Friday, October 29, 1911, marked a major milestone in Austin history. At 1:55 P.M., aviator Calbraith (Cal) Perry Rodgers landed his Wright EX Flyer in a vacant field near the present intersection of Duval and Forty-fifth streets. This was the first airplane to land in the Capital City. As the six-foot-four pioneer aviator stepped from his boxlike aircraft, excitement reached fever pitch; Austinites had just witnessed a phenomenon that, a few years previous, appeared impossible. Rodgers, unknowingly, had just ushered the City of Austin into the age of manned flight.
Of the roughly three thousand excited citizens who joined the celebration, few could fully comprehend what that event portended. However, with the passage of time, their lives, their city, and their world would be changed dramatically. The airplane would deem it so. But when viewed in broad perspective, this was not a local phenomenon; the Austin aviation experience, in its many forms, would ultimately be repeated in every metropolitan center throughout America.
When Austin greeted Cal Rodgers, aviation was in its infancy. Only eight years separated Rodgers' arrival and man's first flight in a powered heavier-than-air aircraft. That occurred on the morning of December 17, 1903, on the windswept dunes of Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. With Orville Wright at the controls of the homebuilt, experimental aircraft, an attendant released the restraining rope, the machine gently moved forward, and suddenly became airborne. At that moment, the creative genius of two young men, Orville and Wilbur Wright, freed earthbound humans from terra firma and converted their world from two dimensions to three.
The Wright brothers believed implicitly in the future of aviation. In 1907, in order to further their interests, they divided the territory. Wilbur toured France in an improved Wright Flyer No. 3, displaying the craft to the critical French Aero-Club, while Orville moved to Fort Myer, Virginia, to demonstrate the new Flyer at public trials conducted by the United States Army Signal Corps. Both endeavors were unqualified successes. In France, Orville won the Michelin Prize by establishing a world endurance record of two hours and twenty minutes; at Fort Myer Wilbur's performance far exceeded the Signal Corps' specifications. There were immediate rewards. The Signal Corps placed an order for one aircraft, marking the beginning of military aviation in the United States. An ebullient press assured the nation, and the world, that manned flight was indeed a reality. "After 1910," wrote Walter J. Boyne, director of the National Air and Space Museum, "when the Wrights first publicly demonstrated their flying machines . . . the advancement of aviation took off exponentially."
The success of the Fort Myer demonstration came at a price. Orville Wright experienced tragedy, as well as triumph, for Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, a passenger on one of Orville's flights, was killed when their machine crashed from a height of seventy-five feet, thus becoming aviation's first fatality. Sadly, death would be an ongoing theme in the early history of aviation. That single tragedy, however, failed to dampen public interest. While comparatively few people had ever seen an airplane (an "aeroplane," in early reports) or could conceive its ultimate potential, subsequent press coverage of flying demonstrations fired the nation's imagination. "Increasing numbers took to the air," explained aviation historian Eileen Lebow. "In 1909, there were twenty men flying in America; by the end of 1910, there were 100 aviators."
Hoping to stimulate the growth of aviation, as well as civic pride, through the promotion of air shows, civic leaders in many American cities began organizing aero clubs. Their efforts quickly gained public attention. Thousands flocked to designated sites to witness man invade the once-exclusive space of birds in flight. More than twenty meetings were held in Europe, while in the United States air shows continued to attract unprecedented attendance. In January 1910, Los Angeles sponsored the first international air meet held in the United States. Some twenty-five thousand people converged on Dominguez Field to see "a variety of events that tested the proficiency of the pilot and the responsiveness of his machine." The following May, the New York World offered a $10,000 prize for the first flight between New York City and Albany. Glenn Curtiss, flying a biplane of his own design, claimed the prize after making refueling stops at Poughkeepsie and Spuyten Duyvil. It was the first long-distance flight in the Western Hemisphere.
Other important air shows include the Harvard-Boston event in September 1910 and the New York air show staged at Belmont Park on Long Island in October. "The Belmont Park meeting merits special attention," explained Charles Howard Gibbs-Smith, "as its quality and venue attracted influential attention from American financial, military and social spheres: it was also an international occasion, with overseas teams from England and France, and helped—more than any other occasion—to popularize flying in this country, as well as stimulating technical development."
Calbraith Perry Rodgers was one of the growing number of individuals who took to the air. A New York socialite and motorcycle enthusiast, young Rodgers exhibited a special fondness for thrills and excitement. Flirting with danger was an inherited trait. His father, an army captain, was killed fighting Indians in Arizona; Commodores Matthew Calbraith Perry and John Rodgers, his great-grandfathers, were United States naval heroes. When the navy selected Calbraith's cousin John Rodgers, an Annapolis graduate, to learn to fly, Cal joined him at the Wright flying school in order to investigate the opportunities in aviation. It was a great revelation. Rodgers discovered the thrill of flying far exceeded anything a motorcycle or automobile could provide.
