Will Rogers is best known as an actor, philanthropist and aviation promoter. He realized that aviation was the future of travel, and consequently took every chance he could to fly. Rogers routinely hopped rides on mail planes. Paying by the pound, Rogers would cram himself into the cockpit with the rest of the mail sacks. He became the first passenger to make a roundtrip transcontinental flight in a mail plane.
- Rogers had his first airplane flight in 1915, soon after he began promoting aviation on stage and in the newspaper.
- Following a flight with Billy Mitchell in 1925 he urged expansion of the U.S. Air Force and became an enthusiastic air traveler.
- By 1933 he had flown and promoted flying so extensively that he was named “the number one air passenger” and “the patron saint of aviation”.
- During a flying vacation in 1935, he and Wiley Post were killed near Point Barrow, Alaska.
William Penn Adair Rogers, better known as Will Rogers – the Oklahoma cowboy who joked during his roping act in the 1915 Ziegfeld Follies, could hardly be expected to eventually become the “Patron Saint of Aviation.”
Will’s first flight was in Atlantic City when he was carried piggyback through the surf to a flying boat. His famous grin faded at takeoff, but it proved to be an exhilarating experience.
By 1918, Will was in the movies and after the end of World War II was writing newspaper articles. In one of them, he reported: “Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the first flying machine flight by the Wright Brothers. People wouldn’t believe a man could fly then and Congress don’t believe it yet.” Of his knowledge he quipped: “All I know is what I read in the newspapers.”
In 1925, after Billy Mitchell took him for a flight over Washington, Will reported, “An assistant handed me a kinder one-piece suicide suit and a kinder derby hat with the brim turned down over my ears. Soon I was thousands of feet in the air, when you can’t even get me on a tall horse.” When they landed, Mitchell said, “You’ve been with me on my last flight as a brigadier general. Tonight I am being demoted to colonel and sent to a faraway post.”
Later Will wrote: ” Billy Mitchell was demoted because he advocated that the United States stand first in the air.” After Will’s flight with Mitchell, he became an ardent advocate of military aviation and predicted, “The next war is going to be in the air. Nobody is going to shoot anything at you, they’re going to drop it on you.”
In 1926 Will sailed for London to gather material for magazine articles. Will, Jr. traveled with him. After meeting numerous important people, they decided to fly to Paris. Will discovered Europe’s regularly-scheduled passenger airlines, a service that didn’t exist in the United States at the time. He sent a cablegram to the New York Times advising that the famous Lady Astor was on her way to the United States. This telegram would be the first of his famous series of daily telegrams. Upon his return home, Will began to hop on planes to see and report news in the making. Often he flew in mail planes, paying by the pound and cramming himself unconfortably into the cockpit with the mail sacks. Rogers would become the first passenger to make a round-trip transcontinental flight in a mail plane.
Will made an aerial benefit tour to raise money for victims of the Mississippi River flood in 1927. He also flew with Clarence Chamberlin, who was preparing to challenge the Atlantic. On May 20th, 1927, Will wrote: “No attempts at jokes today. A slim, tall bashful smiling American boy is somewhere out over the Atlantic Ocean where no human being has ever ventured before. If (Charles) Lindbergh is lost it will be the most universally regretted single loss we ever had. But that kid ain’t going to fail.” Will was right and later said: “If Lindbergh will fly the ocean, we ought to muster up enough courage to fly over one state, even if its only Rhode Island.” Will finally met Lindbergh in San Diego. Orators lauded tell Lindbergh there and informed him that he was a great inspiration to everyone. Will told Lindbergh: “That’s applesauce but the one record that will remain unsurpassed is that you are the first man to take a ham sandwich to Paris.” The next day Will flew with Lindbergh in a Ford Trimotor and a lasting friendship developed between the two. When Will flew to Detroit to see the first Model A Ford, he discussed over aviation with Henry Ford and inspected his new “aerial flier.”
In late 1927 the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow invited Rogers and Lindbergh to visit Mexico on a goodwill mission. Will’s humor quickly endeared him to the Mexican people and Lindbergh received given a tumultuous welcome. The mission turned out to be a great success.
Returning home, Will visited naval aviators and was catapulted from the battleship Pennsylvania. He also began a campaign to help pilots find their way. “Say you luncheon clubs,” he pleaded, “get some paint and put the name of your town on the biggest building you got. I will pay for the paint.” Before long, Rogers was swamped with paint bills and reported: Mooselockmegunte, Maine sent me a bill for $79. They put a letter on each house and had to borrow three houses from Connecticut.”
