Across America with Calbraith Rodgers and the Vin Fiz

Monday Book Review

September 10, 1990|By Gus Crenson

CAL RODGERS AND THE VIN FIZ: The First Transcontinental Flight. By Eileen F. Lebow. Smithsonian Institution. 266 pages. $22.95. IT IS KNOWN as an "aeroplane" in 1911, just eight years after the Wright brothers' historic first flight in Kitty Hawk, and the public is wild about it.

Barnstorming aviators and organized air shows draw enthusiastic crowds everywhere. Last year a show near Los Angeles packed 25,000 into the stands at Dominguez Field. Last year, too, thousands of hysterical fans applauded the Gordon Bennett cup race in Belmont Park. There are other races and air shows as well -- in GusCrensonBoston, Asbury Park and in Baltimore.

President Taft gravely voices the sentiment that tomorrow some man may fly from New York to St. Louis.

This is background against which former Baltimorean Eileen F. Lebow projects her well-researched account of Calbraith Rodgers and his transcontinental flight -- the first ever -- aboard the fragile, tiny, skittish Vin Fiz.

Inducement for the flight came from William Randolph Hearst, who offered a $50,000 prize to the first, "regardless of sex, nationality, race or residence," who would fly across the country in 30 days or less. No matter how many stops you made or what route you flew, just so you stopped in Chicago. Rodgers, the third flyer to try for the prize, complied with all its terms, but its one-year deadline came and went before he completed his flight and he got nothing from Hearst.

Distinctly contemporary is the behind-the-scenes activity of this epochal flight. To begin with, there is a corporate sponsor, maker of a soft drink called Vin Fiz. In return for financial support, Rodgers would paint the name of the product on the plane and would drop small cards advertising the grape drink whenever he flew over large crowds. It was a landmark in advertising history. The company agreed to pay all expenses of the flight except for spare parts, repairs, fuel and oil. Rodgers would get $5 for each mile he flew east of the Mississippi and $4 for each mile west of the river. There were, explained the Vin Fiz moguls, fewer people out west. Rodgers agreed.

And there was well-organized ground support. A special train of two cars, one for personnel and the other a "hangar" car, would shadow Rodgers and the Vin Fiz across the country. Success would have been impossible without that support. It is important to remember that there were no airfields anywhere along Rodgers' route. Every takeoff, every landing was hostage to fate. In the air the Vin Fiz was eternally fickle. When the flight was over, Rodgers and his wife (a passenger on the train, as was his mother), tabulated the parts used up -- eight propellers, six wings, two radiators, six cylinders, two engines, two tails, four fins and more.

And aboard the train were other auguries of the last half of the century -- PR men to give "spin" to stories and a speech writer for the taciturn flyer.

Local press coverage on scheduled landings was pretty nearly what it would be today -- a story to announce Rodgers' coming, another the day of his arrival and a third on departure day.

Lebow follows the Vin Fiz from its takeoff at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., on Sept. 17 to its landing in Pasadena on Nov. 5 and beyond.

She documents 73 landings and takeoffs, some simply to refuel and some because night was falling, but there were also broken propeller chains, cracked cylinders, overheating, wind damage, broken skis, and at least three total wrecks. Once in a while, too, Rodgers put down because he was lost. His navigation was largely by means of the "iron compass," the railroad tracks, but he ran into trouble at times when he encountered two or more sets of tracks going in different directions.

The indomitable Rodgers -- and Lebow makes a clear case for the term -- flew 4,231 miles in 4,924 minutes of air time. In the 49 days of his adventure he was airborne at least part of 24 days. He was grounded 25. He suffered repeated major and minor bodily injuries.

Lebow can't do much with her subject's personality. She tells us he was tall and strong. He smoked cigars most of the time. He drank cream. He was hard of hearing. He was not articulate. It could be that he has been so nearly forgotten because he did not lend personal color to his astonishing personal achievement.

And yet there is a straight line from the skimpy little Vin Fiz to the 747 and beyond. Twenty-one feet long, and little more than a motorized kite, the Wright Brothers special was powered by a 35-horsepower engine, could carry 905 pounds, including itself, and was capable of 55 miles an hour "in still air." Go see it at the National Space Museum in Washington, and marvel at the bravery of the man who took it aloft.

Rodgers did not have long to savor his success. Only six months after his grand flight, on a routine flight over the Pacific, he plunged to his death in two feet of water just off Long Beach.

This is a book for aviation enthusiasts. It is also for those who will enjoy the texture of the times of 80 years ago. And you can read it to pay homage to a hero who richly deserves recognition.

Gus Crenson writes from Baltimore.

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