Robert G. Fowler, 1999
Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
US Centennial of Flight Commission
Wright Brothers Organization

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