The Tale of the Vin Fiz
An Aristocracy of Heroes

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al was brought up to push the limits. He was born to the prestigious Rodgers and Perry clans, and could claim Commodores Matthew Calbraith Perry and Oliver Hazard Perry as his ancestors. On his father's side, there was a long list of admirals and vice admirals. The family boasted that there had always been a Rodgers serving in the U.S. Navy since its inception. Cal's mother Maria Chambers Rodgers Sweitzer described his ancestry as an "aristocracy of heroes." Unfortunately, a childhood bout with scarlet fever affected Cal's hearing, leaving him completely deaf in one ear and  severely impaired in the other. His deafness, in turn, made him unfit for military service. He seemed rudderless through most of his twenties, hunting for gold in Africa and racing motorcycles and automobiles in the States. In the spring of 1911, he traveled with his cousin Lieutenant John Rodgers to Dayton, Ohio where the Navy had posted John while he learned to fly. Cal's first sight of an aircraft at the Wright Flying School at old Huffman Prairie seemed to transform him. Said his wife Mabel, "It was as if the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle had slipped into place in his mind."

Cal Rodgers determined to get into the air and reported to the Wright Flying School on June 5, 1911. Within a week, his instructor Al Welsh was letting him take-off, fly, and land the airplane. When he asked to be allowed a solo flight, Welsh balked — Cal didn't yet have enough experience. So Cal bought the training airplane — a Wright Model B — and on June 12 he made a wobbly take-off and a hard landing, but he made them alone as pilot-in-command. He continued to hone his flying skills at Huffman Prairie for the rest of June, and flew his first exhibition flights in July. On August 7, 1911 he took his official flying examination at Huffman Prairie and became the forty-ninth aviator licensed to fly by the FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale).

Five days later, he was in Chicago for his first big air meet. He came in third in the prize money, winning over $11,000 for endurance flying. While he was there, he caught the eye of engineer/promoter Stewart DeKrafft. Dekrafft broached the idea of a flying across America with Cal, and the fledgling aviator agreed. On September 10, Cal purchased a Model EX from the Wright Company, a single seat aircraft designed for exhibition flying. Orville Wright gave his honest opinion of the endeavor at the sale. "There isn't a machine in existence that can be relied upon for 1,000 miles and here you want to go over 4,000. It will vibrate itself to death before you get to Chicago. But then," said Orville, referring to the EX's comparatively light weight, "six good men could carry it across the country."

So — a little over three months after he had learned to fly, Cal Rodgers and his Model EX were poised on a field in Long Island, New York, pointed west toward the Pacific Ocean with crowds cheering him on. When asked by a reporter why his transcontinental journey was so important, Cal replied, "It's important…because everything else I've done was unimportant."

Calbraith Perry Rodgers chain-smoked cigars, even as he flew.

Born to greatness -- as a young man Cal Rodgers (circled) played on the Mercerberg football team.

Tomfoolery at the Wright Flying School. Cal is seated at the extreme right, "grading" the balancing ability of the student on the cart.

The official program of the 1911 Chicago Air Meet.

The Wright Model EX (left) was considerably smaller and faster than the Model B (right).
Commodore Oliver "Don't give up the ship" Perry forced the surrender of an entire British naval squadron even after his own flagship was crippled by cannon fire. His grand-nephew Cal Rodgers apparently inherited this same determination.

A Wright Model B over the flying field at the Wright Flying School.

An aerial view of the Wright Flying School at Simms Station, near Dayton, Ohio.

Cal flying his Wright Model B over Lake Michigan during the Chicago Air Meet.

A replica of the Wright Model EX "Vin Fiz." Because of the inspiring story attached to it, this aircraft has been replicated more than any other Wright airplane.

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A History of the Airplane/The Tale of the Vin Fiz/Cal Rodgers Biography
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