Nowadays, coast-to-coast travel is looked upon as a simple thing. Obviously, it wasn’t always that way. Today, the RedState Department of History looks back to the first coast-to-coast airplane trip and the story of a rather remarkable American life.
Cal Rodgers was born in 1879 as part of a distinguished naval family. His paternal grandfather was Commodore John Rodgers, who fired the first American shot of the War of 1812. His maternal great-grandfather was Oliver Hazard Perry and his great-great uncle was Commodore Matthew Perry, credited with opening Japan to the West in 1849.
After contracting scarlet fever as a boy, which precluded him from naval service due to deafness. the young Rodgers became very interested in flying. He became just the 49th person to be licensed to fly by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, after being taught to fly by Orville Wright himself.
In 1911, Rodgers won over $11,000 in prize money for long-distance flight at an event in Chicago and later that year, attempted to win the “Hearst Prize.”
Publisher William Randolph Hearst had offered a prize of $50,000 to anyone who could complete a coast-to-coast flight in less than thirty days. Rodgers left New York in his Wright Model EX on September 7, 1911, The only required stop on the flight was Chicago, which Rodgers reached on October 8.
To say that times were different would be an understatement. The Wright EX was beset with mechanical issues, to the point where a three-car train followed Rodgers on his flight, which naturally was planned along the railroads, with parts and crew to repair the aircraft after each landing.
Or, in some cases, after crashing. Rodgers crashed no fewer than 16 times on his flight, with the route going south to avoid the Rocky Mountains. When the thirty-day deadline to claim the Hearst Prize passed, Rodgers was still in Kansas City.
He reached Pasadena, California, 19 days after the deadline, which gave the crew extra time to repair the Model EX, which had no instruments and a top speed of about 60 MPH.
So it was that on this date in 1911, Rodgers flew from Compton to Long Beach, taxiing his plane into the Pacific Ocean to signify the end of his journey after 84 days. He became the first aviator to complete a coast-to-coast trip.
Upon his arrival at Pasadena, Rodgers was asked about his flight by a reporter. He replied:
“I don’t feel much tired. The trip was not a hard one, all things considered. Indeed, I believe that in a short time we will see it done in 30 days and perhaps less. I was never worried at any stage of the game, not even when it looked as if it was all off. I knew I’d get through even if only to show up the fellows who laughed at me.”
Sadly, only three months after his great accomplishment, Rodgers was killed in a crash of his plane. In an exhibition flight at Long Beach, Rodgers decided to fly with a flock of birds, and became the first pilot to be killed by a bird strike.
On a happier note, Rodgers’ plane, the Vin Fiz, so named for the sponsor of his cross-country flight, is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Peter Jakab, associate director for collections at the Air and Space Museum, discusses Rodgers and his plane here.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!