The Tale of the Vin Fiz
The Hearst Prize

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t's important because everything else I've done is unimportant," was a nice sound bite, but it wasn't the whole story. Cal Rodgers was in Long Island preparing to fly across America because of William Randolf Hearst. In October of 1910 Hearst, the owner and publisher of the largest chain of newspapers and magazines in the world, sought to further the cause of aviation and boost the circulation of his newspapers (not necessarily in that order). He offered $50,000 to the first aviator to cross the United States in an airplane in under 30 days. Experts had warned him that because aviation was in its infancy and the primitive airplanes were fragile and unreliable, this was an absurd notion that would bring nothing but ridicule. Hearst ignored them and went forward with the offer. He was lauded for his vision and genius, and was awarded a medal from the Aeronautical Society of America.

Several aviators announced their intentions to try for the prize, but only three made it to the starting line — Robert Fowler, Jimmy Ward, and Calbraith Perry Rodgers. Of these, Cal Rodgers was the last off the mark, leaving Sheepshead Bay on Long Island, New York late in the afternoon of 17 September 1911,  just a few weeks before the Hearst offer was due to expire.

The Hearst prize, if Cal won it, would only partially pay for the trip. Rodgers not only needed an airplane but whole support crew to follow him across America. That crew chased him in a private train leased by Cal. The train included a passenger car and a "hangar car" that carried Cal's Wright Model B,  an automobile, and enough spare parts to completely rebuild the Vin Fiz.

To finance this adventure, Stewart DeKrafft  secured financial backing from the Armour Meat-Packing Company. They agreed to pay Cal $5 for every mile he flew east of the Mississippi River and $4 for every mile west of the river, where the land was less populated. They planned to use the publicity generated by the transcontinental flight to promote a new grape-flavored soft drink, "Vin Fiz."  Consequently, Cal's aircraft was christened the Vin Fiz and the chase train became the Vin Fiz Special. Armour painted the Vin Fiz logo everywhere, including the underside of the aircraft wings. Cal even lashed a bottle of Vin Fiz to a front strut. Privately, he called the airplane "Betsy" and regarded the bottle as a powerful totem.

For additional income, Cal planned to do exhibition flights wherever Dekrafft could make the arrangements enroute. He would also take passengers aloft for a fee in his Model B. Even Cal's wife, Mabel Graves Rodgers, contributed to the cause by arranging a semi-official airmail service with the U.S. Post Office and selling Vin Fiz postcards and stamps.

And so, flush with aircraft parts, chase vehicles, prospects and possibilities, Cal Rodgers had his mechanics swing the props and started the engine of the Vin Fiz. He let the engine warm for a few moments, stuck his cigar in his mouth, and took off across America.

William Randolf Hearst. During a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst spawned "yellow journalism" sensational stories that stretched the truth.

he Vin Fiz Special carried enough spare parts aboard a special "hangar car" to build a second Wright Model EX. Rodgers needed almost every single one.

A bottle Vin Fiz syrup, used by soda fountains to make Vin Fiz soda. One newspaper along the route reviewed the drink and pronounced it "a fine blend of river water and horse slop."

As he flew, Cal Rodgers dutifully scattered 3" by 4" bright yellow advertising leaflets to the crowds that gathered to watch him.

Cal Rodgers (middle) with Vin Fiz Bottling Co. President Charles Davidson (right) at the initial take-off ceremonies.

Publisher Hearst flies at the San Diego Air Meet in 1910 after pilot Louis Paulhan invited him to "buss the clouds."

Pilot Cal Rodgers and promoter Stewart Dekrafft beside the Vin Fiz.

The hangar car also carried a Palmer-Singer automobile. Whenever Cal would go down, the train would stop and the crew would unload the auto to look for him.

Although his crew  agreed "you had to sneak up on the stuff to get it down," Cal flew with a bottle of Vin Fiz (circled) and regarded it as a good luck charm.

The Vin Fiz postcard and semi-official air mail stamp.

The Vin Fiz takes off from Sheepshead Bay, New York on 17 September 1911.

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