It’s easy to forget all the history in this tear down, build anew city. But even if we’re new arrivals, we’ve all heard the faint whisperings of Sheepshead Bay’s grand past, full of racetracks, restaurants, resorts, and record breakers. That’s right, record breakers. Ninety-eight years ago today, at 4:30 p.m., Cal Rodgers took off from a field in Sheepshead Bay. With only 60 hours of flying experience, the aeriel daredevil hoped to win a $50,000 prize by flying from New York City to California in 30 days, completing the first transcontinental flight across the United States.
Wired gives us a rather lengthy (for the web) account of his trip:
The plane, a modified Wright Flyer B called the Model EX, was top-of-the-line for the time, but quite primitive by the standards available just a decade later. The biplane didn’t even have what we would today call a cockpit. There was a simple seat on the lower wing along with the basic flight controls.
There were no instruments and no gauges, but Rodgers apparently was a realist, and he strapped a pair of crutches to the plane. They would come in handy more than once during the journey.
Like adventurers of today, Rodgers knew he couldn’t fund the trip himself, so he went looking for sponsors. The trip would require numerous spare parts including wings and major fuselage sections, as well as a crew of mechanics and support staff that ended up filling a three-car train.
Rodgers found a sponsor in J. Ogden Armour. The meatpacking tycoon wanted to promote a new grape soda drink, and with the sponsorship, the first aerial billboard was born.
The Vin Fiz, named after the grape drink, departed New York and headed west following roads and railroad tracks on a journey many said would end at the Hudson River just a few miles ahead. But on his first leg Rodgers managed to make it more than 100 miles, landing in a field in Middletown, New York.
The next morning, in what would become the first of many accidents along the way, the Vin Fiz snagged a tree on takeoff, and both pilot and airplane suffered damage. After a few days of repairs on the wing, the fuselage and Rodgers’ head, the Vin Fiz continued, eventually making it to Chicago three weeks later.
With the 30-day deadline looming, it was apparent there would be no prize. But Rodgers wanted to complete the trip, and continued with his entourage of mechanics and supporters.
The aircraft would end up making more than 70 stops before landing at the designated goal in Pasadena, California, on Nov. 5. Rodgers had missed the deadline by 19 days (and you think your flight delay was something).
Rodgers made more than 15 crash landings and numerous hospital visits during the trip. The plane had been repaired and rebuilt so many times during the trip that, like grandpa’s axe, little of the original aircraft made it to California.
Rodgers suffered numerous injuries during the flight: a broken leg in Arizona, shrapnel in his arm from a blown cylinder, and too many cuts, scrapes and bruises to count.
But after an amazing 82 hours in the air, Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz had completed the first-ever crossing of the United States by an airplane. More than 20,000 people gathered in Pasadena to witness Rodgers and his plane finish their flight.
Rodgers died only months later, when a flock of seagulls downed his plane off of Long Beach. Let’s pour one out in honor of the old man who mastered the skies, but never its creatures.