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By Henry Kisor
Author of Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4500 Feet

 had just passed the check ride for the private pilot certificate and was looking for something exciting to do with it when I first heard about Cal Rodgers and his transcontinental saga in the Wright Model EX called Vin Fiz. Hey, that's something I could do, I thought--buy a plane and fly across the country the way he did, in short hops and long visits. Maybe I'd even be able to write a book from the experience.

Then I discovered that Rodgers, like me, suffered from a severe hearing loss. The first man to fly across the United States was deaf? That put an interesting spin on things. How come I had never heard of him? I decided to find out as much as I could about him.

I started with Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fiz, a biography by Eileen Lebow published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1989. It expertly summarized his life, but much about it was missing, especially about his personality as well as his hearing loss. Like so many early aviation heroes he had died young, before biographers had been able to plumb his mind. He had left behind no letters that might have revealed his innermost thoughts.

Exactly what was the extent of Cal's hearing loss? Was he truly deaf, or just a bit hard of hearing? One newspaper story from 1911 said he was completely deaf in one ear and 50 percent deaf in the other-a crude and primitive measurement, probably a reporter's wild guess.

But Lebow turned up interesting clues about Cal's hearing loss from scarlet fever at age six. His speech was slow, laborious and hard to understand. He did poorly in school and was indifferent to church, though his family was devoutly Presbyterian. Just like his father, his mother said; she apparently never recognized young Cal's problems with communication. In her voluminous correspondence she never wrote a word about his hearing loss. Perhaps that was because the 1890s and early 1900s were a time when physical handicaps were rarely mentioned in polite society. It is likely that his mother did not want to admit that her son was deaf-something that still happens in many families today when a child is born deaf or suffers a severe hearing loss from illness.

Many of the contemporary press accounts Lebow quoted were highly contradictory. So were those I turned up at the Air and Space Museum as well as newspaper libraries across the country.

Reporters who wrote for William Randolph Hearst-the press magnate who offered the $50,000 prize for the first pilot to make it across America-were notorious for inventing facts and anecdotes to make their subjects as interesting as possible in order to sell more newspapers. The Hearst syndicate reporters who traveled across the United States aboard the Vin Fiz's chase train portrayed Cal as a merry, highly sociable fellow, full of bonhomie and witty remarks, quick to slap backs and josh children. They would "quote" Cal as brightly as they could: "Two hundred and four miles nearer Chicago tonight," Cal was supposed to have written in the daily Hearst dispatch under his byline, "and it might have been another fifty if the last gasp of the hoodoo had not blighted me today." That is clearly the hand of a newspaper hack.

These tales were the ones most later writers chose to pass on in their magazine articles and books, most likely because they were more colorful than the accounts written by the scrupulous journalists of the time.

These other newspaper stories paint a completely different picture of Rodgers. They often said Cal's speech was hard to understand, that he often did not acknowledge what people said to him, and that he tended to be taciturn and withdrawn--behavior that is common even today among people who cannot communicate easily because of their hearing loss. (Been there, done that.) It is striking how often these reporters described Cal as aloof and unresponsive, without connecting that idiosyncrasy with his deafness. We can't blame them. At that time nobody knew much about deafness.

And yet despite his obvious disability this man persevered, despite dozens of crashes and a host of injuries--some of them grim--to become the first pilot to fly from coast to coast. Maybe, I thought, retracing his route would enable me to discover new insights about Cal Rodgers. (For details see Henry Kisor's profile on AVWEB.)

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Henry Kisor in the cockpit of Gin Fizz. Taken by Bob Locher.

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Early in the trip, Gin Fizz flies past the World Trade Center and up the Hudson River.

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Henry Kisor with sailplane instructor Shane Lese, a member of the Schweizer (Cal Rodger's mother's) family, over Elmira, NY.

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A model of the Vin Fiz, Cal Rodgers piloting, that hangs in the Marion (Ohio) Historical Society.

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The tower controllers' board at Chandler, Ariz., announces the fleeting visit of a deaf pilot.

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Following the line (in this case, roads instead of railroads) over Interstate 10 in Arizona.

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The Gin Fizz arrives at Cable Airport, Cable, CA, the grail of her trip. Photo by Bob Locher.

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Tying down the Gin Fizz at Cable after arrival. Photo by Bob Locher.

If you'd like to read some of Henry's own adventures while retracing the steps of Cal Rodgers, here is a short selection from The Flight of the Gin Fizz that contrasts Cal Rodgers's arrival at Elmira, NY and Kisor's arrival eighty-four years later. It show vividly how the worlds of deafness and of aviation have changed in that time:

Late in the afternoon of September 22, 1911, the city fathers of Elmira rang the fire bells when they heard that the birdman was on his way. At Binghamton forty air miles east, Rodgers had landed for a short interlude to let the crowds see Vin Fiz close up while he dutifully pitched Armour's grape drink to them. Crowds spilled into Elmira's streets to look for Vin Fiz as she approached from the south. Cal touched down on the fairgrounds without notable incident, except for an exchange with a young girl who was the first to greet the aviator. According to the Elmira Star, Rodgers asked her, "This Elmira?"

"Yes," she said, but it was only the nod of her head he understood, the paper said, for Rodgers was "quite deaf."

