The rain on May 20, 1927, continued to pelt Curtiss Field on Long Island, N.Y., through the early hours, even though the weather forecast had predicted an end to the storms prevailing for the past week out to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Charles A. Lindbergh was ready to go. Unable to sleep, he was at the field by 3 a.m., hoping to take off at daybreak. He watched as his airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, rolled out of the hangar and was towed to the adjoining Roosevelt Field, which had a longer, 5,000-ft runway.
Because of the rain, takeoff was delayed until nearly 8 o’clock. Amid the puddles stood some 500 onlookers who had been gathering since midnight, despite the weather.
Lindbergh was about to attempt the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. Moreover, he would do it solo: no copilot, no navigator. “I had decided to replace the weight of a navigator with extra fuel, and this gave me about 300 miles additional range,” he said.
To reduce weight further, he would not take a radio, gas gauge, night flying lights, navigation equipment, or parachute. His seat was a wicker chair bolted to the floor. Navigation would be by dead reckoning, relying on compass headings and estimated time between recognized checkpoints on the ground. When he reached land in Europe, he would figure out where he was by comparing the terrain below with his maps.
He saw the lights of Paris a little before 10:00 p.m., circled the Eiffel Tower, and touched down at 10:22 p.m, 33.5 hours after he left New York.
He would not be the first aviator to cross the Atlantic. That had been done in June 1919 by two British airmen, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown. However, they flew from Newfoundland to Ireland, just 1,936 miles. Lindbergh’s total distance would be almost double that, 3,610 miles.
Lindbergh positioned his aircraft west at the end of Roosevelt Field, heading along the east-west runway. The rain persisted until almost dawn, then turned into intermittent drizzle. When the rain slackened, the wind had shifted and was blowing from the west. Instead of taking off into the wind, giving him an advantage in lift, there was a 5 mph tailwind.
The airplane was heavy, the tanks topped off with 450 gallons of fuel, and the runway, which consisted of dirt and cinders, was soft from the rain. When the chocks were pulled, Lindbergh gathered speed slowly. He used every bit of the field, barely clearing the telephone wires at the far end. He was up and away at 7:52 a.m.
The Making of an Airman
At 25, Lindbergh was already a pilot of exceptional ability, having honed his skills in some difficult places. He learned to fly in 1922, but before that he performed as a wing walker on the barnstorming circuit in the Midwest and Great Plains. He bought his first airplane—a war surplus Curtiss Jenny—in 1923 and kept on barnstorming as a pilot.
The opportunity to fly powerful, modern airplanes drew him to the Army flying cadet program in 1924. His instructors were surprised to discover he was almost as proficient as they were. Commissioned a second lieutenant in 1925, he affiliated with the Missouri National Guard in St. Louis, flying with his squadron on weekends. In 1926, he began flying the airmail regularly on the route between St. Louis and Chicago.
“I first considered the possibility of the New York-Paris flight while flying the mail one night in the fall of 1926,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I fly from New York to Paris? I have more than four years of aviation behind me, and close to 2,000 hours in the air. I’ve barnstormed over half of the 48 states. I’ve flown my mail through the worst of nights.”
In 1919, hotel operator Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first aviator to fly nonstop from New York to Paris or Paris to New York. Nobody rose to the challenge, primarily because airplanes of the day were not capable of it. When Orteig renewed the offer in 1925, technology had improved enough for several competitors to try.
The first serious attempt was by René Fonck of France in September 1926 in a huge Sikorsky biplane with three engines, a crew of four, a bed, and red leather seats. Hopelessly overweight, it crashed and burned on takeoff in New York, killing Fonck’s radio operator and the mechanic.
Most of those who aspired to transatlantic flight likewise chose large airplanes with multiple engines. Lindbergh’s concept was for a single-engine aircraft that weighed as little as possible. As a basic principle, he said, “I’ve determined to hold down every ounce of excess weight.” He sought to buy an existing airplane suitable for his purposes, but was unable to do so.
