In 1910, William Randolph Hearst offered a prize of $50,000 for the first pilot to fly across the United States in 30 days or less. The Hearst Transcontinental Prize was one of many prizes offered by newspapers and other supporters of aviation achievement in the early days of flight. Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel in 1909 to win a prize offered by London's Daily Mail, and in later years the Orteig Prize inspired Charles Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Private pilot Calbraith ("Cal") Perry Rodgers was one of several pilots to attempt to win this prize, and the first to successfully fly coast to coast. Perry's family had a long history of service in the United States Navy, and his cousin John Rodgers was one of the first pilots in the US Navy's Aerial Corps. Cal Rodgers observed his cousin's flight in an early Wright airplane and subsequently trained with Orville Wright at the Wright Brothers' flying field in Ohio to earn his pilot certificate.
Rodger's airplane for the transcontinental journey was a Wright Model EX. The EX was a single-seat version of the Wright Model B Flyer modified to reduce drag and boost airspeed to 55 miles per hour, a breathtaking pace for 1911. The EX's additional airspeed proved popular with exhibition flyers and made it an ideal candidate for the Hearst Transcontinental Prize.
To support the cross-country mission, Rodgers secured sponsorship from food processing magnate J. Ogden Armour. Armour christened the aircraft Vin Fiz after a grape-flavored soda being introduced to his company's product line. The flight was planned with multiple stops across the country, a necessity given the airplane's limited range of scarcely over 100 miles. A crucial element of the flight plan was a dedicated train that would follow (or in some cases precede) Rodgers from stop to stop to refuel and service the aircraft and provide support to the pilot as needed.
Rodgers departed Sheepshead Bay, New York, on September 17th, 1911. Rodgers was followed by the train and its support crew, including the Wright Brothers' original mechanic, Charlie Taylor. Taylor had been hired on by Rodgers to maintain the EX during its long odyssey. 70 flights, seven weeks and over a dozen crash landings later, Rodgers arrived in Pasadena, California, on November 5th 1911, missing the deadline for the Hearst Transcontinental Prize by some 19 days. Most of the original structure of the Vin Fiz was repaired or replaced during the journey, and little of its material completed the full voyage from New York to California.
The first airplane flight across the United States officially ended five weeks (and one more nasty crash) later when Rodgers landed on the beach at Long Beach, California, and taxied the wheels of the Vin Fiz into the sea. Despite his failure to claim the Hearst Transcontinental Prize, Rodgers had flown a daunting route across twelve states and some 4,000 miles.
Parts that flew as part of the original Vin Fiz were reassembled into two different aircraft in the years following Cal Rodgers' death in 1912. One aircraft was destroyed in a fire while awaiting restoration, but the other was donated to the Carnegie Institution in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1917. This surviving aircraft was subsequently donated to the Smithsonian Institution, which displays it in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The Hiller Aviation Museum displays a full size replica of the Vin Fiz aircraft.
Wright Model EX "Vin Fiz"
| Wingspan: || 31' 6"|
| Length: || 21' 5"|
| Empty Weight: || 900 lbs|
| Maximum Gross Weight: || 1,250 lbs|
| Powerplant: || 1 4-cylinder Wright engine, 35 hp|
| Cruising Speed: || 40 mph|
| Maximum Speed: || 55 mph|
| Range: || 110 miles|