Texas Trails

Clay Coppedge, Southern LIvestock Standard

March 18, 2024

One of the first great aviation events in Texas was the arrival of a flying contraption known as the Vin Fiz Flyer, which landed in Fort Worth on Oct. 17, 1911, as part of what became the world’s first Atlantic-to Pacific airplane flight. 

A wealthy and rambunctious young adventurer named Calbraith (Cal) Perry Rodgers embarked on the coast-to-coast flight in an attempt to claim the $50,000 prize ($1.3 million today) offered by publisher William Randolph Hearst to be the first person to fly an airplane from one coast to the other. Rodgers persuaded J. Ogden Armour, the famous meat packer, to sponsor the cross-country challenge. 

In exchange for Armour’s financial support, Rodgers named the plane after Armour’s new grape-flavored soft drink, the Vin Fiz. He took about an hour and a half of instruction from Orville Wright and became the first private citizen to buy a plane from the Wright Brothers, which he launched from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York on Sept.17, 1911. 

The Vin Fiz Flyer had four cylinders, a water-cooled engine, and a wingspan of 32 feet. Among the many things the plane did not have was a throttle, basically giving the plane two gears: wide open and stop. Rodgers was brave enough to make the attempt and smart enough to hire the Wright Brothers’ bicycle and airplane mechanic, Charles Taylor, at the unheard-of salary of $70 a week (about $2,200 today) to repair the plane whenever it crashed. 

Taylor, along with Rodgers’ wife and mother, some corporate PR guys, and support personnel followed and sometimes led Rodgers across the country in a special hangar car attached to a pilot train. Rodgers kept Taylor plenty busy and everybody else plenty worried; the Vin Fiz Flyer crashed at least 16 times on its way to California. 

Long before he completed the flight, Rodgers knew he was going to miss the 30-day deadline for the cash prize, but he wanted the distinction of being the person to make a cross-country flight, with or without a payday, to show that it could be done and, perhaps, to make a name for himself in the process. 

Rodgers flew to Texas at the behest of Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter, and the Vin Fiz Flyer entered Texas air space on Oct. 17, 1911. The plane had no compass and Rodgers had no map, so he basically pointed the plane west and followed railroad tracks across the country. Soon after he flew into Texas, he began following the wrong tracks. Seventy miles later he realized his mistake and turned around in time to delight a large, cheering crowd in Fort Worth. An even larger crowd at the State Fair of Dallas greeted him the next day. 

“Amid tumultuous applause from an eager crowd of 75,000 persons, Cal P. Rodgers, sea-to-sea aviator, glided gracefully down the infield of the State Fair racetrack at 1:50 p.m.,” the Dallas Morning News reported. “After hovering over the fairgrounds for 15 minutes in the most thrilling exhibition of aerial navigation ever seen here, he headed his biplane south and started again on his long journey to the Pacific Ocean.” 

It took Rodgers two weeks and at least 23 stops to fly across Texas. Near Kyle, between Austin and San Antonio, a piston crystallized. In Spofford, his propeller struck the ground as he was taking off and resulted in major damage and another long delay. Other stops in Texas, both scheduled and unscheduled, included Austin, San Antonio, Denison, Gainesville, San Marcos, LaCoste, Sabinal, Uvalde, Del Rio, Alpine, Marfa, and El Paso. 

Forty-nine days after he started, on Nov. 5, 1911, Rodgers ceremoniously taxied the Vin Fiz Flyer into the Pacific Ocean, giving him the distinction of making America’s first coast-to-coast flight. Of the 49 days, or roughly 1,100 hours, 82 hours were spent in the air. The Vin Fiz Flyer arrived at its destination with only the rudder, engine drip pan, and a single strut remaining from the original plane. Rodgers arrived with his leg in a cast and a pair of crutches strapped to the side of the plane. But he arrived. 

Calbraith Rodgers died in an airplane crash— of course he did—in Long Beach, California, on April 3, 1912, a few hundred feet from where the Vin Fiz Flyer had completed its historic cross-country trip five months earlier. Rodgers was inducted posthumously into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1964. 

Mechanic Charles Taylor joined the hall posthumously a year later. The FAA’s “Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award” is named in his honor, and FAA mechanic certificates feature Taylor’s image. Cal Rodgers would be the first to tell you he never would have completed that historic flight without Taylor. He’d probably agree that he should also have taken along a doctor.

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