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