I suppose it seemed like a good idea in the beginning. There were three serious contestants, and a $50,000 first place prize. But in retrospect, it should have been obvious that nobody was going to collect a dime of that money. It was 1911; flying was still brand new and the world’s first two pilots were still flying - Wilbur and Orville Wright - and still learning The world's third pilot was Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and he had died on September 17, 1908, in a crash that also badly injured Orville. The second pilot to die was Charles Rolls (of Rolls-Royce fame), in a 1910 crash. Considering there were only about 100 men (and one woman) with flying licenses in America in 1911, two percent was an appalling death rate, bad enough to make you wonder why anybody would have wanted to even try flying, let alone try it from coast to coast.
The world’s 49th licensed pilot was a shy, cocky, 6’4” thirty-something, cigar smoking, playboy and adrenaline junkie with a hearing loss and a speech impediment named Calbraith Perry Rogers (above -right). He was a romantic who favored action over words, as proven by the way he met his wife, 20 something Mabel Groves (above, left). He saw her slip off a dock and fall into the water. So assuming she was drowning, he jumped in and pulled her to safety. Within a few months he married her, despite the hat. He approached flying with the same spontaneity, but it quickly developed into a mission..
Having seen his first airplane on a visit to Dayton, Ohio, in June of 1911, Cal took the full Wright Brother’s flight course (above), all 90 minutes of it. Mabel explained that flying filled the hole in his life by his deafness which had excluded a military career. It was, she said "the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle".
Then Cal talked his mother, Maria, into loaning him $5,000 so he could buy a Wright Model B Flyer “E-X”. The "X" was for experimental – which was a joke because every “airplane” was experimental in 1911. But Cal may also have been the origin of the phrase to “take a flyer”, because just two months later, in August, he entered his new Wright Flyer in an air show in Chicago and took home third prize, worth $11, 285. Not bad: Cal had been a pilot for 60 days and already he had made six grand profit. He suspected there might be money in this flying thing.
And this was confirmed in October of 1910 when the Hearst newspaper chain had offered $50,000 to the first pilot to make it across the continent in 30 days or less. The offer was set to expire on 10 October. So with his self supplied confidence, Cal decided to go for it. Orville Wright tried to warn him. "There isn't a machine in existence that can be relied upon for 1,000 miles, and here you want to go over 4,000. It will vibrate itself to death before you get to Chicago." But Cal refused to give up the idea. He explained, "It's important because everything else I've done was unimportant." Faced with that level of stubbornness, Orville tried to look at the bright side. At least the Wright B Flyer was so light, said Orville "six good men could carry it across the country."
What Cal needed, as any NASCAR driver can tell you, was a sponsor. He found his ‘sticker sucker’ in Mr. J. Odgen Armour, owner of Armour Meat Packing Company, and his new soft drink called “VIN FIZ”. Allegedly it was grape favored soda water, but one critic thought it tasted more like “a fine blend of river sludge and horse slop” With a product like that Mr. Amour was going to need a heck of an advertising campaign. Enter Cal and his flying bill board.
With a guarantee of $23,000 from Amour, and a bonus of $5 per mile east of the Mississippi River, and $4 per mile to the west of the "big muddy", and a corporate three rail car support train complete with a reservoir of spare parts, fuel and mechanics, and sleeping car accommodations for Mable, Cal’s mother Maria, his cousin, his head mechanic Charlie Taylor, two other mechanics, two general assistants and assorted reporters from the Hearst news service. Suddenly the flight looked possible..
Armour even threw in an automobile (above) to track down Cal whenever he crash landed . With that much corporate funding behind him, Cal figured he had it all figured out. The first problem was that, before Cal even got airborne, his "Vin Fiz" was already in third place.
First off, from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, was motorcycle racer Bob Fowler (above). There were 10,000 cheering people there at 1:35 P.M., on 11 September 1911 to see Bob takeoff. Like Cal, Bob was piloting a Wright “B” Flyer, except his sponsor was Joseph J. Cole, founder and owner of the Cole Motor Company, of Indianapolis, Indiana. Cole supplied Bob with one of their engines and $7,500. The Cole engine was more powerful than the Wright engine, but it was also 200 lbs heavier. J.J. also gave Bob a support train, with spare parts and his own mother. But "The Cole Flyer" lacked the publicity support that accompanied the "Vin Fizz Flyer..
Making an average speed of about 55 miles an hour, Bob reached Sacramento in just under 2 hours, and after schmoozing with California Governor Hiram Johnson, Bob flew on to the foothill town of Auburn, for a total distance on the first day of 126 miles. On 12 September he reached Alta, California, where he crashed into some trees. Bob was now out of the race until repairs could be made.
Second to start was James J. (Jimmy) Ward (above), pilot's license #52, and previously a jockey. He was flying a Curtis Model D, with floats. Jimmy took off from Governor’s Island in New York harbor on 13 September, 1911. He immediately got lost over New Jersey, and made only twenty miles before crash landing. Then he too had to wait for repairs. The basic tempo of the race had thus been set right from the start; take off, crash, wait for repairs, take off, crash, wait for repairs, and repeat as necessary for 3,000 miles. It was going to be very hard to finish this race, let alone win it.
Before starting himself, Cal Rogers tied a bottle Vin Fiz to one of his wing struts (white circle on the left), “for luck”. For reality, he tied a pair of crutches to another strut, in case he needed them later. He would.
Before a paying crowd of 2,000, a chorus girl poured a bottle of grape soda over the landing skids and proclaimed, “I dub thee “Vin Fiz Flyer””. Cal actually called his plane “Betsy” but he recognized the value of naming fees even back then.
Cal took off from the race course at Sheepshead Bay, Long Island at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, 17 September. And if anybody noticed that it was the third anniversary of the crash that had killed Lieutenant Selfridge, they were polite enough to keep it to themselves.
After take off, Cal buzzed Coney Island and dropped coupons for free Vin Fiz soda (above). Then he flew across Manhattan as the breathless reporters breathlessly reported, “…with its death-trap of tall buildings, ragged roofs and narrow streets”. Cal landed safely in Middleton, New York that night to a cheering crowd reported as 10,000 – not to be bettered by San Francisco. He had made all of 84 miles that first day. His plan was to average 250 miles a day.
That night the reporters wrote that Cal claimed he would be in Chicago in four days. But Cal rarely talked to reporters because he barely heard their questions, the byproduct of a scarlet fever attack in his childhood. And he spoke in the clumsy monotone of someone who never heard a human voice. So it was easier if the the reporters just made up heroic quotes for Cal. They invented more heroic quotes for him the next morning when, on take off, the "Vin Fiz" hit a tree and ended up in a chicken coop. The bottle of Vin Fiz was "miraculously" undamaged, as proved because it would have been impossible to find another bottle of Vin Fizz aboard a train car named "The Vin Fiz Special". But now it was Cal’s turn to wait for repairs. The race was on! It just wasn't going anywhere quickly.
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