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America's First Coast to Coast Flight Was Funded By a Grape Soda Company, Took Seven Weeks
One would assume all the significant moments in the pioneer days of American aviation are already well known, well remembered, and well celebrated. You know, the Wright Brother's first flight, the first airliner service, the first use of airplanes in combat, etc.

America's First Coast to Coast Flight Was Funded By a Grape Soda Company, Took Seven Weeks

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But clearly, since we had no idea of the existence of the Vin Fiz Flyer before happening upon this faithful replica at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York, not every landmark event from this period is well known. It's the first airplane to fly coast to coast across the United States. Albeit, not in one trip by a longshot, let's take a trip back 110 years or so to see what all the hype was about.

Back in the year 1911, mankind was only around eight or nine years removed from the very first heavier-than-air, powered manned flight. Consequentially, the Wright Brothers were still somewhat of a titanic power in the very early years post-Kitty Hawk. There was arguably only one man on the planet, Glenn H Curtiss, who had a hope of challenging their dominance.

Even then, Curtiss was too preoccupied building the finest  American motorcycles of the period at that time to take a serious shot at the Wright Brothers, at least in the short term. In the time shortly after Curtiss perfected the V-Twin motorcycle engine and his inevitable copyright spat with Wilbur and Orville, a multi-billionaire newspaper mogul, paper mill owner, and world-famous anti-cannabis crusader by the name of William Randolph Hurst issued a challenge to American aviators.

The premise was simple in theory. But thanks to the era's technological limitations, it was endlessly complicated. The goal was to become the first aircraft to fly coast to coast across the spine of the continental United States from Brooklyn, New York, to Pasadena, California, in less than 30 days. In 2022, you could hop in a private Cessna and bang out the same trip in a couple of days or even less. But back in 1911, it was a trip that took over a month.

No, seriously, it took that long. Museum staff at the Cradle of Aviation have a neat little trick where they ask patrons how long they estimate the journey the Vin Fizz Flyer's journey cross-country might have taken. Most would say anywhere from a couple of days to a week. To which staff will reply, "Seven......weeks." at which point, most people's jaws would just about hit the floor.

In any case, the absolute mad lad who took up Old Man Hearst on his offer was, ironically enough, one of the very first private American citizens to purchase an airplane built by Wilbur and Orville themselves, a seasoned rower, sailor, and occasional pilot trained personally by the Wright Brothers by the name of Calbraith Perry Rodgers.

Because sponsorships were as important to adventurous Early 20th century flights of fancy as a decent Formula One or NASCAR race, Hearst and Rodgers inked a deal with the J. Ogden Armour meatpacking company for a lucrative deal to paint the side of a Wright Model B/EX pusher-prop plane with an IP of its choosing.

The brand chosen was the grape soda soft drink, Vin Fizz. For those who aren't familiar, and that's no doubt most of you. Vin Fizz was something akin to what grape Crush or Grape Fanta is to U.S. soda drinkers today. Although when museum patrons ask the staff what it tasted like, they usually reply with something to the tune of "Probably not that great, because it was only around for a few years."

Whatever the case, Rodgers, along with a support train carrying spare parts, his wife, and his mother, departed the Sheepsheadbay Race Track in Brooklyn at 4:30 in the afternoon on September 7th, 1911. And so began a continual comedy of errors we're shocked hasn't been turned into a feature-length buddy comedy movie. Of course, there were dozens of stops planned for the journey. There was no way an airplane this primitive was going to make the journey in one sitting.

But even by those expectations, 75 stops, 16 of them being crashes, qualifies as certifiably bonkers. One would assume the average sane person would have gotten bored of crash landing after the seventh or eighth time around. Along for the ride on the support train was Wright's personal engine designer Charlie Taylor. It's said that by the time the journey was over, only a handful of the components were the same as they were at the beginning.

Not to mention one particularly hard crash that gave Cal Rodgers a massive concussion as well as spinal injuries. But there was money to be won, so the team pressed on as soon as he was out of the hospital. The only trouble was, by the time Rodgers landed in Pasadena in front of a crowd of 20,000 people with nothing better to do a century pre-Netflix, the team had missed William Hurts's deadline by a full 19 days. Not that anyone in the crowd minded. By some small miracle, the Vin Fizz Flyer and Calbraith Perry Rodgers were now in the history books, if not $50,000 richer.

Rodgers died shortly afterward in an air crash off the coast of the American Pacific Northwest. The Flyer itself now sits in the National Air and Space Museum, run by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. But if you want to get up close and personal with what the real thing would have looked like, this full-sized replica here at the Cradle of Aviation puts you right there in action.

There's even an actual Vin Fizz bottle from the early 1910s, complete with a few other of Rodger's personal effects on display. As if to make you crave a grape soda drink sitting in the museum's vending machine.

 
 
 
 
 

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