AUGUST   2020


Saturday, November 22, 2008


I ask you to imagine yourself as the engineer on a westbound freight on the El Paso & Southwest Railroad line. It is November 1911, and the big steam boiler in front of you is a living, soot spewing metal beast with a hot, coal fed craw your stoker has to constantly feed. You climb out of the Rio Grande valley, the empty copper ore cars behind you rumbling around Sierra del Cristo Rey mountain (at 4,575 feet). Then you turn south, coming within yards of the Mexican border at Anapra, before the line swings north again, past “The Lizard”, a basalt dyke basking in the sun on a mountain shoulder (in the distance, above) high above the dieing mining town of Lake Valley. And then, after wending their way between lonely unnamed desert peaks and road cuts, the rails ramp down onto the high Chihuahuan desert floor and the siding and water tower at Mammoth, New Mexico. And that is when you see it. It looks like a giant insect speeding towards you at 80 or 90 miles an hour. But it can’t be. Can it?
In fact it can not. What you are seeing, at a time when most Americans had not yet seen an airplane, is the “Cole Flyer”, piloted by Bob Fowler, using a hand car as a catapult to become airborne, an aviation first. So the engineer can be excused for not recognizing what he saw, as it had never been seen before, ever, in the four billion year history of the earth. It was a desperate measure, tried after Fowler had been trapped in the sand for four days, 16 miles west of El Paso, Texas. The Mexican border was only three miles to the south. And staring head on at the steam engine bearing down on him, Bob Fowler said he wondered if he was going to become the first pilot in history to crash into a locomotive. Bob lifted off the hand car at the last possible second and became airborne, missing the front of the oncoming locomotive he said, by “…no more than ten feet.” I doubt if the engineer comprehended what he had seen, particularly after it flew off over his head, followed by the shattering crash of the handcar against the breast of the huge iron beast. This makes Bob Fowler the world’s first UFO, if it really happened.I had my doubts. But according to the New York Times, on July 24, 1904, three New Jersey teenager couples borrowed a handcar for a Saturday night “joy ride”. After some drinking and dancing, at about 11 p.m., they found themselves pumping their way across a bridge over the Delaware River with a Lakawana passenger Express bearing down on them. It sounds like a turn of the century version of “Saturday Night Fever”. All the couples jumped to safety, with only one male, Albert Jones, suffering a broken shoulder. According to the Times, the express “barely escaped being wrecked”, but it did escape. So I guess it could have happened the way Fowler tells it. Bob would use a handcar catapult to launch himself three more times on his journey to the Atlantic Ocean. But he would never again come so close to being killed by a locomotive.Meanwhile, back in Los Angels, Cal Rogers was slowly recovering from his injuries. Propped up in a wheel chair, with both legs in casts, his wife hovering on his right, his mother perched judgmentally to his left and his brother standing back out of the line of fire between them, Cal assured the doubtful reporters, “I’m going to finish this flight, and I’m going to finish it with the same machine.” It must have been a contentious press conference, since everyone in the photo looks as if one of them has stepped in something very unpleasant. I wonder who that could have been?Cal had, by my rough count, crashed 70 times in crossing the country, (23 in Texas!) or about once every 43 miles. His sponsors must have been fed up with the repair bills. And with all the engine problems of late, Cal must have been a bit uneasy about trusting his life to the skills of the 17 year old Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggen, his new chief mechanic (with Cal, below), since Charlie Taylor had opted out of the little opera being staged aboard the “Vin Fiz Special”.
Poor old Cal; one great-grandfather, Oliver Perry, had been the hero of the 1813 battle of Lake Erie. His other great-grandfather, John Rogers, had been captain of the USS Constitution. His great-granduncle, Matthew Perry, had sailed four warships into Tokyo Bay and opened Japan to trade in 1853. But Cal’s own father had turned away from the sea and became a cavalry officer, with a rather less distinguished record. He had fought bravely against the Cheyenne, and in the freezing rain at Slim Buttes in 1876, and even against the Nez Pierce in 1877. But his career had come to a shockingly less than glorious conclusion on August 23, 1878, when he was struck by lightening. You might say his father's demise left the young Cal with a bit of a negative buzz about him. And then there was the deafness thing, and his mother’s remarriage. So his family history may explain why Cal was so determined to make it to Long Beach, no matter what the obstacles. He explained, in an interview he gave just after reaching Pasadena, “I am not in this business because I like it, but because of what I can make out of it.”On December 10, 1911 Cal hobbled out to the Vin Fiz one last time. He lashed his crutches to the wing strut, checked his lucky soda bottle and waited while Weggie primed his propellers. Then he rolled (Weggie having replaced the skids with wheels) across the Compton field and rose into the air. Twelve miles later he settled down in front of 50,000 people in Long Beach. After landing, Cal had his plane pushed forward until the wheels were in the surf. Cal Rogers had said he would reach the Pacific Ocean, and now he had. But whether it was in the same airplane was debatable. The only parts that remained of the “Vin Fiz Flyer” that had taken off from Sheepheads Bay, New York on September 17th were one vertical rudder and the oil pan. On New Years Day, 1912, Cal made a few hundred dollars flying over the Rose Parade and dropping rose petals. He needed the money. Cal and Mable Rogers were now flat broke.NEXT TIME: EPITATH.
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Friday, November 21, 2008


