On Oct. 10, 1910, nearly seven years after the Wright brothers' first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst offered $50,000 to the first person who could fly an airplane from coast to coast in 30 days or less. It was 11 months before anyone took Hearst up on what Orville Wright termed "a suicidal project." Of the three men who did, the only one to complete the journey had been flying for a mere three months. In fact, he had seen his first flying machine just five months before he took off from Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. on Sept. 17, 1911.
E.P. Stein's Flight of the Vin Fiz (Arbor House, $16.95) tells how Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the 32-year-old scion of a socially prominent family, met his destiny in the form of a Wright EX biplane. It was christened the Vin Fiz in honor of a grape soft drink whose producer, the Armour Meat-Packing Company, sponsored the venture. Though Rodgers didn't collect the prize money—after flying 4,231 miles he touched down in Long Beach, Calif. on Dec. 10, almost two months past the deadline—his feat was an extraordinary achievement. Wright later remarked, "That man was born with four horseshoes in his pocket."
As a matter of fact, the Vin Fiz was delivered to the airfield by a horse-drawn wagon. When Rodgers, attired in an Eton collar, silk tie and three-piece suit, took off, "Tens of thousands peered skyward from the streets and rooftops of Manhattan.... Beneath the Vin Fiz, much of the city came to a standstill, many describing the sight of the airplane as the most glorious their eyes had beheld."
Flying conditions in what was still virtually the horse-and-buggy era are hard to imagine today. There were no landing strips; often there was no fuel to be had when one did land. The 6'4" Rodgers perched on the bottom wing with his feet propped on a support bar, totally exposed to the elements. Next to him was the engine, behind him the two huge propellers. The plane was held together with piano wire and glue.
As Rodgers made his way across the country, generally following railroad tracks—and often getting lost—he caused a sensation. When the Vin Fiz flew over Nebo in Pike County, Ill., "Dr. R.R. Pollock abandoned the patient he was examining; the patient wobbled behind, pulling on his trousers. At the William Nevius Bank...tellers and bank officers rushed out, leaving the vault unlocked and money in the drawers." Everywhere, people asked in wonder, "How does it stay up?"
Actually, taking off and landing were the most dangerous aspects of flying, and Rodgers crash-landed 12 times. One of the accidents occurred just 12 miles from his destination and laid him up with injuries for 28 days. A support train had been organized to follow his route, carrying spare wings and other parts. Each time the Vin Fiz crashed, it was rebuilt, and Rodgers would take to the air again. But sometimes damage was sustained as a result of Rodgers's stubbornness and not deficiencies in the technology or the terrain. At a reservation where he'd made an emergency landing, there was a barbed-wire fence that the Indians thought might interfere with the takeoff, and one of them offered to remove it. Rodgers assured the Indian that he could clear it. He got into his plane and of course flew right smack into the fence, demolishing the Vin Fiz yet again. The Indian's comment: "Big bull head."
The Vin Fiz is packed with wonderful descriptions of flying, many of them Rodgers's own (including his hair-raising account of being lost in the middle of a thunderstorm), as well as vignettes of life in a U.S. that still had much of its innocence. Unfortunately, though, the book often reads a little like the flight of the Vin Fiz itself. It picks up speed on the ground and lifts off, but just when we're ready for the wild blue yonder, the engine sputters and we volplane into a bumpy field of unrelated details. At times, the author's failure to get beyond the facts he has diligently amassed leads to missed opportunities to paint a more penetrating portrait of Rodgers the man.
In spite of the book's weaknesses, Stein must be applauded for resurrecting the memory of this early aviator. After one of Rodgers's many near-fatal crashes, someone said, "Anything less than death we classify as a minor accident." If this is true, then Flight of the Vin Fiz is a terrific read fraught with minor accidents.