The Spirit of St. Louis
Lindbergh found the perfect solution with Ryan Airlines of San Diego, which agreed to build an airplane to his specifications. “There were a number of public spirited men in St. Louis sufficiently interested in aviation to finance such a project,” Lindbergh said.
The order was given to Ryan Feb. 8, 1927. Lindbergh also persuaded the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce to sponsor the flight. The airplane was named The Spirit of St. Louis. Ryan, giving the project a maximum effort, designed and built the Spirit in 60 days.
It was based in considerable part on Ryan’s popular M-2 mail plane. The Spirit was a monoplane with a highly reliable Wright J-5C radial engine, an all-metal propeller, extended wingspan, extra fuel tanks, and strengthened fuselage and wings.
It would have a single seat. Lindbergh saw no need for a navigator, figuring he could strike the European coastline anywhere between Scandinavia and Spain and land without endangering himself.
At his insistence, the large main and forward fuel tanks were placed in the forward section of the fuselage, in front of the pilot. This reduced the risk of his being crushed between the fuel tank and the engine in the event of a crash.
Visibility ahead was not that important. “We always look out at an angle when we take off,” Lindbergh said. “The nose of the fuselage blocks out the field straight ahead. There’s not much need to see ahead in normal flight. All I need is a window on each side to see out through.” On his airmail route, he often flew from the rear cockpit and put the mail bags in front. Ryan provided him an option of sorts with a three-by-five inch periscope to see straight ahead. It protruded out the left side of the cockpit and retracted when not in use.
The airplane was assigned tail number N-X-211. Lindbergh took possession May 10 and flew from San Diego to Curtiss Field in New York with an intermediate stop in St. Louis. On the trip, he set a new transcontinental speed record, enthusiastically reported by the national newspapers.
“My critics are confronted with the fact that The Spirit of St. Louis has now been more thoroughly tested in long cross-country flights than either the America or the Columbia,” Lindbergh said, alluding to his main competitors for the Orteig Prize.
In the month before Lindbergh departed San Diego, two more Orteig-related tragedies occurred. In April, Americans Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster were killed when their three-engine Keystone Pathfinder stalled on takeoff and crashed a week before their planned attempt at a New York to Paris flight.
On May 8—two days before Lindbergh left San Diego—France’s leading aviators, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, took off for New York from Le Bourget Field in Paris in a big PL-8 Levasseur biplane. The airmen, seated side by side in an open cockpit, wore heavy, fur-lined, electrically heated flying suits. They were observed crossing the western shoreline of Ireland and were never seen again.
Two other contenders were already in New York when Lindbergh got there. The polar explorer, Cmdr. Richard E. Byrd, planned to make the trip in a huge three-engine Fokker trimotor, the America. He did not register for the Orteig prize money, declaring his flight to be purely for science.
Byrd had leased Roosevelt Field, adjacent to Curtiss, but offered Lindbergh use of the longer runway. Byrd’s backers instructed him to wait to fly until the fate of Nungesser and Coli was known.
Charles Levine of the Columbia Aircraft Corp. was sponsoring a Bellanca WB-2 biplane, the Columbia, and was holding tight personal control. He insisted on choosing the crew and changing his mind if he wanted to. It was uncertain who the two airmen would be. Ironically, Lindbergh had tried to buy the Bellanca before finding Ryan.
Fonck, who had crashed the previous year, was back from France with two motors for his new Sikorsky aircraft. He declared himself still in the Orteig race, but he was far from ready.
Lindbergh landed in New York at Curtiss Field, one of a cluster of three on Long Island. The others were Roosevelt Field, from which he would depart for Paris, and the Army’s Mitchel Field.
On the day Lindbergh got there, May 12, the western half of the Atlantic was rough with squalls that showed no sign of dissipating. As the airmen waited for the weather to improve, they made adjustments and enhancements to their airplanes.
The internal problems of the Bellanca team worsened. In a contract dispute, Levine fired his copilot/navigator, who got a court injunction blocking the change. It was overturned on appeal, but the Columbia’s program was off track.
