A member of the village of Florida’s Historical Society, Edward Dubin, 74, is an aviation buff. While thumbing through an autograph book owned by 1912 S.S. Seward graduate Sarah Jessup, a small picture got his attention. “It was a tiny contact print of a Wright Brothers-type airplane flying over a crowd,” remembers Dubin. “Immediately I said, ‘What happened in 1911 or 1912 that would catch her eye?’ ”
What happened was the landing in Middletown of the Vin Fiz, which touched down after the first leg of its historic transcontinental flight from New York to California. On September 17, 1911 — just eight years after the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, and 16 years before Charles Lindberg would cross the Atlantic — pilot Cal Rodgers maneuvered his Wright Brothers’ Model EX pusher biplane down to earth at the now-defunct Old Pleasure Grounds off Dolson Avenue. More than 10,000 people — approximately two-thirds of Middletown’s population — witnessed the landing of the Vin Fiz (which was named after a soft drink produced by one of Rodgers’s sponsors). For many, it was the first time they’d ever seen an airplane.
Sky high: Pilot Cal Rodgers (right) flew this biplane — an early Wright Brothers’ model EX — from the Atlantic to the Pacific
Rodgers had taken off from Sheepshead Bay at 4:30 p.m. He angled north to Brooklyn, flew across Manhattan at an altitude of 800 feet, and arrived at Middletown in the evening, slightly more than 100 miles from his starting point. The following morning, the plane crashed on take-off, landing in a chicken coop near what is now Fulton Street. With the assistance of some local residents, Rodgers and his ground crew rebuilt the craft. Three days later (and after paying damages for the chicken coop), the pilot managed a successful departure from the Orange County Fairgrounds. The plane continued its 49-day cross-country journey, crashing 15 more times and severely wounding Rodgers on a number of occasions. On December 10, he finally landed in Long Beach, California, winning a place in aviation history as the first person to cross North America by air.
Man down: The famous Vin Fiz crashed 16 times during its 49-day journey from New York to California
Rodgers’s aeronautic arrival was big news in Orange County. According to Dubin, the area was flooded with reporters. “People all over the world who never knew that Middletown existed, now knew about Middletown,” he notes. “Middletown was put on the map.”
In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the event, Dubin and his wife Linda will host a celebration at Middletown’s Galleria at Crystal Run on September 17-18. One of the country’s only full-scale replicas of a Wright Brothers’ Model EX — part of the permanent collection of historic aircraft housed at the Rhinebeck Aerodrome — will be on display; at press time, other activities were being planned to mark the occasion.
For more information, visit www.vinfizcentennial.com.