The Flight of the Vin Fiz
The Vin Fiz Flyer, pictured in an open field just east of the Terrell County Court House and Jail, on October 30, 1911, as it tries
to depart from Sanderson after a two-day stay. The first attempt at take-off was not successful.
Being situated on the railroad has always been a bonus for Sanderson. Beyond the obvious economic benefits of being a terminal
and division point with the many citizens employed by the railroad, there were added benefits. For one thing the railroad brought
merchandise and travel opportunities unavailable to non-railroad communities, and such delights as circuses, carnivals and opportunities
to see people and objects of national importance, including the Liberty Bell and presidential whistlestop tours.
One of those important
events in the life of the country was the first successful transcontinental "aeroplane" flight in 1911. Following the railroad
because of a lack of navigation equipment, Calbraith Rodgers, great grandson of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry who sailed into
Tokyo harbor bringing western civilization to Japan in the 1850s, flew a tiny Wright "EX" flyer from Sheepshead Bay, Long Island,
to Long Beach, California. His object was to dramatically roll to a stop in the tide waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Cal Rodgers in the 'cockpit' of the Vin Fiz. ***
Rodgers accomplished his goal, but not without much trial and tribulation. He suffered so many mishaps and crash landings that
the only original parts of the Wright flyer (christened the Vin Fiz after his sponsor's soda) that arrived with him was the vertical
rudder, engine drip pan and one strut, to which had been tied a bottle of his sponsor's product.
Rodgers received his training from the Wright Brothers themselves at their flight school near Dayton, Ohio, and soloed in only 90
minutes! As he began to rack up awards and records for his flying expertise and daring acts, he was attracted to a competition
being sponsored by the
Cal Rodgers in the Vin Fiz, landing on the shore at Long Beach, California. **
Vin Fiz poster celebrating the historic transcontinental flight. ***
The Vin Fiz itself was a diminutive version of the original Kitty Hawk flyer, actually the smallest of three versions being offered
by the Wright Brothers. With a wingspan of 32 feet and total length of 21 feet, it was powered by a 35-horsepower Wright 4-cylinder
engine, driving two pusher propellers and with enough fuel to give 3.5 hours of sustained flight. Weighing a total of 903 pounds
with the pilot, it could maintain 55 miles per hour, with no headwinds. He could cruise at 1,500 feet altitude with this
Leaving Sheepshead Bay on September 17, 1911, he flew up over Manhattan, found the Erie Railroad tracks and his special train,
and flew to Middletown, NY, a total of 84 miles in 105 minutes. The flight path went from New York to Chicago to Kansas City
to Texas, then, following the Southern Pacific Railroad, on to California. The second day he crashed on takeoff and spent 3
days making repairs. That was to set the pattern for the whole trip... takeoff... crash... repairs... takeoff again. Or,
land... crash... repairs... takeoff... land... crash. In about 70 landings he had 15 serious crashes and an untold number of
less severe but time consuming mishaps.
But he pushed on and eventually completed the course ... in 49 days, landing at
Pasadena on November 5, 1911 but disqualifying him for the Hearst prize with its 30-day requirement. Severely injuring himself
in a crash on the final landing, he went on to land at Long Beach a month later to finish his goal of landing on the beach.
However, taking away all the time spent for repairs and delays, his actual in-air flight time was 82 hours and 4 minutes for a journey
of 4,321 miles. His average flight speed was a breezy 51.6 miles per hour.
Cal Rodgers predicted that in the future there would be aircraft carrying passengers that would make the transcontinental trip in
three days, but he would not live long enough to see it. On April 12, 1912, in another Wright aeroplane, Rodgers crashed
into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach when a sea gull collided with the plane and tangled the controls. He was rescued immediately,
but he died of a broken neck. The original Vin Fiz was destroyed long ago (only three parts were original after the flight)
but an accurate reproduction sits in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum,
located in the National Mall Building in Washington, DC.
Accurate replica of the Vin Fiz located at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. *
Four-cylinder engine of the Vin Fiz. *
Crash scene at Middletown, NY. **
Vin Fiz - Sanderson Connection ~ 1911
The arrival of the Vin Fiz in Sanderson was preceded by a short stop in Dryden on October
26, 1911. Landing in front of the Court House in Sanderson later that day, the plan was to visit awhile and continue the journey,
but high west winds prevented his take off for two days. (Downie, p152)
Eyewitness Carol Morris Glover remarked that when Rodgers landed he was so deaf from the motor and wind that he had to communicate
using a little black notebook and a stub of a pencil. (Downie, p551)
The large crowd in Sanderson was excited at their first sight
of an aircraft. They were thrilled to be allowed to add their autograph to the wing, accompanied by the large "Vin Fiz" sign
on the bottom of the lower wing of the pioneer bi-wing aircraft. They were also intrigued by his support train, which consisted
of six baggage cars and coaches. The "hangar" car was painted white and adorned with Vin Fiz advertisements and signage.
The train carried spare parts, ground crew and his wife and mother along with two, complete replacement aeroplanes, two engines,
a Palmer-Singer touring car, three mechanics, a complete machine shop, representatives of the Armour Company, and invited press corp.
And indicative of his whole trip, he also carried a very complete first aid center. (Downie, p153-154)
The Vin Fiz, ready for take-off from a vacant spot just east of the Terrell Court House and Jail, Oct. 30, 1911. The location
is presently just south of the corner of Mansfield and 2nd Street, across from the Terrell County Museum, before houses were
built on that corner.
On October 28 the winds settled and Rodgers attempted to take off from a spot just northeast of the Court House, but, as had happened
so many times on this trip, he scraped a yard fence with his wing and had to set back down. Remember that the Vin Fiz was nothing but
a pile of spruce, wire and cloth and was easily damaged. After replacing a damaged wing panel he took off again,
successfully, and headed to Alpine for his next stop. So ended Sanderson's first glimpse of manned flight. (Downie, p153-154)
Hangar car of the Vin Fiz, containing two complete flyers , a car and a machine shop for repairs. *
In 1919 the Army would move a detachment of Cavalry to Sanderson to protect against Pancho Villa's incursions onto U.S. soil, along
with the 90th Aero Squadron, Flight B, from Eagle Pass. Nine DH-6 De Haviland bombers made daily patrols from the Devils River
to Lajitas, following the Rio Grande. With other flights the whole US-Mexico border was covered each day. (Downie, p181)
Replacing a wing panel damaged when the Vin Fiz first attempted to take off from Sanderson and snagged a fence.
Hearst newspapers offering $50,000 to the pilot who could fly from coast to coast in only 30 days. He found a sponsor in the
Armour Company of Chicago, which was promoting a new soft drink called Vin Fiz. He would receive $5 for every mile flown in
his plane, which would be prominently lettered for their beverage.