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Sky’s the limit for aviation memories


IT WAS AN exciting moment; a historical moment—and nobody had to tell me to take pictures of it.

There were two legends of aviation—old friends, at that—and they were standing in front of a legendary flying machine spinning tales of things that happened 60 years ago.

The setting was the hangar at Ken Hyde’s place near Warrenton. He had a small Christmas gathering for old friends. Among them was Charley Kulp, a cornerstone of general aviation, Virginia hall-of-famer and maestro of aerial antics.

Ken Hyde is also known the world around, but also as a Wright Brothers authority and constructor of Wright reproduction aircraft so perfect that Wilbur and Orville would claim ownership.

Hyde and Kulp can trace their ties to the 1950s, and the old Manassas Airport in Prince William County. They were telling stories on this day, their arms waving in animation, as old friends will do.

Their skills as both aircraft builders and fliers is the stuff of legend. How many living pilots have performed for the queen? How many on this Earth have flown an authentic Wright-powered reproduction airplane? The answers are, in order, Precious Few and None.

But what added the sizzle to this scene was the Fiz or, to be precise, the Vin Fiz the two men stood in front of as they talked.

Last year Hyde’s company, The Wright Experience, crafted two one-of-a-kind flying machines that Orville and Wilbur built exactly a century earlier.

The first attracted scant public notice for the Wrights but marked a key milestone in the history of flight. It was a glider, and incorporated everything the brothers had learned since their history-changing first flights of December 1903.

Eight years later Orville returned to the Kitty Hawk dunes to make dozens of glides with it, one of which lasted nearly 10 minutes and set a world record that stood for a decade for motorless aircraft.

The second craft, constructed in 1911, flew into the history books as the first airplane to cross the continent.

The pilot was one Calbraith Rodgers, and although the Wrights had designated it Wright EX, the flamboyant Rodgers had gotten sponsorship from the bottlers of Vin Fiz, a popular grape soda. Forever since, it has been known by that name.

Rodgers hoped to pocket a $50,000 prize offered to the first person to fly across the country within a 30-day time span. He took off from Sheepshead Bay, New York, on Sept. 17, 1911.

Rodgers’ incredible journey, reported in breathtaking detail by the media of the day, took far longer than the required minimum, involving dozens of landings, five crashes, and many major repairs plus a hospital stay for its pilot for injuries sustained in one mishap.

But Rodgers would not be deterred, and on Dec. 10 he touched down on the sands of Long Beach, Calif.

The original Vin Fiz hangs in the National Air and Space Museum.

Hyde and his Warrenton team researched for several years before beginning construction on a reproduction.

There is a postscript to the Cal Rodgers story. It is both tragic and funny, in an odd sort of way.

The following April, Rodgers made an exhibition flight over the ocean. Cavorting with seagulls, he struck one. It damaged the frail machine, causing Rodgers to lose control.

He crashed, fatally, on the beach, as a crowd of thousands looked on.

Flash forward to the 1950s.

A car appears at the airport in Manassas. A woman remains in the car but a man emerges, asking if there is a pilot who will disperse the ashes of human remains over the waters of Long Island.

Charley Kulp, who coincidentally had to make a flight to New England anyway, offers to perform the service.

At the prescribed place, he opens the urn and ashes scatter into the 75-mile-an-hour slipstream.

Fortunately, Kulp is not alone in the two-seat open-cockpit biplane, for a swirl

of ashes goes everywhere, including all over the inside of the plane’s cockpit.

Kulp is momentarily blinded and his wife, Joan, who has since died, takes the controls. There are ashes everywhere, as Kulp tells the story, but he manages to continue to his destination—an antique airplane event in New England.

Later, he learns that the ashes were the remains of Charles Wiggins, mechanic for Cal Rodgers’ history-making 1911 flight. And the woman who had asked for the unusual flight was the former Mabel Rodgers, widow of Cal Rodgers.

Following her husband’s death, she had married his mechanic, Wiggins.

And for those planning a visit to the Smithsonian’s Udvar–Hazy Annex of the National Air and Space Museum near Dulles Airport, here’s a little tip. Ask someone to point out the little Kreider–Riesner KR–34 biplane. I think it’s hanging from the ceiling.

That’s the plane Charley and Joan Kulp flew to Connecticut that day long ago.

And somewhere deep inside the cockpit of that airplane there are likely a few tiny specks of Charles Wiggins, who played a role in the remarkable story of Cal Rodgers.

Armchair Adventures/Plus is now up and running. Check it out:

Paul Sullivan of Spotsylvania County, a former reporter with The Free Lance–Star, is a freelance writer. Email him at