I guess you could say that Charlie Taylor was the first member of the “Final Destination Club”. On September 17, 1908 Charlie was set to take his first flight with Orville Wright when an officer asked if an Army observer could go up next, instead. It was in Charlie’s character to defer to the request and he gave up his seat.

So Lt. Thomas Selfridge was the one aboard when the Wright biplane crashed to earth (above). Selfridge was killed on impact. Charlie was the first to reach the crash. He pulled the injured Orville out of the wreckage. Charlie then broke down sobbing. But it was also in Charlie’s character that he tore the wreckage apart until he found out exactly what had caused the crash. He was a painfully shy mechanical genius, who maintained the “Vin Fiz Flyer” all the way across the continent. Without Charlie Taylor there would have been no transcontinental flight, and no Wright Brothers either - and they all knew it.

Charlie went to work for the brothers in 1901 at $18 for a sixty hour week in their bicycle shop, and he stayed because their personalities fit so well together. Explained Charlie, “The Wrights didn’t drink or smoke, but they never objected too much to my cigar smoking….Both the boys had tempers, but no matter how angry they ever got I never heard them use a profane word…I never let go with anything stronger than heckety-hoo.”

Charlie and the brothers sketched out the world’s first wind tunnel on scrap pieces of paper, and then Charlie built it (above). Without that testing device, powered flight would have been impossible. After letters to automobile manufactures failed to find a suitable engine, Charlie built the first aircraft motor (and only the second gasoline engine he had ever built) from scratch, in just six weeks, using only a drill press, a lathe and hand tools. At every step of the Wright Brothers innovations Charlie Taylor was vital to the process.

In 1911 Cal Rogers approached Charlie and offered him $70 (plus expenses) a week to travel with the “Vin Fiz Flyer” across country and keep it in the air (above, Charlie & Cal repairing the Flyer.). “At the time my wages were $25 a week. I told him I'd go; then I told ‘Orv ‘about it. He asked me not to quit. I told him I had already given my word to Rodgers and couldn't very well back out. He told me to make it a sort of leave of absence, and to be sure and come back.” And that was how Charlie began what he later called “…my adventures”.

Charlie sent his wife and three children ahead to California. But he was no diarist. He left behind no impressions of what it was like to be cooped up with Mable Rogers and Maria (Rogers) Swietzer for all those days and nights. But I am not surprised that Charlie quit not long before matters came to a head between Lucy Belevedere and Mable. The drama and the emotion would have made Charlie very uncomfortable. He jumped the train in Texas and hurried on to meet his family in Los Angles. He took his wages from the trip and bought several hundred acres along the Salton Sea. But then Charlie’s wife fell ill in Los Angles and it was almost a year before he could get back to Ohio.

