Cal Rodgers’ Bizarre Flight Mostly Forgotten to Aviation History

Calbraith Perry Rodgers made the first transcontinental airplane flight in the Vin Fiz Flyer.

By Jim O’Neal

Before Ben Sliney made the decision to close all the airports in 2001 (see yesterday’s post), most aeronautical efforts were focused on inventing flying machines that would go faster and higher.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were brothers from Ohio who worked on printing presses, motors and bicycles. On Dec. 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, N.C., they made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft. Two years later they perfected controls to make fixed-wing powered flights feasible.

Less than eight years later, William Randolph Hearst offered a prize of $50,000 to the first flier to cross the United States between New York and Pasadena (going either way) within 30 days.

Three men actually tried. One was a race driver, another a jockey, but both failed. The third aspirant, a flamboyant, cigar-chomping showman named Calbraith Perry Rodgers, decided to try despite just learning how to fly. His only lesson was a 90-minute session with Orville Wright, but it was enough for him to receive the 49th license to fly.

By chance, the Armour Meat Co. had developed a soft drink called Vin Fiz that was wildly unsuccessful. In desperation, they hatched a marketing plan to sponsor Cal Rodgers’ flight and it was equally bizarre.

They named the plane Vin Fiz, plastered it with advertising signs and put an oversized bottle between the two wheels. Then they designed a special train to trundle beneath the plane’s flight, loaded with every possible spare part, and Cal’s wife!

Cal Rodgers

People all over the country would be exposed to the Vin Fiz brand.

One minor detail was that the offer had a one-year expiration clause and by the time all the preparations were complete, Cal only had 43 days to make the entire trip. Undaunted, on Sept. 17, 1911, Rodgers climbed aboard, shorted the magneto, pulled the choke cable, released the brake and took off. Within 10 minutes, the speck in the sky was gone from view.

In the end, he failed. He made it to Pasadena 19 days too late to win the prize money. However, he pressed on and dipped his wheels in the water at Long Beach, thereby becoming the first man to fly from one coast to the other in just 19 weeks. Thousands more would follow this true adventurer’s aerial footsteps, until Ben Sliney issued his famous order to all aircraft 90 years later. One opened the skies and the other closed them, yet neither are well known.

The Vin Fiz Flyer is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and 12 Vin Fiz 25-cent stamps are known to exist. One sold for $88,000 in 1999. The Vin Fiz grape drink finally fizzled out.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney Had a Good First Day on the Job

A copy of the Sept. 24, 2001, edition of Time magazine signed by President George W. Bush went to auction in August 2003.

By Jim O’Neal

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was at the Harbor Court Baltimore, a five-star hotel overlooking the spectacular harbor. I was recovering from prostate cancer surgery that, fortunately, had been performed by world-famous surgeon Dr. Patrick Walsh, head of urology at Johns Hopkins.

I was in an overstuffed rented recliner watching CNN when “Breaking News” started on the tragedy in New York City. The news started erratic and devolved into chaotic as the story expanded to cover the Pentagon, President Bush, a third plane, and an abundance of speculation. A fourth plane, United Flight 93, would crash just after 10 a.m. in Shanksville, Pa.

Then there were scattered reports that all domestic flights were being grounded.

This was the work of one man, Ben Sliney, National Operations Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration. Although an experienced veteran, Sept. 11 was his first day in this head job. At 9:45 a.m., Sliney issued an order of formidable implications. He had already forbidden any aircraft from taking off from any airport anywhere under his national jurisdiction. He had also already closed the Atlantic and Pacific approaches to the United States and transatlantic planes were diverting to alternatives.

But now, at 9:45, Sliney instructed that a seldom-heard procedure – SCATANA (Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigation Aids) – be broadcast to every one of nearly 5,000 commercial airplanes in the air. “This is not drill.” It required ALL aircraft to land IMMEDIATELY at the closest airport. By 11:20, an hour and 35 minutes later, every plane was down … somewhere … on North American ground.

Airports were crowded and millions were inconvenienced, but the intent was achieved. The American skies were empty, except a few jets on patrol, several planes of prisoners and deportees, and some organs en route for transplant. A small irony was that the machine that had done so much to bond the nation had now been employed by an enemy to do the opposite.

I would say Mr. Ben Sliney had a good first day on the new job.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].