The Story of the Vin Fiz

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Wright Airplane Flights

California or Bust

The first transcontinental airplane flight across the U.S. is one of the most significant flights in aviation history. The flight, achieved in 1911, was eight years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the 32-year-old cigar smoking flamboyant pilot, was one of those single-minded people who does not give up until success is achieved. Rodgers had to make 70 landings and crashed at least 16 times. He survived an exploding engine, thunderstorms, souvenir hunters and an in-flight run-in with an eagle. His plane was almost completely rebuilt twice.

Rodgers is the grandson of Commodore Calbraith Perry, whose “gunboat diplomacy” opened Japan to the West in 1854. He became interested in making the flight after publisher William Randolph Hearst offered a prize of $50,000 to the first man to make a transcontinental flight in thirty days or less.

Preparation

In preparation for the flight, Rodgers attended the Wrights’ flying school held at Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio. The Wrights’ charged $60 an hour for a minimum of four hours of training. Rodgers was a fast learner and soloed after only 90 minutes of training.

The airplane he would fly was assembled by hand at the Wrights’ factory in Dayton. The spruce and wire biplane didn’t look too much different than the original Wright Flyer that first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903. It was powered by a Wright 35 horsepower single-speed four-cylinder engine and had a fifteen gallon gas tank that could provide for a 3 1/2 hour flight time.

The airplane was given the designation Model EX which meant it was a single-seat exhibition model version of a 1911 Wright B. The Wrights sold the airplane to Rodgers for $5,000. The price included some spare parts.

Rodgers secured the Armour Company of Chicago as sponsor for the trip in return for promotion of their new grape flavored soft drink called “Vin Fiz.” The airplane was christened with a bottle of the drink and the letters Vin Fiz were prominently displayed on its wings and tail. A bottle of the drink was strapped to the frame of the plane. As the plane flew over major cities, people would look up and see the Vin Fiz logo, which may have been the birth of aerial advertising. Rodgers would earn $3 to $5 for every mile flown.

The Flight

Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay, Long Island on September 17, 1911. Since there were no navigational aids for the flight at the time, his plan was to follow railroad tracks as much as possible. Using Railroad tracks for navigation had its problems. At one switching point he followed the wrong tracks and ended up in Scranton, Pa., rather than Elmira, NY.

There were no landing fields along the way. The primitive fields he had to land on were the principle cause of his accidents.

A three-car special train was outfitted with spare parts, engines and mechanics. Rodger’s wife and mother were aboard following him along his trip that would take him to Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, Tucson and Phoenix on the way to heir final destination, Pasadena, California.

Charlie Taylor, the Wrights’ chief mechanic, was given a leave of absence by the Wrights to care for the plane and make repairs after every mishap. It would turn out to be a prescience decision.

The first leg of the flight to Middletown, N.Y. went well. The next morning, however, on takeoff, the rudder caught on a tree. Rodgers crashed into a chicken coup. He emerged with a cut on his head, but otherwise was unhurt.

That crash was a precursor of more to come. By the time Rodgers reached Pasadena on November 5, he had crashed so often that the only original parts of the airplane remaining were the vertical rudder and two wing struts. Replacements included 18 wing panels, twenty skids and two engines.

At Pasadena, 15,000 people awaited him at Tournament Park. Rodgers spiraled in to a soft landing on the polo field and was mobbed by the crowd.

He had flown 4,321 miles in 82 hours and 2 minutes of flying time. His average speed was 52 mph. Unfortunately, he failed to win the $50,000 Hearst prize because he took longer than 30 days to make the crossing. However, he did earn $20,000 from the Armour Company for the miles covered.

Persistence is Rewarded

Rodgers was not discouraged. In fact he was determined to go on to the ocean. On November 12 he took off from Pasadena but ran into trouble when he banked to avoid high-tension wires, lost altitude and crashed into marshy ground a dozen miles from Long Beach. He suffered two sprained ankles, a twisted back and a concussion.

Undeterred, a month later, with the plane repaired and himself on crutches, Rodgers flew to the beach and taxied the wheels of the Vin Fiz into the Pacific Ocean. It had been 84 days since he started his famous journey.

Tragedy Strikes

Rodgers was killed in an accident less than a year later on April 3, 1912. He was testing the engine that was giving him trouble when he swerved to miss a flock of sea gulls, hit one and plunged into the surf some 500 feet from the spot where he had landed in triumph five months earlier. The engine broke lose in the impact and struck Rodgers, breaking his neck.

A bronze plaque memorializing Rodger’s feat can be seen in the small remnant of Tournament Park off South Wilson Ave. in Pasadena. A reconstructed Vin Fiz now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Vin Fiz soft Drink to be Resurrected

A New Hampshire firm, Imagination Counts, owned by David Hallmark, plans to introduce the soft drink. The new soda is being manufactured by the Conner Bottling Co. in Newfields, NH and is targeted for niche mom-and-pop stores at $1.50 a bottle. The recipe calls for pure cane sugar instead of the original high fructose for the mild grape soda.

David Hallmark got the idea to reintroduce the soda when he planned to introduce a new educational board game involving Cal Rodgers. David feels that the story of the airplane and the soft drink are intertwined.

During his research for the game he discovered that the Vin Fiz trademark was available. That led to Hallmark contacting E.P. Stein who had written a book about the Vin Fiz in 1948, which in turn led to an agreement for Hallmark to use exclusive excerpts from Stein’s book in his board game.

Even New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch has gotten involved in the project by declaring January 12, Vin Fiz Day, in honor of Rodgers who was born January 12, 1879.

Hallmark expects his soft drink will receive more exposure during the 100th anniversary of the flight of the Vin Fiz in 2011, when a documentary film recreate the flight – “with a bottle strapped to it

One of my prized possessions is a 2-inch square swatch of original Vin Fiz wing fabric.

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