Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mystery History -- Solved

Liz wins with her guess "The first transcontinental airplane flight Calbraith CaliPerry Rodgers took from sheepshead Bay New York September 17 1911 landing at Tournament Park November 15 1911."

In the photo above, renowned aviator Calbraith Perry Rodgers takes off from Sheepshead Bay, New York (Long Island), on Sept. 17, 1911, in a contest to see who could complete the first transcontinental flight.

Here he is shortly before takeoff:

His destination: Pasadena, Calif.

This was neither an ordinary pilot nor an ordinary flight: Rodgers was a fearless risk-taker who didn't let anything stand in his way. In fact, you might call him the Chuck Yeager of his day.

In August 1911 he won the World's Grand Endurance Aviation Contest in Chicago, staying in the air for 27 hours over a period of nine days. (Back then, this was big! After all, it would be another 16 years before Charles Lindberg made his famous transatlantic flight.)

At about the same time William Randolph Hearst, in an effort to encourage aviation, put up $50,000 as a prize for the first pilot to fly a plane from coast to coast in less than 30 days, whether east to west or west to east.

Rodgers jumped at the chance! He would pilot a Wright Company Model EX, a single-seater biplane with a 32-foot wingspan and no windshield. It was a modified Model B designed for very short exhibition flights. Armour and Company stepped up as the sponsor; in return, Rodgers named his plane "Vin Fiz" in honor of Armour's newly launched grape soft drink.

When Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay, he carried the first transcontinental U.S. Mail pouch.

Remember, this was a plane designed for exhibition flights, not distance. He missed the deadline and landed in Pasadena on Nov. 5 (another pilot* had already won the prize).

During his transcontinental flight he used 1,230 gallons of gasoline, landed 69 times, had 15 accidents and lost 25 days due to weather and mechanical difficulties.

Actually, he was expected on Nov. 4. It's a safe bet that Mayor William Thum was among the guests at a special gathering that day in Tournament Park organized by D.M. Linnard, owner of the Maryland Hotel. While they waited for the aniticipated arrival, there was a contest between the Reds and Whites of the Pasadena Polo Club. Shortly after sunset, the dignitaries received word that Rodgers would not be able to fly in until the next day. Rain checks were distributed to the crowd before they left for the night. The next day, after word had spread far and wide of the impending landing, more than 20,000 people showed up!

Here's William Thum's portrait from the Hall of Mayors:

Excerpt from a telegraph received by the New York Times from Rodgers and printed on Nov. 6, 1911:

. . .I soon saw Pasadena in the distance, but went to the wrong end of town before discovering my proper landing place. . .I did a few spiral glides for [the crowd] and then made a nice landing at about 4:04 o’clock. They gave me a royal welcome, congratulating me on all sides. I was escorted to a waiting motor car and driven around the track a few times, and they made me stand up so every one could see me. They had enveloped me in the American flag and they made a great hullabaloo. There were at least 20,000 persons there. They are certainly the most hospitable people that I have met and I hope I will be able to stay at Pasadena for quite a while. . .

Here’s how the Pasadena Daily News described it:

Spiraling downward from dizzy heights above, the greatest aviator in the world, who by sheer force of will and nerves of steel, had accomplished the impossible, stepped out from among his frail fabric of wood, wires and canvas to be wrapped in the American flag by Mrs. R. D. Davis, wife of the president of the Board of Trade, and Miss Irene Grosse.

Thousands swarmed on the field to pay tribute to Rodgers. He was encompassed by battalions of the sweetest, fairest women in the land, the elite of all that is beautiful in Pasadena, conquered by a brave man and mighty pleased with the conqueror.

Never once during this charge of beauteous femininity did the nerve of the aviator desert him, although once or twice he manifested some concern at the intentions of the sea of faces before him. There was but one single escape, however, over the same path which brought him there, but his motor had gone dead and he evinced no desire to remount into a region made impossible of pursuit by the stern rule of Sir Isaac Newton. Hence he remained and stood the test with the same iron nerve that characterized his transcontinental voyage.

There was newspaper coverage galore, and even books were written about the flight:

Although Pasadena was the official terminus of the flight, Rodgers set off for Long Beach on Nov. 12 with the intention of dipping into the Pacific Ocean. But he crashed along the way, sustaining serious injuries that delayed his goal by a month. He was determined to finish what he started, so with his leg in a cast and his crutches tied to the plane, he took off again on Dec. 10 and landed safely after touching his wheels into the water.

On Jan. 1, 1912, the very first aircraft flew over the Rose Parade route twice, at 9:45 and 10:15 a.m. It was the Wright biplane piloted by Cal Rodgers, who dropped rose petals all along the way to excited throngs. The parade began at 10:45 a.m., followed by chariot races and football at Tournament Park.

Los Angeles Times -- Dec. 25, 1911:

...Instead of gazing into clear sky dotted only by fleecy clouds, the spectators will have an aeroplane crossing and recrossing their path and rose petals will rain down upon them.

...Aviator Rodgers is to make two flights in the forenoon before the parade. Each time he will fly from Tournament Park to a point over Orange Grove and back.

Cal Rodgers was one of a kind. Although he didn't win the prize for his transcontinental flight, he became a household name at the time and had more national recognition than the winning pilot -- then and now.

Four months after landing in Pasadena, he flew into a flock of birds near Long Beach and crashed into the ocean. He did not survive the impact. It was the 22nd fatality in American airplane history.

This courageous aviation pioneeer was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1964.

On May 21 I posted about another aviation feat at Tournament Park. The park is privately owned.

More about the "Vin Fiz" here.

* Eight pilots entered the competition but only two -- Cal Rodgers and Robert G. Fowler -- successfully made it from coast to coast. Fowler won the $50,000 for flying from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to Jacksonville, Florida, before the deadline.

Many thanks to Pasadena Public Library, Pasadena Museum of History, Tournament of Roses Association, National Aviation Hall of Fame and Florida Aviation Historical Society.


altadenahiker said...

Yea PA!

Ann, have you considered writing a book? All the mystery histories are fascinating but almost forgotten pieces of history.

Petrea said...

Not a bad idea, Hiker.

Woohoo, PA! Fantastic detective work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks you one and all!

I just can't make up my mind on what fabulous prize I should select. Hmm she said scratching her chin...the coffee cups or ceramic replica of city hall? I'm practically dizzy with choices.

Thank You Pasadena PIO from one living on your border

Jean Spitzer said...

Congratulations, PA! Enjoy your fabulous prize.

Cafe Pasadena said...

I wish de PA would confess that I told her the answer!

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