IN recent months there have been complaint collections about the ineptitude of airlines in America. There is great reason for prevailing calm, because 77 years ago, flying across America took a lot of Kentucky windage and Tennessee elevation. In 1911, publisher William Randolph Hearst would pay $50,000 to anyone who could fly a plane across America in 30 days. From the ranks came a challenger, a stocky, stubborn, enduring individual, Calbreath P. Rodgers. During the early days of powered flight the ``Birdmen,'' as the press called them, wanted to show the public what airplanes could do. They saw that, but they also saw what airplanes could not do.
Mr. Rodgers was committed, but he needed a financial backer. There was a soft drink company named Vin Fiz which agreed to sponsor him. Encouraged by his new fortune, Rodgers called his Wright biplane the Vin Fiz.
Transcontinental was a flowery description of Rodgers's flight. The trek was an enormous zigzag pattern. From New York City he went along the Pennsylvania border, through the center of Ohio. He skirted the top of Indiana to Chicago. Through the center of Illinois he went to the Kansas-Missouri border. Then it was steadily southward until San Antonio. Then he skimmed the lower portions of New Mexico and Arizona to Long Beach, Calif.
Rodgers expected that he might have a little mechanical trouble with his airplane, so he had a freight train follow his complete route. The train held enough parts to build another airplane. This was exactly what he would need. Because of engine error, weather error, control error, or pilot error, Rodgers and his flying machine were involved in 15 forced landings in very out-of-the-way places. Each rough descent would break the airplane apart. His Wright biplane was little more than a giant box kite with an engine and tail.
The freight train had to stop, the parts had to be unloaded, the team of mechanics worked hour upon hour to either repair or rebuild the flying machine wherever it happened to falter. Rodgers would get himself patched up, wait for the plane to be ready, then put on his turtleneck sweater, two jackets, and golf cap, climb back into the pilot's seat, and take to the air again.
With the misfortunes Rodgers had, the plane should have been called ``The Vin Fizzle.'' The airplane had to be completely rebuilt four times, in four different locations. There was one original strut that did not get broken in the 3,000-mile trip. But he was determined to get his airplane to California, no matter how many trainloads of parts it would require.
Hearst managed to keep his $50,000. The flight had to be completed in 30 days. From New York City, it took Calbreath Rodgers 82 days to get to Long Beach. He landed there in front of a small group of cheering spectators, wearing a plaster cast on his leg.
Some people get to be heroes even if they don't win. Rodgers's 82-day, hop-and-crunch journey across America covered 63 cities. He got to shake a lot of hands, and was honored for his fortitude.
The flight of the Vin Fiz was not a graceful sail into the record books, but Calbreath Rodgers's place in American and aviation history remains ``awkwardly secure.''