The Vin Fiz Story and the Local Connection – Sept. 1911



As presented by John Babbitt

VIn FIZ Smithsonian

Wood and fabric biplane. Single 35-horsepower Wright vertical four-cylinder engine driving two pusher propellers via sprocket-and-chain transmission. Smaller, experimental version of the standard 1910-12 Wright Model B airplane. Artist Wright Company. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The story of the Vin Fiz, the first coast-to-coast air flight which took place in 1911 and made a surprise landing in this area was told by John Babbitt at our November meeting.

“The abrupt visit of Cal Rodgers to the Canisteo Valley on September 23, 1911, made a huge impact on its citizens,” John said. We were once told by the late Jim Thomas that his dad, Getchell Thomas, one of Almond’s long-gone old-timers, witnessed the crash.
A shortened version of the story, found on Wikipedia, states: “Less than eight years after Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful 852-foot North Carolina flight, Calbraith Perry Rodgers entered a contest by William Randolph Hearst who offered a $50,000 prize to the first aviator to fly coast to coast in less than 30 days start to finish. The first private citizen to buy a Wright Model B airplane, Rodgers named the plane after Armour Company’s new grape soft drink Vin Fiz, whom he had persuaded to sponsor his flight. Rodgers had taken about 90 minutes of instructions from Orville Wright before soloing. The flight began at 4:30 pm, September 17, 1911, when Rodgers took off from the Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn, New York. Although the plan called for a large number of stops along the way, in the end there were 75, including 12 crashes, and Rodgers was injured several times.”

John’s extensive story is found in the Kanestio Historical Society Times: “The Vin Fiz carried no directional instruments, navigating by following railroad tracks. His first leg that day ended at Middletown NY, a 104-mile trip taking nearly 520 hours. The takeoff the second day was made in a strong wind. As the Vin Fiz lifted off, a wing struck a tree, and Cal crashed into a chicken coop. The only parts undamaged were the radiator and one of the gas tanks. Cal suffered a scalp cut. The mechanics went to work at once, and after two days the Vin Fiz was again ready to fly.

Five days later: “September 22 he circled Stow Park in Binghamton and flew on to Elmira where he landed for the night. Reaching Cameron the next morning word flashed to the Canisteo Times. As he approached Canisteo on Saturday the 23rd, the aircraft developed trouble and Rodgers was forced to land on the Flint Farm between Canisteo and Hornell instead of the Hornell Fairgrounds where almost 4000 spectators had gathered.

“News of his rough landing spread like wildfire among the communities by telegraph, horseback and even noon whistles. Scores of school kids raced to the site for autographs. Mechanics traveling in the railroad car took the Hornell Canisteo Electric Railway into Canisteo looking for help. The Vin Fiz was hitched to a team of horses and towed to Alfred Slawson’s Carriage and Blacksmith Shop at the corner of Maple and Sixth Streets in Canisteo. Twelve employees worked through the night to get the Vin Fiz ready for a next day flight. While waiting for repairs, Cal spent the night at the Sherwood Hotel.” (Further details of the local connection of this interesting, historic flight is detailed in the book, Flight of the Vin Fiz by E. P. Stein.)

Although Cal did not make the 30-day challenge, he did complete the trip. John tells: “On November 5, 1911 more than 20,000 persons jammed into Tournament Park in Pasadena, California, waiting for Cal to arrive. The Vin Fiz responded and climbed once more into the sky. Then the engine failed and the worn-out machine plunged 100 feet to the ground. In the crash, Cal broke both legs and his collarbone, along with several ribs. But still he would not give up. Cal didn’t feel his journey was complete until he reached the ocean.

“A month later, Cal again tried and this time his dream was fulfilled. On December 10, 1911, the Vin Fiz landed on the beach off Long Beach, CA. He taxied down and let the salty waves of the Pacific wash over the wheels of the little plane that had first crossed the US. The crowd gathered on the beach and applauded the man who walked on crutches with his legs in casts. He had realized his dream.

“Cal’s actual flying time was 82 hours and two minutes. Bad weather, frequent accidents and nightfall were the challenges of the flight, with an average flying speed of 51 mph. Cal had fallen out of the aircraft 15 times during his crashes and all that remained of the original Vin Fiz was the vertical rudder and the engine drip pan,” John told.

Sadly, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, descendant of a host of distinguished military figures and described in the book by his “indomitable spirit and the ever-present cigar,” met a sudden, sad death: “The next spring, April 3, 1912, Cal took off from Long Beach, CA, for an exhibition flight. His aircraft hit a flock of sea gulls and he plunged out of control into the Pacific His neck was broken, and Cal died a few minutes later just a few hundred feet from where the Vin Fiz had made aviation history.”

To complement John’s presentation, Carl Leathersich created a delightful Vin Fiz display in the Linn Phelan gallery. Refreshments, served by Jan Leathersich and Cindy Banker, featured cookies and Vin Fiz punch, complete with replicas of the beverage bottle.