By Preston Lerner
Slatts Rodgers was the first Texan to receive a pilot’s license. He was also the first Texan to have his license revoked.
Between his first flight in 1912 and his death in 1956, Rodgers was a barnstormer, a stunt pilot, a parachutist, an aerial bootlegger, an instructor pilot, a pioneering cropduster, and a skyborne smuggler of everything from silk and perfume to ammunition.
He walked away from 27 crashes. “The twenty-eighth time I didn’t walk away because my foot went through the floorboard and got caught,” he reported in Old Soggy No. 1, the picaresque autobiography he wrote in collaboration with newspaper reporter and novelist Hart Stilwell. “The twenty-ninth time I came down out of a tall tree and left her hanging sixty feet up.”
Born in Georgia in 1889, Floyd H. Rodgers moved to Keene, Texas, as a teenager. His rail-thin physique earned the sobriquet Slats. In 1911, after studying the meager material he could find in libraries, he built a model airplane, which generated so much publicity he decided to build—and fly—a full-scale airplane.
Rodgers ordered spruce from Oregon, turnbuckles from France, and a noisy but anemic two-stroke engine from St. Louis. When the airplane—the first in Texas—was finished, Rodgers ground-looped it repeatedly. After six weeks of taxi testing, he made his maiden flight by accident when he lifted off to avoid a ditch.
Two hundred feet later, Rodgers suffered his first crash. The impact broke off the wheels and the right wing. Passing the hat, Rodgers collected enough money to rebuild the airplane, but an undiagnosed defect made the right wing sag in flight. Rodgers dubbed the airplane “Old Soggy No. 1.”
In 1912, after boozing with friends in Fort Worth, Slats announced, “I’m going to fly her or tear her apart.” He bounced Old Soggy into the air. And when the right wing started sinking, as usual, “I leaned to the left hard,” he recalled. “The wing came up. ‘I got you, you lop-eared bastard,’ I said.”
Now that he was actually flying, Rodgers faced an even more vexing problem. “I started to turn the thing and I felt it slipping and quivering so I straightened it back up in a hurry,” he wrote. “I had never seen anybody fly a ship—I never had even seen one except mine.” Rodgers landed in a cornfield. After teaching himself how to bank the airplane, he made about 50 flights before retiring Old Soggy in 1913.
Six years later, Rodgers bought a Lincoln Standard five-passenger biplane and started bootlegging whiskey from Mexico. He spent much of the next decade playing cat-and-mouse with Texas Rangers. But most of his notoriety came from newspaper coverage of his escapades as one of the so-called Love Field Lunatics in Dallas, a rag-tag group of pilots who flew airshows over Love Field as a cover for smuggling.
In various airplanes, Rodgers landed with a dead engine on a street in Houston, flew between two skyscrapers in Dallas to win a bet (and lost his license, acquired in 1926), and parachuted from a Curtiss Jenny that he torched at an airshow. He later started cropdusting in the Rio Grande Valley in another Jenny with holes cut in the floorboard to dispense chemicals. He even made a pioneering weather-modification flight, skimming over tomato plants and churning the air to prevent them from freezing. “A couple of times chunks of tomato stalks, chopped off by the prop, hit me in the face and woke me,” he wrote. “If you know how high a tomato stalk grows, then you know where I was.”
While living in the valley, Rodgers taught R.C. “Doc” Hausinger to fly. Decades later, Hausinger’s widow, Averil, commissioned the construction of a half-scale model of Old Soggy and donated it to Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, where it now hangs in the Hopps Museum.
The model builder, Southwestern Adventist alum John Beach, worked largely from Rodgers’ book and the one extant photo of Slats sitting in Old Soggy. “I didn’t do it intentionally,” Beach says, “but the right wing kind of droops a little bit.”
Longtime Air & Space/Smithsonian contributor Preston Lerner came across Old Soggy No. 1 while working as a newspaper reporter in Texas.