I wish I had been there the day the first airplane set down in Del Rio. A crowd of several hundred had gathered in an open field to see this new-fangled contraption designed by the Wright Brothers. A daredevil named Cal Rodgers was flying a modified Model B, trying to make it coast-to-coast in an advertising stunt for the Armour Company. The plane was named the Vin Fiz, after a new grape soda the company was introducing. Everyone was watching the sky when finally somebody heard it. “Here it comes!”
The Vin Fiz flew 40 miles per hour at top speed, and could go 110 miles before refueling. Rodgers left from Sheepshead Bay, New York on September 17, 1911 and finally arrived in Pasadena, California November 5, 1911. In the meantime, he crashed 15 times and required numerous repairs. A supply train followed him the entire way with spare parts.
Rodgers flew from Sabinal, Texas to Del Rio where he stopped briefly for lunch on October 26, 1911. The crowd cheered and looked at the plane in astonishment. The rough country west of Del Rio worried Rodgers because of the steep canyons and desert. So he flew with the Rio Grande on his left and the Southwestern Pacific rail lines on his right, crisscrossing into Mexico several times. He was spotted in Langtry, stopped briefly in Dryden for oil, and landed in Sanderson for the night.
Rodgers took several hours of flying lessons from the Wright Brothers before he bought their Model B pusher bi-plane, also known as the EX. The plane flew about 40 mph, and cruised at about 3,000 feet. The plane could not cross the Rocky Mountains, so Rodgers chose a Southwestern route for his flight. Rodgers died in a plane crash in 1912, only five months after his record-setting flight.
But the Vin Fiz was not the first flight in the canyonlands area. Several months before, March 3, 1911, Benjamin Foulois and Philip Orin Parmelee flew to Fort Duncan in Eagle Pass from Laredo on one leg of the US military’s first cross-country reconnaissance flight. The Wright Model B they used covered 106 miles in two hours at an altitude of 800 feet.
It would have been fun to have been in Camp Wood, up on the Nueces, when Lindbergh clipped a telephone pole and crashed into the paint section of Walter Pruett’s hardware store, too. I’m sure the people who saw it never forgot. The young Charles Lindbergh made an unplanned stop in Camp Wood, in March 1924, three years before his solo flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh, then waiting to enter Brooks Field at San Antonio as a United States Air Service cadet, was attempting to fly to California with a friend, Leon Klink, and followed the Uvalde and Northern railroad up the Nueces River, mistaking it for the Southwestern Pacific along the Rio Grande. When the line ended at the recently established town, Lindbergh realized his error and landed in a pasture. Later, having flown to Camp Wood itself and landed on the main street, he was attempting to take off when his wing clipped the pole. He and Klink had to remain in town several days to make repairs.
In 1921 Jimmie Doolittle, later to lead air raids over Tokyo during World War II, rescued a plane that had wrecked in a canyon in Mexico and flew into Del Rio. The townspeople might not have known it then, but they were looking at another aviation legend. He was the first to fly cross-country in less than 24 hours. He did it the next year in a military aircraft from Florida to California in 21 hours 19 minutes with only one refueling stop at Kelly Field in San Antonio.
He was also the first to fly “blind” using only navigational instruments in 1929. Then in 1932
Doolittle repeated his transcontinental feat, this time making the trip in 11 hours and 15 minutes. He was now the first person to cross the United States in fewer than 12 hours.
In 1942, at the beginning of WWII, Colonel Doolittle led the secret mission to bomb Tokyo in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. No plane had ever flown so far, nor with such heavy bombs. The B-52s carried four 500-pound bombs, and enough fuel for the long flight. And they had to take-off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Doolittle led 16 U.S. Army Air Forces B-25B bombers that were launched without fighter escort from the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Hornet deep in the western Pacific Ocean, each with a crew of five men. The plan called for them to bomb military targets in Japan, and to continue westward to land in China. Fifteen of the aircraft reached China, and the other one landed in the Soviet Union. All but three of the crew survived, but all the aircraft were lost. Eight crewmen were captured by the Japanese Army in China; three of these were executed. The B-25 that landed in the Soviet Union at Vladivostok was confiscated and its crew interned for more than a year. Fourteen crews, except for one crewman, returned either to the United States or to American forces.