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Sunday, March 28, 2010


I figure that Cal Rogers was feeling pretty confident on the morning of Saturday, September 23, 1911; but then, Cal Rogers was always pretty confident. But this morning in particular he had received word that Jimmy Ward had dropped out of the “Hearst Coast-to-Coast Race” after crashing (yet again!) 5 miles outside of Addison, New York. Cal already knew that Bob Fowler, who had started out from San Francisco, had failed three times to get over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, finally cracking up near the summit, and reducing his Wright Flyer “B” to kindling and canvas. That left just himself, Cal Rogers, the six foot four inch adventurer from Pittsburg in the running for the $50,000.00 first place prize.
Of course, he still had to get to California himself. He was barely a tenth of the way across the continent now, and he had already crashed three times, and he was already decorated with bandages for all the scrapes and scratches he had suffered in all those crashes. Part of the problem was that when Cal had taken off from Booklyn he had been a pilot for all of four months. He had less than 60 hours of flying experience. He knew nothing about navigation by air, and there was no one to teach him. The longest flight so far in the United States had been one from St. Louis to New York City, completed just a month before, by somebody else. In short, Cal was at the very edge of human experience in flight, both physically and mechanically.
The Wright engine on his “Vin Fiz Flyer" had no throttle. The engine was either on or off, at full power or at zero. The pilot had only one way to alter his speed, and that was to “advance the spark”, meaning to alter the instant in the compression cycle when the spark plug fired. In a modern internal combustion engine of the 1920's this would be controlled mechanically by a carburetor. But in the Wright engine of 1911 it was done by physically moving the sparkplug a fraction of an inch into or out of the cylinder via a dial – by hand. The engines' designer, Charlie Taylor, had taken a leave of absence from the Wright workshop in Ohio to accompany the "Vin Fiz Flyer" across the country. So Cal had the best mechanical brain in America behind his flight.  But this process of adjusting the spark plug had its own problems which would soon become evident to both Cal and Charlie.
It took two days to repair the Vin Fiz after the crash at Middletown, New York on September 17. So Cal did not get back into the race until the twenty-first of September. His first leg that day was to be a hop to Hancock, New York, (40 miles east of Binghamton). But half way there Cal noticed his radiator had sprung a leak. He kept an eye on the precious fluid dripping from his engine and then, just as he was over the town “…plop! Out flew a defective spark plug. Making the plug adjustable had also made it prone to vibrating itself right out of the engine! In an instant, the Vin Fiz suddenly lost 25% of its power, and the plane had precious little to spare. Cal suddenly found himself plumeting for the ground. He managed to steer for an open field, pulling the "Vin Fiz's" nose up at just the last second. There was nothing to do but wait for the his service train, the "Vin Fiz Special".
The next two weeks would prove to be difficult, as California receded farther and farther away in distance and in time. While making a normal landing at Binghamton, as Cal would later say, “…There was a snap of breaking timber and my right skid had gone". The broken skid was easily replaced over night, from the supplies carried on board the “Vin Fiz Special”, the 3 car train that followed and led Cal across the countryside. It carried parts, aviation fuel, a rolling repair shop, Cal’s wife, Mable, his mother Maude (ne Rogers) Sweitzer, his chief mechanic Charley Tailor, his second mechanic, Charles (Wiggie) Wiggen, three assistants, assorted newspaper reporters and photographers.
With such lavious support, Cal was airborne again on the morning of the twenty-second. But as he approached a landing at Elmira, New York that afternoon he snagged some telegraph wires. More repairs were required. As Cal traversed the border lands between Pennsylvania and western New York State, he hit a patch of good weather and made up time, at least until he reached Salamanca, New York, high up on the Allegheny River. Late the afternoon of September 24th , just after taking off from Salamanca, another spark plug vibrated its way out of his engine. But this time Cal coolly reached behind his back, grabbed the hot plug in his glove and held it in place as he made a perfect landing (with one hand) on the Allegheny Indian reservation outside of Red House, N.Y. Cal screwed the sparkplug firmly back in and with help of a couple of men, turned the plane around for take off. But he couldn’t work up enough speed and had to abort and try again. A second attempt also had to be aborted. Each time the two helpful locals tried to warn Cal that he was aiming at a barbed wire fence, which he evidently did see in the gathering doom. But either because he didn’t understand what they were saying (he was deaf,) or because he was in such a rush, Cal ignored their warnings and the third time proved to be the charm. Cal taxied directly into the barbed wire fench, ripping the fabric covering the wings to shreds, and wrapping the prickly wire around the frame. It would take two days of yet more work to free the “Vin Fiz” to fly yet again.
Cal was back in the air on September 27th , and had safe landings that day and the next. But on the 29th, he was grounded by bad weather. Still, September 30th saw him break out of the Alleghenies and enter the flatlands of the old Middle West. The "Vin Fiz" covered 200 miles on September 30th . He would have gone further but a clogged fuel line forced him down late in the day near Akron, Ohio. Cal spent that night fending off curious cows who seemed determined to crush his fragile airplane under their big fat hooves. (Or maybe they were trying to catch a flight to someplace more accomidating to vegitarians.)
On Sunday, October first, Cal stopped at first Mansfield and then Marion, Ohio, before being forced down by another clogged fuel line at Rivare, Indiana, just over the state line. Under threatening skies Cal cleared the fuel line and took off again, only to fly directly into a thunderstorm, the first pilot to ever do so. As lightening snapped around his plane, Cal was the first pilot to experience downdrafts and wind shear, and as quickly as he could, Cal landed the "Vin Fiz" again, in the tiny Hoosier town of Geneva. As soon as the weather cleared he flew on to Huntington, Indiana, where he was met by an enthusiastic crowd, and was able to spend the night on board the train with his dear Mable. And his dear mother Maria.
The next morning, October 2nd, the winds were still gusting and again Cal had a hard time working up speed on his 35 horsepower Wright engine. Just as he felt his skids leave the ground he realized he was heading for a crowd of people. He yanked the stick to the left, passed under telegraph wires, and bounced his left wing off a bump in the ground. Cal was thrown out of his seat and scrapped his forehead, the left wing of the “Vin Fizz” was crumpled and folded up. Cal was mostly uninjured. And the “lucky” bottle of soda dangling from the strut was unbroken, yet again. But it would take two days to repair the “Vin Fiz”, essentially its third complete rebuild since takeoff.
On October 4th Cal flew to Hammond, Indiana, where he landed just before 6 P.M., on a plowed field on the Jarnecke Farm. He slept that night in the comfort of the Majestic Hotel. But high winds kept him grounded for another two days.
Finally, in desperation, on the 7th, Cal loaded the “Vin Fiz” aboard his train and moved it to the village of Lansing, Illinois, where he found a fallow field with a wind break. This allowed him to finally take off again. (As his journey westward had not moved him closer to Chicago, technically, he had not advanced his position in the race.)
Cal Rogers finally reached the air field in Cicero, Illinois, on the westside of Chicago, on the afternoon of October 8th. This was near where, at the air show in Grant Park on the lake shore just two months before, Cal had made his public debut as a pilot. He now had less than three weeks left by the rules of the contest to fly the remaining 2,000 miles across the Mississippi and the western half of the Untied States, cross the Rocky Moountains and the Sierra Nevada and the deseret between. Cal Rogers was the only man still in the race, but he was running out of time.
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