While he was away Wilbur had died of typhoid fever, in May of 1912. Orville made sure Charlie had a job, but, “I found it wasn’t like old times….the pioneering days seemed over for me.” Finally, in 1919, Charlie left the Wright Company and returned to California. He opened his own machine shop on his property on the Salton Sea. “I waited for something to happen there,” Charlie said later, “and nothing did.” Except that his wife died and the depression drove him out of business and he lost the land. He moved to Los Angeles and found a job working for North American Aviation for 37 cents an hour. He told no one about his past. He was just another mechanic on the production line. None of his fellow workers knew that he had helped invent the entire industry. And that was where Henry Ford found him.Ford was rebuilding the Wright Brothers workshop in Dayton as a memorial, and had hired detectives to track Charlie down. They brought him back to advise and reconstruct the wind tunnel and put the 1903 Flyer back together. In 1941, his work for Ford finished, Charlie quietly went back to California and returned to work in a Defense plant. In 1945 Charlie suffered a heart attack. He was never able to work again. When Orville Wright died in 1948 he left Charlie an annuity in his will of $800 a year. By 1955 inflation had reduced that to a pittance, and when a newspaper reporter found Charlie he was surviving in the charity ward of a Los Angles hospital. Immediately the aviation community raised funds, and Charlie was able to spend his last months in a private hospital. He died at the age of 88 in 1956. He is buried in the Folded Wings Mausoleum, in Valhalla Memorial Park, directly under the approach to Burbank Airport runway 15-33.Charlie Taylor lived for 48 years after he gave up his seat to a young Army Lieutenant. And he never did learn to fly. And that too was typical for Charlie Taylor, the unsung hero of powered flight.


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Thursday, November 20, 2008


I would say there are really four truly amazing things about Cal Rogers’ transcontinental flight of late 1911. The most amazing thing is that Cal smoked 19 cigars a day during the 49 days it took him to cross America: that's 931 cigars in total. Where did they get them all? How was he still breathing when it was all over, after inhaling all those engine exhaust fumes and all that tobacco smoke? The second most amazing thing is that he burned 1,230 gallons of gasoline to cover 3,220 miles, for an average of 38 miles per gallon; not bad! Detroit can’t match that a hundred years later. The third most amazing thing about the flight of the “Vin Fiz Flyer” is that during those 49 days Cal had been airborne just three days, ten hours and four minutes of actual flying time, giving him an average air speed of about 53 miles per hour. That means that he was “grounded” for forty-five days, sometimes because of bad weather, but mostly because of mechanical problems and crashes. And that brings me to the fourth amazing thing about Cal Rogers’ flight. Despite all the bandages he had adorning his body and the leg cast he was wearing after his crash in Arizona, Cal had survived. He even survived when his engine exploded less than 200 miles from the finish line.

It happened on November 3rd, the day after Cal’s brief meeting with Bob Ward in Arizona. Cal had just left a refueling stop in the desert at Imperial Junction, California, (meaning he had crossed his last state border!) and was climbing out over the expanse of the Salton Sea. Without warning the Number One cylinder in his Wright engine exploded catastrophically. It blew out the entire left side of the engine block, and Cal’s right shoulder and arm were peppered with shrapnel. Screaming pain tore at his consciousness, and Cal’s arm was almost useless. Somehow, he executed a banking turn over the salt waters and glided the “Flyer” back to Imperial Junction. He managed to land safely, again, with just one arm: Cal had become quite a pilot. After two hours of surgery a doctor was able to remove most of the metal from Cal’s arm.

The engine was destroyed (above), but the “Vin Fiz Special” carried a spare, which “Weggie” was able to install. It took a little longer because the crew was short handed. The master mechanic Charlie Taylor had left the flight crew back in Texas and gone ahead to California.

The next day Bob Fowler was almost across New Mexico when he ran into his own mechanical problems. A clogged fuel line chocked off his engine near the isolated water station of Mastodon, just 16 miles outside of El Paso, Texas. Mastadon was just a water tank where the single rail line and a siding ran between sand dunes, and a very lonely place at the time. It still is, especially since the railroad has "moved on". On satellite photographs today it looks like a drawing, all straight lines through a tan background. It was just a little less lonely in 1911. New Mexico wouldn’t even become the 47th state for another 68 days. Once he was safely down, Bob cleared the clogged fuel line, restarted his motor and tried to get airborne again. But the the Cole Flyer couldn’t break free of the sand and sagebrush. Bob Fowler would have to wait for a shift of the wind. Except it didn’t shift.

