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Sunday, April 25, 2010

AMAZING RACE: PART VII - INTO THE VALLEY

I would say there are really four truly amazing things about Cal Rodgers’ transcontinental flight of late 1911. The most amazing thing (to me) 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 he 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 couldn’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 actually 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 right 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 "Vin Fiz Special" train 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, 16 miles lonely outside of El Paso, Texas. There was no town at Mastadon,  just a water tank where the single rail line and a siding ran between sand dunes, and it was 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 only a little more 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 November 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 Rodgers 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 Rodgers had any idea that a deaf man had just flown coast-to-coast. 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 $50,000 prizes' time limit. So he  presented the aviator with a trophy, 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 by the press was that the Armour Meat Packing Company had spent $180,000 (including Cal’s fee of $23,000) to support the flight. And they had paid all this to sell a really terrible 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 actually complete his journey right up to the Pacific Ocean, in their town. This final flight was going fine until half way there, when the engine quit. Cal landed, fiddled with the Wright engine himself, 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, an 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. Finally, on the 10th of November, 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. This was much like the system the Wright brothers had used to launch their orignal flyer, back in 1903. 
And just as the Cole 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, headed straight for him. The two objects quickly ate up the ground between them, heading for the most unlikely collision in either aviation or railroad  history!
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NEXT WEDNESDAY: AMAZING RACE; PART VIII - AN ASIDE

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