- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Sometimes, the tales just drop from the sky.
Mike Lentes, a pilot and aviation historian, shared this story about Austin’s brief role in very early aviation history.
“In 1911, Cal Rodgers decided to accept Randolph Hearst’s offer to pay $50,000 to the first person to fly coast-to-coast — an impossible dream back then,” Lentes wrote recently. “In short, Rodgers completed the flight with 12 crashes and 70 landings en route from New York to California. One of those landings was in Austin.”
On his website, aviationrelics.com, Lentes explains that Rodgers — tall for an early pilot at 6-foot, 4-inches — received only 90 minutes of instruction from the Wright Brothers in Dayton, Ohio, before taking up the cross-country challenge. His biplane was named Vin Fiz after a Chicago company that financed the trip with back-up rail cars to promote its new grape soda.
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In Central Texas, Rodgers spotted the state Capitol moments after he took off from Granger in Williamson County. He landed at a private airport just north of Hyde Park. Remember, this was a time when fewer than 2 percent of the public had even seen an airplane.
“Promoters of Austin’s new suburban addition had hung a $200 purse to associate their project with the transcontinental flight,” Lentes writes. “A thousand people had turned out for the celebrated birdman’s appearance, although the site was a mile from the Hyde Park station of the Austin electric streetcar line. Cal was welcomed by Will T. Caswell, president of the land-development firm, who lauded the aviator’s accomplishments to the crowd.”
A natural showman, Rodgers took questions.
“A man whose enormous girth marked his weight well in excess of 300 pounds waddled up to the lanky aviator and asked, ‘How can that gimcrack contraption fly with a man of your size?’” Lentes writes. No answer was recorded. “Cal and his managers were escorted into downtown Austin for lunch at the Driskill.”