key part of the Slats Rodgers story is that he was the first man in Texas
to receive a pilot’s license and the first one to have his pilot’s license revoked.
Not only is that what they call an ironic twist to the story, it seems to sum
up the man and his checkered career pretty well. He also built the first airplane
in Texas in 1911, nine years after the Wright Brothers’
in Georgia as Floyd Rodgers, he moved with his family to Keene
and received a brief education there before moving to an uncle’s farm in McLennan
County. Somewhere along the way, the young boy that everybody would know as Slats
developed a fascination with kites, which led to a fascination with aviation
and a life that is the stuff of movie serials.
Rodgers’ first job was with
the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe railroad where he soon became an engineer making
the Dallas to Cleburne
run. Rodgers enjoyed the speed and thunder of a locomotive but thought it was
a real shame that all that engine power was devoted to something that stayed on
the ground. He read all he could find about airplanes and with the help of engineer
John C. Fine set about building one. Construction began at a blacksmith shop on
Main Street in Cleburne
but he moved it to a rented house in Keene
after the City of Cleburne
declared the project “a public nuisance.”
finished the plane but he didn’t know how to fly it. Worse, the right wing drooped,
always a bad thing for a wing to do. He taxied around a pasture at length but
couldn’t control the plane’s direction of travel which, combined with the droopy
wing, made him understandably reluctant to take to the skies. The first airplane
built in Texas (other than a few pre-Wright Brothers
experiments) was named Old Soggy No 1 in honor of the drooping wing. Rodgers displayed
picture of the plane on the water tank of his locomotive, which generated interest
in the project from Dallas to Cleburne.
The first time he actually flew the plane, in 1912, was a result of attaining
a fair amount of ground speed with the plane but in the exact direction of a ditch.
He got the plane off the ground just in time to avoid the ditch and spent a few
seconds in the air, enough time for him to realize that this was what he wanted
to do for the rest of his life. According to some reports, Rodgers may have had
a few drinks before taking to the air for the first time.
Of course, when
he landed the plane the right wing dropped, caught the ground and was ripped asunder
from the rest of the rest of the plane. The wheels fell off, too. That was to
be the first of 29 crashes that Rodgers would walk away from.
eventually corrected the problem, sort of, by shifting his body weight to the
left to counteract the droopy wing effect. As soon as he had Old Soggy repaired,
he took it up again and this time landed without incident. He retired the plane
by letting it deteriorate in a Johnson County pasture.
became a civilian flight instructor during World
War I but the civilians didn’t last long as the Army eventually brought in
their own instructors. Undeterred, Rodgers began barnstorming and bootlegging.
He operated a flying circus, Slats Rodgers and the Love Field Lunatics. The circus
was a ruse. The real business of the Love Field Lunatics was bootlegging.
provided Rodgers with a new career ferrying bootleg liquor from Mexico
to Texas. The operation also included some gambling
and moonshining, which eventually resulted in Slats spending six months in a Dallas
jail. The end of prohibition did away with the Mexico-to-Texas
run, and the novelty of barnstormers like Rodgers waned. He moved to the Rio Grande
Valley and became one of the state’s first and most successful crop duster pilots.
The stories about
Slats Rodgers, many of them drawn from his autobiography titled “Old Soggy No. 1” and co-written with Hart Stillwell, are still legendary. They tell about the
time he was challenged to fly a plane between two downtown Dallas
skyscrapers; his successful completion of that stunt led to his pilot’s license
being revoked. Then there’s the time he dressed a dummy to look like a pilot and
allowed the dummy to fall out of the plane and plummet to the ground in front
of a shocked audience while an ambulance raced to the scene.
to Bandera in
1943 where he bought a ranch and operated a steak house. He went back to McAllen
in 1950 to open another steakhouse. He sold that and opened a fishing camp and
minnow business in Zapata.
He died in 1956 in McAllen and
is buried at Laurel Hills Cemetery in Mission.
"Letters from Central Texas"
August 21, 2010 Column