When John Rodgers reported to the Dayton flying school in March 1911, his classmates were two young army officers destined for outstanding military careers: Henry "Hap" Arnold and Thomas Milling. Cal subsequently registered as a civilian, paid his $850 fee, and embarked on a new and exciting career. When he passed his tests the following August 7, the Aero Club of America issued him license number forty-nine; he had earned the title aviator. John Rodgers, who had passed his tests four days earlier, joined his cousin in purchasing an airplane. They chose a Wright Model B two-place biplane, powered by a four-cylinder water-cooled engine and capable of speeds up to fifty miles an hour in still air.
Civic pride is a competitive impulse. When a group of Chicago business men proposed hosting an air show in that city, they believed that, if the New York air show had switched the focus of aviation progress from Europe to America, an even bigger show in Chicago would establish that city as the nation's premier aviation center. The idea enjoyed wide support. Industrialist Harold McCormick headed a planning committee that included the cream of Chicago's business elite, as well as the Aero Club of Illinois. They chose Grant Park as the location for the Chicago International Aviation Meet and offered $80,000 in prize money, the largest sum ever offered for a competitive air show. Thirty-two pilots registered for the event, including Calbraith Rodgers. Bolstered by approximately one week's experience as a licensed aviator, he eagerly accepted the challenge.
When the eight-day show opened on Saturday, August 12, it appeared the committee had planned wisely; more than one hundred thousand people jammed Grant Park to witness the spectacle. They were well rewarded; the following day attendance soared to an estimated six hundred thousand. All came to see the newest phenomenon of the age. Young Rodgers began earning prize money from the opening cannonade. By the time the show closed on August 19, his earnings totaled $11,285, more than twice the original cost of the plane. And, in addition to a love of flying, Rodgers also relished the heroic status accorded flyers by an adoring public. The daring young men in their flying machines became instant celebrities. Fellow pilot Tom Sopwith, a bachelor, "was greatly admired by the ladies who wrote him love notes and waited to catch a glimpse of him."
The Chicago air show was indeed a major event in the early history of aviation. The show established Chicago as the nation's most important aviation center in the pre-World War I era, and Cicero Field, the airport Harold McCormick and the Aero Club of Chicago created for the air show, was at that time "the most complete flying facility in the world." The aviation success factor also caught the attention of Chicago publisher William Randolph Hearst, who, according to contemporaries, became obsessed with aviation. Hearst, however, supported a more practical aspect of flying. He believed better engineering and improved airframe design would yield a product that would benefit American society, especially business and industry. To further that movement, Hearst shocked the American public with an almost unbelievable offer: a $50,000 prize to the first aviator who could fly across the United States in thirty days. The contestant could embark from either coast and choose any route, but the flight had to be completed within thirty days and include a stop at Chicago.
Hearst's offer gained the approval of America's most famous flyers, including the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss. When Rodgers learned of the projected transcontinental flight, he seized the opportunity. He realized, however, that such a flight would require resources far beyond his means, which, he believed, were available within the Chicago business community. Rodgers' recent celebrity status caught the attention of meat packing executive J. Ogden Armour, whose company was launching a marketing campaign promoting its new grape soft drink, Vin-Fiz. The two met and quickly came to terms: Rodgers Wright biplane would be converted into a flying billboard, the Vin-Fiz. In addition, when flying over urban areas, Rodgers would release hundreds of small cards bearing the name and price of the soft drink.
In exchange for Rodgers' endorsement, the company would pay all expenses, including bonuses of five dollars for every mile flown east of the Mississippi River and four dollars for every mile west of the river. In addition, Armour would provide a special train with two cars, one for staff accommodations, plus a "hangar" car, which contained a spare Wright B aircraft, two spare engines, a machine shop, plus a six-cylinder Palmer-Singer touring car to transport Rodgers from each landing site to the train. The agreement included accommodations for his mechanics, Rodgers' wife and mother, his personal manager (Fred Wettengel), and members of the Vin-Fiz publicity staff. Rodgers, however, would pay for his fuel, oil, repairs, and spare parts, as well as his mechanic's salary.
