Only eight years after the Wright brothers flew the first heavier-than-air machine, newspaper tycoon William Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first to fly across the continent in less than 30 days.
Although Cal Rodgers had just learned to fly, he was ready. “He’ll need every atom of courage..,” Wilbur Wright had said of any man who attempted to win the prize.
The nation had not a single airport and there were no navigation aids or repair places. To help him, a train carrying a second plane, spare parts, a crew of mechanics, Cal’s wife Mabel, his mother, and reporters was rented by a company producing a grape drink named Vin Fiz. In exchange, Cal named his airplane after it, and would scatter Vin Fiz promotional leaflets from the sky— the first aerial ad campaign.
On September 17, 1911, Cal took off from Brooklyn, made a sweep over Manhattan and headed for New Jersey, where the train, and an enormous crowd, was waiting.
The next morning, right after takeoff he tried to avoid some power lines, hit a tree, and plunged into a chicken coop. Feathers floated as he emerged from a tangle of wires, splintered wood, and torn fabric. Head bleeding, cigar clenched between his teeth, he muttered, “Oh, my beautiful airplane.”
They rebuilt the Vin Fiz, and a few days later he was again airborne. Stopovers were frequent, as were brushes with death. The plane struck telegraph wires; it piled into a barbed-wire fence (demolished again); and landing in Indiana, Cal was attacked by a bull. He became the first pilot to fly in a thunderstorm. But the Vin Fiz buzzed on.
When he reached Chicago, other contenders had dropped out. Cal realized that he wasn’t going to make it to the west coast in 30 days. But he pressed on…
To avoid the Rocky Mountains, he flew south over Texas, then west. By the time he reached California, after a dozen crashes, his plane had been rebuilt so often that little remained of the original.
A month later, after still another crash and in yet another rebuilt plane, he finally reached the Pacific, greeted by 50,000 spectators
Tragically, Cal’s luck ran out. A few months later, he flew into a flock of seagulls, and plunged to his death.
But he did it— he became the first pilot to fly across the American continent.