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L.A. Then and Now

First Transcontinental Flight Was a Rough One

March 26, 2000|Cecilia Rasmussen

Los Angeles' aviation age sputtered to life on a Pasadena polo field, where the world's first transcontinental flight slumped to a close after an epic 49 days, 19 crashes, 82 hours of flying time and 69 stops--some of which were even scheduled.

On Nov. 5, 1911, less than two years after Los Angeles had staged the nation's first major air show at Dominguez Hills, pioneer aviator Cal Rodgers piloted his wobbly, pipe-and-canvas Wright Flyer to a landing at Tournament Park--where Caltech now stands--before a cheering crowd of 20,000.

Many in the crowd thought the awkward-looking biplane--christened the Vin Fiz after a grape soda marketed by Armour Food Co.--was falling from the sky. As it touched down, in fact, a tire blew, the engine gave out and a wing crumpled.

The cigar-chomping Rodgers was just happy to have made it.

"I did it, didn't I? I did it!" he shouted before he was knocked down and trampled by the crowd. It was a fitting conclusion to a 4,200-mile-plus journey during which he had been cut, crushed, struck by lightning and almost crippled after various run-ins with barbed wire fences, farmland, sea gulls, an eagle and a bull.

Though his flight went into the record books as a solo effort, Rodgers hadn't really been alone: His companions had been his habitual 19 cigars a day, his wife's corset tacked to the upper wing for uplifting spiritual support, a bottle of Vin Fiz strapped to the underside of a wing for luck, and a crew of mechanics carrying spare parts in a railroad car below.

Calbraith Perry Rodgers, 32, was a tall, good-humored, sensitive man, born in Pittsburgh. An infant when his father died, he was raised by his wealthy mother, Maria, and lived in the humbling shadow of adventuring ancestry.

His family tree included Adm. Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812. His father, who was killed by lightning, had been a cavalry officer who served in the Indian wars.

In 1905, Rodgers was an unemployed playboy, supported by a hefty allowance from his mother, when he went on a cruise with his family and friends. Hearing a woman scream, he jumped overboard and rescued 22-year-old Mabel Groves, who had fallen into the sea. The hero soon made her his wife.

Six years later, while visiting a cousin in Dayton, Ohio, Rodgers went to see Wilbur and Orville Wright's flying school.

Stunned by the sight of machines soaring skyward, Rodgers impulsively signed up for lessons costing $60 an hour, but only after winning his mother's financial support and listening to her rant against his latest outlandish venture.

After 90 minutes of instruction over six days, he bought his first biplane--a Wright Type B--for $5,000. Licensed and certified, he became the 49th pilot officially recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, which was founded in Paris in 1905.

What began as a high-risk kick evolved into an obsession. Entering his first aviation meet in Chicago, he won third place, capturing the prize for endurance.

Almost a year after newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first person to fly coast to coast in 30 days or less, Rodgers took him up on it. Although he was the third to attempt the flight, he was the first to achieve it--though he would exceed his deadline by 19 days.

Rodgers made just one pitch for backing, from the Armour Food Co. Armour agreed, providing that Rodgers would help promote the company's new product: Vin Fiz, described by many of those unwise enough to purchase it as "a fine blend of river sludge and horse slop."

The first into the air to lay claim to the prize was race car driver Robert Fowler, who took off from San Francisco on Sept. 11, 1911. He would reach the Atlantic Ocean in 122 days after several near-death experiences of his own and a detour to save a flooded town by flying in vials of typhoid vaccine. Jockey Jimmy Ward lifted off two days later from New York, but quit the race less than a week after Rodgers launched his flight from Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., on Sept. 17.

As he used railroad tracks for a guide, Rodgers was pursued by a trainload of support staff, including, among others, his wife and 17-year-old junior mechanic Charles Wiggin. Uninvited, his mother joined the crew in mid-adventure.

One day after takeoff, Rodgers crashed into a chicken coop in Middletown, N.Y. While his mechanics repaired his plane, Rodgers slept, narrowly escaping death in a hotel fire.

Amid a few wrong turns, he was attacked by an eagle near Dallas, he crashed into a cactus in Texas and his engine blew up over the Imperial Valley. In Indiana, a bull charged his plane.

Residents lined the railroad tracks between Banning and Los Angeles to get a glimpse of the "bird man" and his flying machine.

Touching down in Pomona, he was immediately engulfed by 2,500 excited people before taking off again and heading for Pasadena.

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