All pieces of the complicated business mosaic were beginning to fall in place; the future, it seemed, belonged to Calbraith Rodgers. The projected transcontinental flight, if completed, would insure his stature as a pioneer in American aviation, as well as in the virgin field of celebrity endorsement. All that remained was launching the project. On Sunday afternoon, September 17, some two thousand spectators paid admission to witness Rodgers' takeoff from Sheepshead Bay, New York, in pursuit of the Hearst prize. It was, indeed, a festive occasion; spectators cheered as a young girl christened the plane with a bottle of Vin-Fiz. As the applause subsided, Rodgers, with his ever-present cigar clamped between his teeth, reversed his cap, donned his goggles, and took his seat—sans safety belt—beside the 35-horsepower, water-cooled engine. After checking his only flight instrument, a weighted string tied to a cross wire to indicate the plane's attitude in flight, his mechanic started the engine. At 4:22 P.M. Rodgers took off, gained altitude, circled Coney Island, dropped leaflets advertising Vin-Fiz, and turned west toward California.
During the hype and publicity that surrounded the flight's preparation, the magnitude of that unprecedented undertaking was seemingly overlooked. At that time there were neither designated airways nor airports (except Chicago's), road maps were scarce and inaccurate, and, according to journalist Tom Mahoney, "the farthest anybody had flown had been 1,155 miles. That had been Harry Atwood's 11-day St. Louis to New York flight with many stops." California lay some four thousand miles ahead of Rodgers' Wright B pusher, and in order to follow a predetermined course, he elected to rely solely on railroad tracks for guidance.
As the Hudson River disappeared behind Rodgers, he could see the long panels of white cloth placed between the Erie Railroad tracks marking his initial route. He was on course. He followed the tracks to Middletown, New York, where at 6:07 P.M., he landed in an open field. Some ten thousand people were waiting to greet the now-famous aviator with the first of many ovations. He had flown 104 miles in 105 minutes. Rodgers arose early the following morning, rode to the field in the Palmer-Singer touring car, took his seat on the Vin-Fiz, and waved to the cheering crowd. "The Vin-Fiz bumped along the field and rose into the air," Eileen Lebow reported. "The crowd's cheers turned suddenly to screams as the plane rose slightly, then plummeted to earth. . . . Just thirty seconds had passed, but the birdlike machine was a twisted mass of splintered wood, broken wire, and shredded fabric." Rodgers survived the crash with only minor bruises and immediately began supervising the repairs.
The Middletown crash marked the beginning of a tragic scenario that would be repeated some sixteen times before Rodgers reached California. He nevertheless moved forward with dogged determination. Three days later, the repairs complete, he was again airborne for Chicago. After some twenty stops, included two more major crashes, Rodgers landed in Chicago, fulfilling one condition of the Hearst prize. There were, however, other matters of concern. With the expiration date of the $50,000 prize only two days away, he applied for an extension. Hearing nothing, he moved forward with his plans anyway. Taking off from Grant Park, Rodgers pointed the Vin-Fiz on a southwesterly heading, determined to reach California with or without Hearst's prize money.
When Rodgers reached Marshall, Missouri, on October 10, he had flown 1,398 miles, farther than any pilot in the world, yet his elation was short-lived. On alighting from the Vin-Fiz, he received a telegram bearing Hearst's response: there would be no extension. "Fading hope for the $50,000 strangely enough increased public interest in Rodgers," Mahoney wrote. "The crowds became bigger, their cheers louder." Despite the loss of the anticipated prize money, Rodgers remained resolute in his determination to reach California. He was, however, still receiving Armour's five-dollar-per-mile bonus, and his advance agents began negotiating lucrative contracts for flying exhibitions at towns along the remaining route.
To the sound of packing house whistles, Rodgers landed in Swope Park in Kansas City. From there he followed the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy) Railroad tracks south across Oklahoma, and shortly before 9:00 A.M. on Tuesday, October 17, the Vin-Fiz crossed the Red River into Texas. Later that day he arrived in Fort Worth, and continued on to Dallas for a two-day appearance at the State Fair of Texas. On October 20, Rodgers again took to the air, located the railroad tracks, and headed south toward Waco. The Waco Young Men's Business League had negotiated a contract with Roger's manager for him to circle the city several times to ensure that all citizens had an opportunity to see the famous Vin-Fiz.
Anticipating a fifty-mile-an-hour gale while flying unprotected at two thousand-feet, Rodgers had taken additional precaution against the cold blast. He wrapped his upper body with newspapers before donning his usual business suit, leather coat, and knee-high boots. When he arrived at Waco's Gourley Park, a crowd of excited spectators was gathered to see the celebrated aviator. At 11:45 A.M., to the fanfare of sirens, factory whistles, and the crowd's applause, Rodgers took off, circled the city, and headed south. In less than three hours, if all went well, he would reach Austin for a prearranged landing at the Ridge Top Annex.