If you had seen the first time Slats Rodgers put his aeroplane up in the air, you wouldn’t have watched for long. He had to get the contraption up in the air to avoid a ditch, but up it went. And then down it came, once he had flown about 200 feet, the crash breaking off the wheels and the right wing of the biplane that sort of looked like the aeroplane the Wright brothers got aloft almost a decade earlier on the plains of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Although Floyd “Slats” Rodgers’ maiden flight in 1912 in the plane he called Old Soggy No. 1 for its drooping right wing was less than successful, or rather about as successful as other pioneering aviators of his time, the bed-slat thin man made his mark in Texas aviation history for what’s arguably Texas’s first manned flight.
As an aside, Rodgers and Orville and Wilbur Wright, might have a contender for being first in flight, according writer Clay Coppedge in his book “Hill Country Chronicles.” Almost 38 years before Kitty Hawk, a German immigrant to Texas, Jacob Brodbeck, designed and flew his steampunkish spring-powered plane sometime between 1865 and 1868 — accounts vary — either near Luckenbach or San Antonio.
In Rodgers’ time, the skies over North Central Texas weren’t slashed with jet contrails and newspaper reporters described planes in the skies above Cleburne as novel sights.
While Rodgers’ flight isn’t the only gold star pinned to aviation history’s bulletin board for Johnson County and Cleburne, it’s probably one of the most colorful because of the larger-than-life figure of Rodgers. In addition to Rodgers, German immigrant to Cleburne Adolph Schad would design a single-engine plane that burned a combination of gasoline and castor oil. Schad patented the design and sold the patent to the government in 1929.
Cleburne’s aviation history adds to the many marks in the state’s long list of accomplishments in aviation, an industry Gov. Greg Abbott recently honored in a proclamation naming November as Aviation Appreciation Month. Texas, according to the proclamation, leads the nation in air transportation employment and gross domestic product.
“The long history in our state and its economic success today continue Texas on its path as a leader for our nation,” Abbott wrote in the proclamation.
Rodgers’ colorful aviation history began in Keene.
Born in Georgia, he moved with his family to Keene as a teenager and at about the same time developed a fascination with flight while flying kites. He also spent hours poring over what he could find about aviation, some of it written by the Wright brothers. His fascination with flight was spurred further when he went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad in Cleburne, moving up from hostler’s helper — the guy who helps move locomotives in and out of service facilities — to an engineer making the Dallas to Cleburne run.
“Rodgers,” according to Coppedge, “enjoyed the speed and thunder of a locomotive, but thought it was a real shame that engine power was devoted to something that stayed on the ground.”
Rodgers began to tinker with the idea of building his own plane, first creating a model that he carried around on a engine tank. This model created a stir. Crowds would come down to the depot to see it.
Rodgers was apparently quite a self-promoter by all accounts, said Layland Museum Director Jessica Baber. He seeded airplane fever in the town by paying the local picture show owner $75 to display the model at the theater.
The publicity he gained prompted him to go full throttle and build the real thing in 1911. Rodgers made sure to go big with the project, ordering spruce from Oregon, turnbuckles for securing cables for wings from France and an engine from St. Louis. Of course, getting these parts wasn’t all a matter of flash and filigree. Historians note such parts weren’t readily available in Texas and accounted for the novelty and rarity of aircraft in those early days of flight.
Old Soggy was pretty primitive, even for its time, historians note, closer to the Wright brothers’ craft than to the sleeker designs, like those of Dutch aircraft engineer Anthony Fokker (the Red Baron flew a Fokker tri-plane in the war), evolving into the sort of planes that would fly over the trenches a few years later.
Still, Old Soggy was a plane, a working one at that. Rodgers began building the flying machine in a storefront in downtown Cleburne but, as with the model before, the crowds began creating a ruckus, so much so, the city asked Rodgers to take his project elsewhere, Baber said.
So, Rodgers and his father hitched up their mules and pulled the plane to Keene, Baber said, and finished building it inside the home where Rodgers had grown up. Once it was finished, it was hauled overnight to Cleburne, where in full P.T.-Barnum mode, Rogers put a tent around it and charged 50 cents admission to see it. In three day’s time, Rodgers raked in $700.
He would spend weeks taxiing the plane and showing it off through the streets of Cleburne before his accidental first flight to jump the ditch.
After that first flight and crash — he would walk away from 27 crashes — he drummed up the money to repair Old Soggy and promised after a boozy night with friends to get the plane in the air again.
Like the earlier flight, this one posed a few problems, the least of which was the plane’s sagging right wing, as he reported years later to journalist and novelist Hart Stilwell, with whom he collaborated on an autobiography, “Old Soggy No. 1.”
Never at any time had Rodgers bothered to actually learn how to fly, except by doing. There were no examples, he told Stilwell: “I started to turn the thing and I felt it slipping and quivering so I straightened it back up in a hurry. I had never seen anybody fly a ship — I never had even seen one except mine.”
His trial-and-error autodidactic approach to piloting eventually earned him another distinction in Texas aviation history. In 1926, he became the first person in Texas to hold a pilot’s license, and the first to lose the license — not, so it goes, for bootlegging whiskey into Mexico with Texas Rangers in pursuit. The license was revoked following a dare: he accepted a challenge and successfully flew between two skyscrapers in downtown Dallas.
But, despite the loss of license, the pilot’s life was for him. He barnstormed with the Love Field Lunatics in Dallas — that proved a cover for smuggling — and took up crop dusting in the Rio Grande Valley.
In the 1940s and 1950s he spent most of his time in West Texas, as owner and operator of steakhouses in Bandera and McAllen. He died in 1956 in McAllen.