Transcontinental With the Vin Fiz

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s period music, returning its time portal-channeled visitors to the barnstorming era, seemed faint, as if its sound waves originated from the turn of the 20th century and attempted to penetrate the humidity-saturated air more indicative of summer than late September. Equally struggling to slice itsĀ  EarnWithSocial way through the billowing white clouds and charcoal strata, the sun periodically succeeded in penetrating them before once again being camouflaged. Sandwiched between two wings on a tiny, corduroy-covered perch, Cal Rodgers must have negotiated skies such as these 100 years ago.

A hub for vintage aviation visitors, Old Rhinebeck draws its weekend population from surrounding northeastern states, but the rain-threatening weather had discouraged all but a handful from making the drive on September 17, 2011, as evidenced by the scatter of spectators occupying the wooden benches in front of the deep green field soon to serve as the Saturday, “History of Flight,” air show’s runway. It was not unlike the one Rodgers had used in Brooklyn, but his take off would not have returned him to the same location. Instead, it would have deposited him on the West Coast, clear across the country, and the current handful of spectators would have numbered in the thousands.

Despite the mild temperature, the multi-colored collage of gold-, auburn-, crimson-, and lemon-tinged, aerodrome perimeter trees indicated the fall of the year, but the date, adjusted for a century, would have signaled the dawn of transcontinental flight in a design whose lineage was visibly traceable to that of the original Wright Flyer. Ironically, that aircraft had only hopped 852 feet from the sands of Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the longest of its manned, powered, controlled, and sustained, heavier-than-air flights the day the Wright Brothers had hand-propped aviation’s engine. Cal Rodgers was intent on covering the distance from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Parked, as always, on the other side of the white picked fence dividing the aerodrome’s spectator and air operations sides were the three flyable airplanes, which represented its pioneer era: the Bleriot XI, the Hanriot, and the Curtiss Model D. The former had spanned the English Channel. The latter, in its Albany Flyer version, had aerially connected New York State’s capitol with Manhattan. But the Wright Model EX employed by Cal Rodgers, represented by the replica in the Pioneer Hangar at the top of the hill, crossed the continent.

The aircraft, nevertheless, represented the beginning of transcontinental air service, a journey today routinely completed countless times in about five hours. But in 1911, without airframe or powerplant sophistication, nor navigation to guide it from one landing field to the next, what a beginning it was! It would have been a monumental achievement if it had been made in only five stops. However, the only “five” in its fight plan corresponded to the number of crashes-the major ones-and excluded the minor impacts, mishaps, tangles, weather delays and groundings, repairs, and complete aircraft rebuilds.

Born Calbraith Perry Rodgers on January 12, 1879, he kindled an interest in aviation and an intimacy with the predecessor of his intended airplane when he joined his cousin, Annapolis graduate and Navy pilot, John Rodgers, in Dayton, Ohio, in March of 1911. Chosen to fly a Wright design, John Rodgers himself completed his flight training there, while other officials assessed competing Curtiss aircraft elsewhere.

Sliding into the pilot’s seat in a dually controlled Wright Model B, Cal Rodgers, taught by Wright graduate Arthur Welsh, paid $850 for his flight instruction.

Like a thoroughbred straining to be released from the starting gate, he needed to accomplish more than he had at the Chicago International Air Meet that August and the $50,000 offer made by publisher William Randolph Hearst for the first person to fly from either coast to the other within a 30-day period-valid for one year from October 10, 1910-would transform him from budding novice to transcontinental crosser. Although the contestant could only use a single aircraft, it could be rebuilt as many times as deemed necessary and had to include Chicago as one of its enroute stops.

“To all intents and purposes,” according to the offer, “the contestant may rebuild the aeroplane on the way by substituting for damaged or broken parts good parts of other similar machines, but the prize winner must use the same machine throughout

 

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