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When you think about it, we’ve come a long way since that cold, blustery December day in 1903 when two brothers — bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio — successfully made the first sustained flight of a heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Less than 120 years later man has walked on the moon, aircraft have flown non-stop around the world, we have a manned space station in long term orbit around the earth and there is a roving robot sending pictures back to us from the surface of another planet.

These are tremendous achievements in a relatively short space of time, and we only got where we are today by taking many small steps in quick succession. The first of these steps came less than six years after that initial, faltering flight, which covered just 852 feet, when a Frenchman, Louis Bleriot, flew 21 miles across the English Channel from France to Britain.

World War I saw a massive leap forward in airplane development. By the end of the conflict, many countries had multi-engine planes that, despite their frail construction and unreliable engines, were still capable of flying considerable distances, just as long as everything worked properly.

This was proved in June of 1919, less than 16 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, when two Britons, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, flew their converted Vickers Vimy bomber 1,890 miles across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to County Galway in Ireland. It was a great achievement and here, in the United States, it engendered a desire for similar achievements.

Crossing the Atlantic had already been done and the Pacific was deemed to be too wide to attempt but what hadn’t been tried was crossing the United States non-stop from one coast to the other.

The distance had been covered before. Just eight years after the first powered flight, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher, offered $50,000, worth about $1.5 million today, to the first person to fly across America in either direction in less than 30 days.

The challenge was taken up by Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the Pennsylvania-born son of a family with a long naval tradition. Due to a childhood illness that left him deaf in one ear, Rodgers could not join the navy, but he did develop an interest in flying. On Aug. 17, 1911, he took an examination and became only the 49th person to obtain a pilot’s license. That year he entered various flying competitions, set several records and won substantial prize money.

Attracted by Hearst’s offer, he found a sponsor, purchased a Wright Model EX airplane, which he named Vin Fiz after his sponsor’s product, and entered the competition. A special support train with maintenance and accommodation cars was obtained and, on Sept. 17, 1911, he took off from a field in southern Brooklyn, New York, with the intention of following railroad tracks west. He flew to Chicago and then turned south to San Antonio, Texas, in order to avoid the Rocky Mountains. Finally he headed west again and landed in Tournament Park in Pasadena, California on Nov. 12.

He’d made 70 stops along the way, had crashed numerous times and the airplane had needed to be repaired often. He had missed winning Hearst’s prize by a full 19 days, but he had carried a mail pouch, thus completing the first coast-to-coast air mail delivery. Afterwards he is quoted as saying, “I expect to see the time when we shall be carrying passengers in flying machines from New York to the Pacific Coast in three days.” It was not to be; he died the next year in the first airplane accident caused by a bird strike.

Hearst’s prize was not won and the competition lapsed. The Great War intervened, but then came Alcock and Brown’s success and interest in crossing the continent was revived.

The next try began toward the end of 1921. Two lieutenants from the U.S. Army Air Service, Oakley G. Kelly and John A. Macready proposed making an attempt. Despite the fact that most pilots believed the task was impossible due to the aircraft available at the time being totally unreliable, their proposal was accepted.

Their first task was to find an airplane to make the flight. Out of all the machines the Air Service had available they chose a Fokker F-IV, which the army called the T-2. This was a big plane for the time. It had a wingspan of nearly 75 feet and was designed to carry up to 8 passengers in addition to the pilot. The army had two of these machines and they set about converting one of them. Seats were removed and replaced with extra water, oil and fuel tanks, new radiators and stronger undercarriage were fitted and an additional set of flying controls were put into the main cabin.

Weather experts recommended that the flight should be made from California to New York and so, on Oct. 22, 1922, the T-2 took off from Rockwell Field on North Island, California. The plane was very overweight and for the first few minutes could not rise more than 10 feet above the ocean. Slowly it gained height, but then it ran into fog that became thicker until it hid the hills. The pilots had none of the instruments that modern aircraft have and were burning too much fuel to go around the fog, so they decided to return to base. The attempt had failed, but they didn’t land, instead they stayed in the air as long as they could, setting an unofficial endurance record of over 35 flying hours.

Undaunted, the pilots decided to try again and, on Nov. 3, 1922, they took off once more. This time there was no fog to hamper them, and they headed east, but the weather turned again and they flew into thunderstorms that forced them to fly lower in order to navigate. Nevertheless, they carried on over Kansas and on to St. Louis. It was here that a cylinder jacket cracked and they began losing engine coolant. Nursing the engine, they made it as far as Indianapolis where they were forced to make an emergency landing at the speedway track. Attempt No. 2 was over.

Repairs took longer than expected and the aircraft was not ready to fly again until the spring of 1923. This time they decided to fly from east to west in order to take advantage of the lower terrain while they were heavily laden with fuel. On May 1 they took off for the third time, this time from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York.

Once again, the plane barely gained height, but they persevered and eventually headed west only to encounter more bad weather over Ohio. They couldn’t see the ground and carried on using a compass alone to tell them which direction to fly. Eventually they approached the Continental Divide but the plane was still reluctant to climb and so they had to swing south to find a route through the mountains. They were successful and proved to be the last of their trials as they landed at Rockwell Field, San Diego after a flight time of 26 hours and fifty minutes.

Forty-six years after that epic flight, an American would stand on the moon and say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I like to think the same could have been said about Lieutenants Oakley G. Kelly and John A. Macready, whose perseverance and determination paved the way for the future of air travel.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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