Cal didn’t even wait for his wounds to heal. Early on the morning of the 5th, wearing an arm sling, he made the hop from Imperial Junction through the San Gregorio Pass to Banning, and from there to Pomona, where he made a last refueling stop. And finally, at 4:08 p.m. on Sunday November 5, 1911, Cal Rogers landed at the Tournament of Roses Park, on the current grounds of Cal Tech. He was met by 10 to 20,000 screaming people, most of whom had paid a quarter apiece to be there. The New York Times reported, ''...a maelstrom of fighting, screaming, out-of-their-minds-with-joy men, women and children.'' Cal was loaded into a car and driven around and around the stadium. And amongst all of the cheering and back slapping, poor deaf Cal kept asking, “I did it, didn’t I? I did it?”

They draped him with an American flag, and posed him next to the “Rubenisque” 1911 Rose Queen, Miss Ruth Palmer . And almost nobody who was in that crowd cheering Cal Rogers had any idea that a deaf man had just flown coast-to-coast, alone. It was quite an achievement. And nobody was prouder of Cal than Mable, unless it was "Weggie", his faithful mechanic, beaming up at him in the photo below.

Cal’s personal victory came a week later, in the Maryland Hotel, when a representative for Mr. W.R. Hearst , burning from the negative publicity over his refusal to extend the prizes' time limit, presented the aviator with a loving cup. And Cal turned it down. He still wanted the money. And he wasn’t going to let W.R. off the petard he had hoisted himself upon.

Unnoticed was that the Armour Meat Packing Company had spent $180,000 (including Cal’s fee of $23,000) to support the flight, and all this to sell a really crappy soft drink that quickly disappeared after the publicity of the flight died down. Then, on November 10th, the "Vin Fiz Flyer" was in the air again. The city of Long Beach had offered Cal $5,000 to complete his journey right up to the Pacific Ocean, in their town. The flight was going fine until half way there when the engine quit. Cal landed, fiddled with the Wright, and started again. And again, the engine coughed and died, this time over Compton. And this time Cal plowed into the ground. And this time he did not walk away. He was pulled unconscious from the wreckage, with a concussion, a broken ankle, broken ribs, and injured back and burns. But his lucky bottle of “Vin Fiz” was still hanging, undamaged, from the broken wing strut. Cal must have hated that bottle by now.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Mastodon, New Mexico, Bob Fowler was still stuck in the sand and beginning to think he would never get out. But then, on the 10th, a two man Santa Fe work crew appeared over the horizon, pumping a handcar. And Bob had an idea. He talked to the railroad and they agreed to help him out. Using railroad cross ties they fashioned a platform to sit atop a hand car, and struggled to secure the “Cole Flyer” atop the platform. On the morning of Monday, November 13th, the entire contraption was pushed from the siding onto the main line. Bob Fowler clambered into the pilot’s seat. The motor was started. And with railroad workers running alongside to stabilize the wings, the “Flyer” began to move along the track.

And just as the Flyer began to pick up speed Bob looked ahead to see a column of smoke rising from the tracks. Instantly Bob realized he was on a collision course with a steam locomotive. The two objects quickly ate up the ground between them, heading for the most unlikely collision in railroad history!


