Vin Fitz Smashes into Chicken Coop

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Wright Airplane Flights

You may have seen old movies of stunt aviators that end up crashing into a chicken Coop.

It actually happened to Cal Rodgers, a 32-year-old-cigar smoking flamboyant pilot taught to fly by the Wright brothers. He was flying the second leg of the Randolph Hearst Transcontinental Race which offered a $50,000 prize to the first man to fly across the country in thirty days or less.

Cal started the race taking off from Sheepshead Bay, NY on Sept. 17, 1911 at 6:20 a.m. on the 105-mile trip to Middletown NY. His airplane was the Wright Model EX, which was a modification of the 1910 Wright Model B.

By 6 o’clock in the evening after an uneventful flight, he was in sight of the Academy Avenue Pleasure Grounds on the outskirts of Middletown where he was to land. But there was an unexpected problem. Some 9,000 spectators covered the area of the field where he was supposed to land.

After several attempts to land, the police were finally able to clear about 200 feet in which he could land. Cal said he made a good landing: “It didn’t even knock the ashes off my cigar.”

The plan was to leave the next day for Callicoon, Binghamton, Elmira and Hornell where fuel had been propositioned.

About 300 spectators had gathered early the next morning at the Pleasure Grounds to see Cal off.

It was cold that morning (low 40s) and Cal dressed with knee-high leggings and placed sheets of newspaper between his shirt and coat. He was still cold and shivered and stomped his feet to improve circulation.

Frank Shaffer, one of the mechanics, tested the engine and pronounced it ready to go. The crew then pushed the machine toward the lower end of the field and faced it northward. Cal climbed into his seat; two aids pulled through the propellers. Cal stuck a cigar into his mouth, lit it, and shouted, “Let her go, boys.”

The machine bounced along the ground for about 150 feet, lifted off, and barely cleared a four-foot high wall surrounding the grounds. As the machine rose in the air, it barely make it through two trees as the wing tips hit leaves and twigs on both sides.

Cal frantically pulled on the elevator-control lever and rose to a height of about forty feet, but looming before him next was telegraph wire. He tried to dip the biplane and gain momentum upward, but it didn’t work. As he passed over a hickory tree in the rear yard of a farmhouse, the machine caught its rudder on the upper limb of the tree and was deflected off course. Cal’s operation of the control levers had little effect.

The machine dove and smashed into a chicken coop, killing several chickens and buried itself into the ground.

Cal was hurled from his seat and fell beneath the machine, its nose crumbled, its shredded tail upright, hung on the limb of a Hickory tree. The 196-pound engine tore loose from its mountings and caromed to one side, barely missing crushing Cal’s head.

Chickens feathers settled onto the ground for several seconds, while the three surviving hens squawked their outrage at the intrusion.

Mrs. John Heddy, the owner of the smashed chicken coop, demanded payment to cover her loss. She said that she had just left the spot for her porch a few steps away when the flying machine slammed down on the chicken coop. Her heart, she said, was still palpitating from the experience.

She was paid for all damages incurred.

Miraculously, Cal’s injuries were limited to a mild concussion and cuts and bruises.

The Vin Fiz bottle, which had be tied to a forward brace, also survived intact. Vin Fiz was a new grape flavored soft drink that provided Cal a promotion fee of $3 to $5 for every mile flown. The Vin Fiz logo was displayed on the wings and tail.

The bottle may have made it without breakage. The same cannot be said of the airplane. The airplane had to practically be rebuilt from scratch.

A message was telegraphed to the Wright factory in Dayton for a list of replacement parts expeditiously.

A request was also made for two experienced mechanics. Fortunately, Charles Taylor, the Wright brothers’ long time chief mechanic was granted a leave of absence to help out. Taylor was paid $10 per day to remain with the entourage on their trip as their chief mechanician. He did stay for most of the trip only leaving when his wife became seriously ill.

On September 21, all was ready for takeoff again. Taylor tested the engine and pronounced that it was ready. Cal mounted his seat, and as customary, lit a cigar. Fortunately, before taking any other action, he noticed that a portion of the gasoline line was missing. A hurried search found the piece and it was installed.

Then a new problem developed.

An official reviewing stand had been setup directly astride the takeoff line for the use of three judges to certify the time of take-off.

The propellers were spun and the machine began to move forward. The skids of the machine narrowly missed smashing into the reviewing stand. One judge dived six feet onto the fairground turf. The two others flattened themselves on the platform.

They did manage to record Cal’s departure as 2:20 p.m. without further incident.

Cal circled the city and dropped handfuls of Vin Fiz leaflets on the hundreds of spectators. Whistles from Middletown factories provided a farewell salute as Cal disappeared in the distance.

The crash into the chicken coop was a precursor of more accidents to come. By the time Cal 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.

He survived an exploding engine, thunderstorms, souvenir hunters and a run-in with an eagle. His plane was almost completely rebuilt twice. The principle cause of so many accidents was that he had to land on primitive fields.

He didn’t earn the 50,000 because he didn’t make the trip within 30 days, but he did earn $20,000 for his promotion of the Vin Fiz drink.

Reference: The Flight of the Vin Fiz by E. P. Stein.

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