of the first great aviation
events in Texas was the arrival of a flying contraption
known as the Vin Fiz Flyer, which landed in Fort
Worth on Oct. 17, 1911 as part of what became the first Atlantic-to-Pacific
A wealthy and rambunctious young adventurer named
Calbraith Perry Rodgers was the pilot of the Vin Fiz Flyer. Daredevil
Cal, as he was known, embarked on the coast-to-coast flight in an attempt
to claim the $50,000 prize offered by publisher William Randolph Hearst
to the first person to fly an airplane from one coast to the other.
persuaded J. Ogden Armour, the famous meat packer, to sponsor the attempt.
In exchange for Armour’s financial support, Rodgers named the plane after Armour’s
new grape-flavored soft drink, the Vin Fiz. He bought the plane from the
Wright Brothers after taking about an hour and a half of instruction from
the inventors themselves, thus becoming the first private citizen to buy a plane
from the Wright Brothers.
Flyer had a wingspan of 32 feet, four cylinders and a water-cooled engine. What
it didn’t have was a throttle, basically giving the plane two gears: wide open
and stop. Many of Rodgers stops, especially in Texas,
were of the sudden variety. The plane had no compass and Rodgers didn’t take along
any maps. Instead, he followed the path of a train below him to navigate from
east to west.
By the time Rodgers finished his flight, only the rudder
and a couple of struts remained from the original plane. Rodgers hired the Wright
Brothers’ bicycle mechanic, Charles Taylor, to repair the plane every time
it crashed. Taylor ended up rebuilding it along the way, maybe more than once.
before he completed the flight Rodgers knew he was going to miss the 30-day deadline
for the prize but he persevered. The arrival of the Vin Fiz Flyer was a greatly
anticipated event in the cities where it landed. Rodgers piloted it to Texas
at the behest of Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter, who sponsored
Rodgers’ flight into Texas.
the wrong railroad tracks soon after he got into Texas,
leaving the Fort Worth crowd in
suspense while he was cruising high above Montague County. A Katy railroad telegrapher
somehow got word to him that he was headed in the wrong direction. He turned around
and found the cheering crowd in Fort
Worth, and an even larger one at the State Fair of Dallas
the next day.
The Dallas Morning News described the Vin Fiz Flyer’s arrival
in Dallas this way: “Amid tumultuous
applause from an eager crowd of 75,000 persons, Cal P. Rodgers, sea-to-sea aviator,
glided gracefully down the infield of the State Fair racetrack at 1:50 p.m. After
hovering over the Fairgrounds for 15 minutes in the most thrilling exhibition
of aerial navigation ever seen here, he headed his biplane south and started again
on his long journey to the Pacific Ocean.”
along the way in Texas a territorial eagle attacked
the plane. He survived that challenge but crashed periodically as he flew on to
San Antonio and other stops, most
of them unscheduled and bumpy. Near Kyle, between Austin
and San Antonio, a piston crystallized
a spare engine carried aboard the train had to be installed.
his propeller struck the ground when he was taking off and resulted in major damage
and another long delay. Other stops in Texas, most
of them unscheduled, included Denison,
Del Rio, Alpine,
Marfa, and El
days after he started, Rodgers ceremoniously taxied the Vin Fiz Flyer into the
Pacific Ocean, giving him the distinction of making the first coast-to-coast flight.
The trip took a toll on the plane and on Rodgers, who was injured to varying degrees
in several of his crashes but was rarely without a cigar, even in flight.
died – how else – in an airplane crash in California in 1912. Pieces of the Vin
Fiz Flyer were gathered and a replica recreated for the “Pioneers of Flight”
gallery in the National Aviation and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian
Institution in Washington, D.C.
November 19, 2009 Column