Tuesday I read that Southwest Airlines has added an additional charge to plane tickets for people who want to be first on their airplanes and allowed to board with the “A” group. For an extra $40 each way, customers will be allowed to move to the front of the line when boarding. Just another one of those extra fees so many airlines are adding to flights today.
It made me think of how far airplanes have come since the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made their first history on Dec. 17, 1903, by taking off at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Orville and Wilbur I’m sure had no idea what they were getting started when they flew with their “Ridiculous Flying Machine.”
Then in 1911 another, a little closer to home, one of the Wright brothers’ planes, but a bit “more modern” was piloted by Calbraith P. Rodgers and made an unplanned stop near Pottsboro on one leg of a coast to coast flight from New York to Los Angeles.
It was Oct. 17 that year when the Vin-Fiz, a box-kite aircraft passed over Denison and became the first airplane to do so.
Today it is hard to imagine in this day of super sonic aircraft that a couple of years short of 100 years ago many Denisonians got their first glimpse of an airborne plane. Especially since during the in-between years Perrin Air Force Base, just a few miles away, was in full swing at one time and for people in this area it was an everyday sight.
Several years ago former State Representative from Denison Vernon Beckham sent us a clipping about the flight of the Vin-Fiz over Denison that he had taken from an edition of Co-op Power. Reading the article sent us running to the Herald morgue (that’s newspaper talk for filing cabinets) where we found an article dated Oct. 18, 1959, that included a reproduction of a handbill tossed overboard as the plane passed over Denison.
Rodgers, a 6-foot-4-inch, 190 pounder, had taken off from McAlester, Okla. on his way to Los Angeles. He had left 30 days earlier from Long Island, N.Y., but due to machinery failure had lost 17 days. Weather also delayed him five more days.
Rodgers, who had a dream of winning $50,000 offered by Publisher William Randolph Hearst to the first man who could fly from New York to San Francisco in less than 30 days, had given up on that attempt, but he plunged ahead to fulfill his contract with J. Ogden Armour to promote Vin-Fiz, a new grape drink that sold for a nickel and was hailed as “refreshing and invigorating.”
Rodgers landed in a field between Denison and Pottsboro to refuel his plane and make repairs, then lost his way and followed the wrong branch of the MKT Railroad track and went nearly to Wichita Falls before he corrected his direction and headed for Fort Worth.
The handbill, a small tab of pink paper about three inches by 4 inches, belonged to the late Fred Sisson, and had been picked up by his mother, Mrs. L.W. Sisson.
Bales of the little leaflets advertising Vin-Fiz fluttered to the ground as the fragile aircraft sputtered overhead.
Denison’s brief experience with the history making flight was vividly recalled by Sisson and a Lt. Col. Bernard P. Williams. Sisson recalled that he was at work at the Katy Shops the morning the plane made its eventful flight without benefit of navigational aids.
To guide the plane, a special train was operated by the Vin-Fiz Company, containing a passenger car with its top painted white as a beacon.
Rodgers’ wife, Mabel and his mother, cousin, Lt. John Rodgers, Crew Chief Charles Taylor and other members of his crew occupied the special car. Dubbed the “whitehanger,” the special car also was a first aid center and machine shop. It held spare parts, a touring car and rumor suggested a coffin, “just in case.”
Sisson recalled that word of the expected flight over Denison arrived days ahead of time. “Most of the men at the Katy Shops climbed up on building roofs long before the plane was due. When the foreman couldn’t get us back to our jobs, he climbed up on the roof with us,” he said.
“The fire bell started ringing as soon as the plane was sighted coming in from the north, and it rang until the aircraft passed on to the west,” Sisson told the reporter interviewing him in 1959.
“I remember that a long strip of white cloth was laid along the Katy track through Sugar Bottom to help identify the route for the pilot,” Sisson continued.
Col. Williams said he was a third grade student at St. Xavier Academy in 1911. “The good sisters dismissed school so we could see the historical flight. All the kids at the school ran west up the street all the way to the old Katy reservoir (site of the Little League baseball park) to watch the plane as long as possible” Col. Williams said in a letter to the Herald in 1959.
After arriving in Fort Worth, Rodgers followed the Katy tracks to San Antonio, where the smallest plane made by the Wright Brothers, weighing less than 800 pounds was overhauled.
Rodgers then headed west along the Southern Pacific line. He admitted that he found new problems in Texas, where he spent more time on the ground than in the air. He said “I’m the only aviator on earth who had a tire punctured by a cactus spine.”
It took Rodgers 49 days to travel 3,350 miles. His time has been pared down considerably today by our passenger planes.
Soon after Rodgers reached California, he fell into the Pacific Ocean while “chasing sea gulls,” and was killed.
On a couple of visits to Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Air and Space, I saw what was called the Vin Fiz, however there wasn’t much of the original machine that hadn’t been replaced by the time Rodgers reached California.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.