In 1928, Enroute to the Republican National Convention, Will’s plane flipped over during landing. A few hours later he was spilled again in another plane. Unhurt, he quipped: “I’m going to keep flying until my beard gets caught in the propeller.” When a controversy arose about “important” people flying, Will pointed out, “Aviation is not a fad, its a necessity. If there’s a safer mode of transportation, I’ve never found it.”
In 1931 Will saw the misery of the Great Depression everywhere he went. He made a flying tour with pilot Frank Hawks, giving performances to raise relief money. Grinning, joking and shaking hands, Rogers brought hope by raising a half-million dollars. The response was an outpouring of affection such as few men have ever received. Rogers subsequently took a flying vacation to Central America and the Caribbean, visiting 15 countries and traveling 13,000 miles on regularly-scheduled airlines.
Thrilled by Wiley Post and Harold Hatty’s flight around the world, Will wrote: “This is one ship I would have loved to have been a stowaway on.” Of the 1931 National Air Races he reported: “Jimmy Doolittle has a very fast new plane that should win. That ought to be the greatest show in America, for there’s nothing new nowadays but aviation.”
In late 1931, Will set out on a trip around the world as a flying reporter. From Manchuria, he reported: “All this fighting is just a rehearsal in case war should be declared.” From Java he flew to Egypt and then on to London. Rogers attended the ill-fated Disarmament Conference in Geneva, before sailing for home. Soon afterward he noted: “I see some airline is going to make aviation pay by taking it out of the pilot’s salary. When they start hiring cheap pilots, I will stop flying.” Will also chuckled when he reported in 1932: “Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic, then had to call up her husband to see if it was all right to venture into London alone.”
In October Will journeyed to South America. “I’m leaving for everything South of the border,” he says. When he returned, he had traveled 21,000 miles through 20 countries, using American planes with entirely American crews.
By 1933, Rogers had made more than 25 flights across the United States and earned the moniker “Number One Air Passenger.” In a June telegram he reported: “Last night Mrs. Roosevelt finished a transcontinental flight. There’s a real boost for aviation!”
Of Wiley Post’s attempt to make a solo flight around the world with the aid of a robot pilot, Will wrote: “I would like to be in there with Post instead of the robot and I could if I knew as much as it does.”
When President Roosevelt cancelled airmail contracts in 1934, Will said: “It’s like finding a crooked railroad president and stopping all the trains.” He prophesized, correctly, as it turned out: “We’re going to lose some fine boys if the Army flies the mail.” In mid-1934 Will made another trip around the world, this time with his wife Betty and his boys, Will and Jim. From Hawaii he wrote: “If war was declared, we would lose the Philippines before lunch, but if we lose these islands it will be our own fault.” After visiting Japan, Korea, and Manchuria, the Rogers travelled by train across Siberia to Moscow. They flew over most of Western Europe. Upon reaching New York, Rogers quipped: “Boy its great to be back in a country where something happens.”
In 1935 Will wrote: “I never been to that Alaska. I’m crazy to go up there, sometime.” That opportunity soon came when Wiley Post planned to fly to Alaska. Will decided to join him and later wired from Seattle: “I’m off on a little sightseeing trip with Wiley Post. The pontoons are awful big looking things, but Wiley said, “none too big.” Wiley’s kinder of a Calvin Coolidge on answers. “None of ‘em being too long.” From Juneau, Alaska, Will telegraphed: “Well, that was some trip. Talk about navigating this old Wiley turns up the right alley every time. Nothing is more beautiful than this inland passage to Alaska.”
As the two flew north, Will pecked out stories about Alaska on his typewriter. After flying over the old gold rush areas and Mount McKinley, they landed at a homesteading farm project. Later Rogers reported: “There’s a lot of difference between pioneering for gold and pioneering for spinach.” Soon Will and Wiley headed north toward Barrow on the Arctic Ocean shore. Their flight route across the Brooks Mountains took them over an unspoiled wilderness of mountain peaks, ice, and fog. In the afternoon Wiley set the plane down on a lagoon. There he learned from an Eskimo that they were only 15 miles from Barrow. Taxiing back out, the plane raced free from the water and began a climbing turn. The takeoff would prove to be its last. The plane crashed shortly after.
Soon the nation mourned the loss of the simple man of the people, the philosopher of the American dream, the best loved American of his time. Because he certainly had the men of the air in mind when he said: “I never met a man I didn’t like,” Rogers earned the cherished title of the “Patron Saint of Aviation”.
For more information on Will Rogers, you may want to visit the following websites: