Wisconsin

Cal Rodgers,
first man to cross America by air

Wisconsin man is first to cross America by air In 1911, 32-year-old Calbraith Perry Rodgers took 90 minutes of flying lessons from Orville Wright. With that under his belt, he purchased a new Flyer, the first Wright ever sold to a private buyer, and went off to seek his fame and fortune at air meets.

Cal Rodgers gained early notoriety by setting aviation endurance and speed records that summer. However, the record that would guarantee him a paragraph in history books was the challenge of crossing the nation by air, especially when publisher William Randolph Hearst dangled a $50,000 carrot for the the first one to do so in 30 days or less.

With only 60 hours in his logbook, Rodgers convinced Chicago meat packer J. Ogden Armour to sponsor him in America's first flying billboard, a long-wing Wright R with the name "Vin Fiz," Armour's soft drink, spelled out on its rudders and underwings.

The plane, frail by today's standards, was state-of-the-art in 1911. Rodgers would face a roughly 4,000-mile flight perched out in front, flying without instruments or navigational aids or maps, certainly no heater or other creature comforts, at a breathtaking 50 miles per hour.

 

Cal Rodgers and Bernice Van Nortwick
Cal Rodgers and Bernice Van Nortwick, the first Wisconsin woman to take a trip in an aeroplane from Wisconsin soil. This photo was taken on September 4, 1911, at the "Ask Wettengel" aviation meet in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Wright R. Biplane
1911-Cal Rodgers and his Wright R Biplane at the "Ask Wettengel" aviation meet in Appleton, Wisconsin.

 

Aviation Firsts Logo

At 4:30 on the afternoon of September 17, 1911, dressed in a business suit and tie sheltered under layers of sweaters and a sheepskin vest, his epic began in an open field at Sheepshead Bay, near New York City. There were odds-on bets that the flight wouldn't make it past the Hudson River. However, Cal's first leg that day ended uneventfully at Middletown NY, a 104-mile trip.

During the rest of the flight, which dragged into November for a total of 49 days, "Vin Fiz" suffered a series of mishaps. In 69 stops across the country, the attrition was demonstrated by only one rudder and a single wing strut remaining from the original aircraft by the end of the flight. Of those 49 days, only 82 hours and 4 minutes were spent in the air! The distance covered has never been verified-varied reports put it at anywhere from 3,220 to 4,251 miles. When he finally landed at a race track in Pasadena on November 5, Rodgers was already a national celebrity, and some 20,000 people were waiting to watch him land.

In retrospect, the flight of "Vin Fiz" was almost comedic in regard to expense of time and money and the number of crashes, but the underlying magnitude of Rodgers' accomplishment cannot be denied. He was one of our nation's first pioneer aviators, daring to go where no human had ever gone before. - K O Eckland