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Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I am impressed with the level of cupidity amongst the participants in the amazing race. (It means they were avaricious.) Certainly the pilots, Bob Fowler and Cal Rogers, were risking their lives day after day and deserved some reward for that risk. At Dallas, where Cal stopped on the night of the 17th of October, and at Fort Worth, where Cal put in two days of flights before 75,000 at the state fair, he sold photo’s and autographs, as Bob Fowler did at his stops, just as musicians do today at personal appearances. And there were always the “Vin Fiz” coupons Cal was still dropping over unsuspecting soda drinkers in cities where he did not land. The Waco Texas Young Men’s Business League offered Cal an impressive fee and on October 20th he took a long detour south and did several loops around the cities’ sky single sky scrapper.
But acquisitiveness was evident amongst everyone associated with the race, and even Mable had gotten into the act. Dear, sweet, shy, retiring innocent Mable Rogers had tried to convince the United States Post Office that the historical nature of the race warranted creating her a special “Post Mistress”, so that she could stamp “Postmarked Vin Fiz Special” on cards and letters bought from her while en route, for a small fee, of course. But when that moneymaking idea failed to inspire Congress to act, and after W.R. Hearst had abandoned the race (and her husband) in Missouri, Mable sent Cal’s brother Robert out ahead to Kansas City to order unofficial oversized “Vin Fiz Flyer” and “Rogers Aerial Post” stamps, to be sold at a quarter apiece once the Flyer had crossed into Texas. Buyers would still have to affix official postage to have anything delivered, and the stamps had no glue backing, but Mable was trying squeeze every penny out of the insanity she was caught up in. It’s difficult to know if enough stamps were actually sold to cover the cost of printing them, but we do know that only thirteen “Vin Fiz” stamps still survive, eight on postcards, one on a letter and four “off cover”, meaning individually. One of the “off cover” stamps sold in 2006, when the world was still drunk, for $70,000. That amount could have financed the entire flight back in 1911. I guess Mable had the right idea, just bad timing, as I’m willing to bet Maria (ne Rogers) Sweitzer, Cal’s mother, reminded her at every opportunity.Avarice of all kinds was on view in the hothouse of the 66 foot long by 8 ½ foot wide pressure cooker of the “Vin Fiz Special” Pullman sleeping car, with wife and mother-in-law cooped up for endless days together on the endless stretches of track between the way stations of civilization across the American West. The air must have been thick with slights (real and imagined), invective (real & imagined), criticism and denunciations, both real and perceived. The two ladies endured each other for Cal’s sake, from New York to Chicago. Then mother Maria found an excuse to leave the train. But at Kansas City she rejoined the caravan, only to disembark yet again at San Antonio. Perhaps the expense of printing up the stamps came up once too often in conversation, because when Maria rejoined the train outside of El Paso she brought reinforcements – 22 year old Lucy Belvedere, a reputed heiress, and at least in Maria’s mind, an improvement over Mable. For example, I presume that dear Lucy could swim.It would appear that Cal was somewhat distracted by the drama building in the Pullman car. In what can only be seen as an omen, as he approached El Paso, Cal had a near miss in mid-air with an eagle, or maybe it was a vulture. On the 24th of October at Spofford, Texas, Cal’s attention slipped just enough to allow his right propeller to strike the ground, sending him into a ground loop that broke another wing and “splintered” both props. Through yet another Herculean effort Chief mechanic Charlie Taylor and his first assistant, Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggin, were able to get Cal back into the air the next morning. Then, just before noon on Friday, October 29th this object of maternal v matrimonial completion landed at the corner of Duval and 45th street in Austin, Texas. Three thousand came out to cheer the hero. And Mable was quoted by a local reporter as saying, “Sometimes I suspect that Calbraith thinks showing affection to a woman would be unfaithful to his machine.” Yes, that was Mable’s concern, her husband’s attachment to his machine. I wonder if she noted ironically to herself that one of the things still holding Cal airborne was her corset, strapped into an upper wing as repair.In Deming, New Mexico, on Halloween, Cal’s ignition system went on the fritz. Still he persevered. He refueled at Wilcox, Arizona on November 1st, and took the short hop from there to Tucson, where he paused just long enough to travel the six blocks from his landing spot to the ball park where Bob Fowler’s "Cole Flyer" had landed, and shake his hand. In fact Cal was so rushed the photographers had no time to snap a picture. It seems that Mable had finally showed a nerve equal to her Cal’s, and this time she wasn’t waiting to be rescued.After the refueling stop at Wilcox, Arizona Lucy had discovered that her entire trousseau had been stolen from her compartment. As Mother Maria and Lucy digested this horrifying disaster, shy little Mable quietly informed them that the luggage was not missing. Rather it was perfectly safe...aboard the east bound baggage car of the train they had just passed at the station back at Wilcox, placed there by "Wiggie" on Mables' instructions. It was a display of verve and determination that Maria had not expected out of Mable. And while Cal struggled for fame and fortune above the unforgiving desert of Arizona, Lucy gathered her few remaining belongings and left the “Vin Fiz Special” via the next east bound passenger train, with her tail between her legs, chasing her corsets and her luggage back into Texas, and out of the pages of history.It seems that at some point in the cross country adventure little Mable had taught herself how to swim.
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