William Randolph Hearst was fascinated with planes – and ways to generate publicity for his publishing empire. In October 1910 Hearst had proposed a contest for a transcontinental flight. The first person to fly across the country in 30 days or fewer would win $50,000. On Sept. 17, 1911 (the contest and its prize was good for one year) C.P. Rodgers took off from New York as the third (and final, as it turned out) starter in Hearst's air race. The takeoff was briefly mentioned in The Aegis at the end of its "An Airman's Visit" article.
Rodgers had secured a sponsorship with Armour, a company known for its hot dogs and meat products, but had also recently developed a carbonated grape drink they were trying to promote. Rodgers in return named his plane after the drink — the Vin Fiz.
Since there were no airports to refuel or receive maintenance from at the time, Rodgers followed a special train with a baggage car and a passenger coach as he flew across the country. Inside the baggage car was a replacement plane, a Wright Model B, and spare parts and other equipment. Charles Taylor, the Wrights' bicycle mechanic who also worked on their planes, rode in the coach, as did Rodgers' wife, Mabel, and his mother.
"The industrial age was colliding with the natural world," Ianniello explained. "Horses were being replaced by machines." The Vin Fiz flew over people on bicycles,horses and trains. Those people could see the future of travel and transportation overhead, even if they didn't believe it.
For 48 days Rodgers flew through intense wind, thunderstorms and crashed or broke plane parts more than 15 times, also breaking several bones as he continued his journey. Flying the plane required both arms and both legs, and Rodgers persisted through pain and severe weather.
In its Nov. 17, 1911 issue, The Aegis reported: "Mr. Calbreath P. Rodgers(sic), who was born in the Rodgers Homestead at Zion Hill, near Havre de Grace, left Sheepshead Bay, N.Y, on September 17th, in an aerial flight from Atlantic to Pacific Coast, and landed at Tournament Park, Pasadena, Sunday afternoon, November 4th. It took him 82 hours and 4 minutes of actual flying time to cover 4,231 miles, about 51 1/2 miles and hour, although he was 49 days reaching his destination. On Monday, Aviator Rodgers fell about 127 feet in a field of plowed ground at Compton between Pasadena and Long Beach when he was to circle over the Pacific. His injuries are not considered serious."
In addition to spelling Rodgers' first name incorrectly, the article misstated his place of birth. The information about the flight is accurate, however, based on statistics that can be found in the appendix of Stein's book. The book notes that Rodgers was met by thousands of people when he landed in Pasadena and upward of 50,000 were awaiting his arrival in Long Beach when he crashed.
After a month of recuperating from his injuries and with plaster casts still on his broken ankles, Rodgers took the air again and, flying a plane that was literally rebuilt from scratch during the convalescence, he finally arrived in Long Beach, Calif., on Dec. 10, flying over the Pacific before landing in front of a huge crowd, according to the Stein book.
He didn't win the $50,000 prize, but he did become the first person to fly across the transcontinental United States. He was the only pilot in the Hearst race to reach the Pacific coast.
An American hero
When Rodgers landed he was lauded as an American hero. A reporter asked why he attempted to do something that had never been done before and he said, "Because everything else I've done before was not important."
"How many people in their lives feel that way?" Ianniello asked.
It was the Rodgers family's and Havre de Grace's rich history with aviation that touched Ianniello when he was researching names for his wines, wanting to tell a story about the vineyard's history and community with each bottle.
Ianniello said he was researching Havre de Grace's history one Friday night and he stumbled upon C.P. Rodgers Jr.. The Vin Fiz Flyer story has long stuck with him.
"What was fascinating to me was he was the pilot of a plane called the Vin Fiz (vitis vinifera being the most common grape used in wine and fiz meaning carbonated). Here I am making wine in Havre de Grace and C.P.'s family used to own Mt. Felix and properties in Havre de Grace, and here's a plane named after grapes. I was blown away," Ianniello said.
"This story was reaching out from history, wanting me to tell the story," said Ianniello, who named one of his wines after the Vin Fiz.
"This guy keeps pushing himself," Ianniello said about C. P. Rodgers. "It's the most enduring test a person can be put through."
He said that it felt like he was "touching history" when he uncovered Rodgers' past with Havre de Grace.
(There's also an irony to this story. In 1956, an attempt was made to put an airstrip on the very fields of Ianniello's future home, Mt. Felix, where the Rodgers cousin had landed his plane 50 years earlier. A county judge overruled the zoning board's earlier approval, however, saying the airstrip would be incompatible with the neighborhood.)
The feat endures
Three months after the coast-to-coast flight of the Vin Fiz, C.P. Rodgers, 33, died in Long Beach, Calif., near where he had first landed, when he crashed his other plane, the Wright Model B, into the Pacific in front of some 7,000 people who had gathered to watch him do aerial maneuvers. (The coast-to-coast "Flyer" had suffered so much damage on the trip west, it was considered no longer airworthy.)
There are disputed accounts that a sea gull became lodged in the plane's control wires and caused the crash. Rodgers was buried in Pittsburgh. According to the Stein book, his 6-foot high monument contains the words: "I conquer. I endure."
A replica of the Vin Fiz hangs in the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum, with a piece of fabric from the original wing decorated with the soda's grape logo that mechanic Charles Taylor stenciled.
Ianniello repeatedly stressed that Rodgers, unsuitable for the military because of his partial deafness, was finally able to do justice to his family's legacy and overcome physical and emotional obstacles during his history making flight.
"It's a flight that all of us have to overcome in all parts of our lives," he said.
Aegis Managing Editor Allan Vought contributed to this article.