"How do you get across that river?" he then asked, and it was only after a bit of backing and filling that he was made to understand that what he saw was a pond, not a river. That night Cal went to bed in a posh Elmira hotel weary and somewhat upset after a day battling throngs as well as winds. "It wasn't exactly dangerous," his byline account in the Hearst papers declared, "but when you lose your way, wander about 105 miles out of your way, have to fight off a bunch of hysterical people who want to tear up your machine as souvenirs, have to get up with willing but unskilled assistance, and then have to go looking for your own special train toward dusk--well, I've had enough to keep my mind occupied for one day." He didn't know the half of it.

 *    *    *

My adventure at Elmira was far cheerier. Early in the planning I decided to land at Elmira/Corning Regional Airport, a tower-controlled airport that is busy enough to be the center of what pilots know as a terminal radar service area, or TRSA in aviation lingo. Typically, a TRSA is a circle of airspace twenty-five miles in diameter through which airplanes that are flying by instrument flight rules are vectored by controllers who watch their progress on radar screens, and pilots who are flying by visual flight rules can request radar service if the controllers' workload permits. I can fly through a TRSA without establishing radio contact, but I cannot land at the airport in the center of the TRSA without contacting the tower. But I knew that a light-signal landing would offer an end-run around the problem. So, on Monday I pulled out my TTY [a laptop-like telephone device for the deaf, also called a TDD, that enables deaf callers to "talk" to hearing parties with the help of a relay service operator] and made a relay call to Elmira Tower.

"Hello, I'm a deaf pilot," I typed. "I'm calling to ask clearance for a light-gun landing at Elmira this morning."

"OK," came the answer from the tower, so quickly that I surmised light-gun landings are commonplace there. "What's your ETA, your N-number, aircraft type and color, and from what direction will you be coming?"

"Fourteen hundred hours Zulu," I said. "I'm November five-eight-five-niner-Echo, a Cessna 150, silver and blue, and I'm coming from November One Seven," the airport code for Tri-Cities Airport at Endicott, almost directly east of Elmira.

"We'll give you clearance at the proper time," said the controller. "Active runway is Two-Four, and the winds are six knots from two-two-zero. Watch for the light signal, and we'll be looking for you."

"What about a transponder squawk code?" If I was flying into a TRSA, I might as well be identifiable on radar.

There was a brief pause. "Squawk zero zero two six," the controller said. "OK," I replied. "I can speak, and I'll use the tower frequency to tell you when I enter the airspace. See you in about an hour."

After kissing Mother good-bye, I climbed into Gin Fizz and immediately dialed 0026 on the transponder. That number would appear underneath the blip on the radar screens at Elmira, and the controllers would track me all the way in as soon as I was within range. That reassured me; a TRSA is, by definition, a busy place, and I'd feel more secure if the controllers not only were able to divert other blips away from mine but also knew that 0026 was the deaf pilot coming in for a light-signal landing. Sometimes it's hard for them to distinguish one airplane from another just by eyeballing.

At 9:30 A.M. I took off into the haze. The visibility was lousy, just five miles, but good enough for a short cross-country flight into airspace where ground radar controllers could vector other airplanes away from Gin Fizz. I felt comfortable during the twenty-minute flight along the old Erie from Endicott to Elmira, even when I spotted a tall radio tower on the mountain ridge just south of the airport, right in my path and scarcely half a mile away. I wasn't startled; the obstruction was marked on the chart, and I had been looking for it. I banked around the tower, and almost as soon as I cleared the ridge, announced my presence to the control tower, and descended to landing pattern altitude, I saw in the tower windows two dim green flashes that meant "Approach for landing." As I flew past the tower on the downwind leg, a controller flashed me the steady green signal-also dim, but a little brighter than the first. I touched down in the best landing I had made so far during the trip, and as I taxied toward the nearest off-ramp, I looked about for the attraction that had prompted me to land at Elmira: the world-renowned Schweizer Soaring School.

I couldn't find the turnoff to the school-Elmira/Corning is a big airport; its main runway is 7,000 feet long-so I taxied over to the terminal, where I shut down as a burly attendant carrying a hand-held radio walked out to the plane.

"Where's the glider school?" I asked as I opened Gin Fizz's Door. "Away on the other side of the field," he said, pointing to a few low buildings and a copse of trees, by which a couple of sailplanes rested on the grass.

"Look," I said. "I'm deaf, and I've just come in with a light-gun landing."

"I know," he said with a smile. "We all heard the tower warning the other planes about you."

"Well," I said, "I've got to go over to the school. Would you mind calling the tower for me and asking them for clearance to taxi over?"

"Oh, sure," he said, speaking into his radio. "Tower says start your engine, point your plane at it, and wait for the green light." I did so, and a moment later, when the green signal flashed, I scuttled across the main runway, being sure to stop to look in both directions even though I had clearance-a little extra caution never hurts-and rolled onto the taxiway toward the sailplane school, where I had made arrangements to take my first glider flight.

Excerpted with permission from Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet, by Henry Kisor, published by Basic Books/HarperCollins. Copyright @1997 by Henry  Kisor. All rights reserved.


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A History of the Airplane/The Tale of the Vin Fiz/Retracing Cal Rodger's Steps
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