A stamp collector offered Lindbergh $1,000 to carry a pound of mail, souvenir envelopes, and stamps to Paris. He declined, unwilling to compromise, even by a pound, his principle of no excess weight. However he found room for five sandwiches—two ham, two roast beef, one hard-boiled egg—as travel rations. He took two canteens of water but refused a thermos of coffee.
Flying solo was Lindbergh’s choice. It was not required by the Orteig rules, but it meant that he had to be at the controls for more than 30 hours despite his lack of sleep the night before.
He plotted a “great circle” route across the North Atlantic via Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and Ireland. It was the shortest route to Paris, about 473 miles shorter than the straight shot across the ocean imagined on flat projection maps. Given that the Earth is spherical, not flat, the real distance between two points becomes progressively less as the circumference of the globe diminishes in the northern latitudes.
Lindbergh passed over St. John’s, Newfoundland, at 8:15 p.m., almost 12 hours after leaving New York. He was seen by hundreds of people as he disappeared seaward. It was his last opportunity for a position check before the 1,850-mile leg over the ocean.
As night fell, lack of sleep caught up with him. The Spirit of St. Louis was not an easy airplane to fly, which helped. It required a constant hand on the stick and would awaken him when he dozed off. He left the side windows open, keeping a flow of cold air on his face.
A deep fog reduced visibility, but of more concern were strong headwinds from the north, which blew the airplane to the south. Concurrently, the compass needle spun wildly, reacting to a magnetic disturbance. Lindbergh maneuvered to recover and made his best judgment on a course correction.
About 2 a.m. New York time, Lindbergh passed the halfway mark of his voyage. An hour later was dawn, local time. Daylight on May 21 would not last that long for him personally, compressed as he crossed half a dozen time zones, leading to an early sunset.
Amazingly, he was only three miles off his planned course when he reached landfall in Ireland, better than expected from dead reckoning under perfect conditions. He located Cape Valentia and Dingle Bay on his maps and renewed his compass course toward Paris.
From there on, excitement overcame his need to sleep.
As Lindbergh flew at 500 feet along the southern coast of England, he wondered if he had been recognized by anyone below. In fact, The Spirit with its distinctive shape had been tracked steadily, and the entire world knew he was within range of the English Channel.
He was several hours ahead of schedule and crossed into France in the dark at Cherbourg just before 9 p.m. local time. He ate one of the sandwiches from his paper bag, the first food since takeoff, and drank some water from his canteen.
He saw the lights of Paris a little before 10 p.m., circled the Eiffel Tower, and touched down at Le Bourget Field at 10:22 p.m.—33½ hours after his departure from New York. The Spirit of St. Louis still had 85 gallons of fuel left, enough to have flown another thousand miles.
A crowd of 25,000 had gathered to await his arrival and as he taxied in, broke down the steel fences and rushed out onto the field. Souvenir hunters tore pieces from the airplane and grabbed items from the cockpit. Most of the damage was easily repaired. The only significant losses were the engine log and navigation log, which were carried away.
French aviators rescued Lindbergh from the frenzied mob and the French air force pulled the airplane in to a nearby hangar.
Lindbergh finally got to bed about 4:15 a.m. “It was 63 hours since I had slept,” he said. He had not obtained a visa before leaving the United States, but that turned out to be no problem.
It is difficult to recall any individual—before or since—receiving comparable international acclaim. “Overnight, Lindbergh became the most popular and most recognized person on the planet,” says curator Dominick Pisano of the Smithsonian Institution.
The President of France pinned the Legion of Merit on the lapel of a suit Lindbergh borrowed for the occasion. He was cheered by half a million well-wishers on a parade down the Champs-Elysses in Paris.
President Calvin Coolidge sent the cruiser USS Memphis to bring Lindbergh and the airplane back to the U.S. Lindbergh flew The Spirit to England, where it was taken aboard the cruiser. King George presented him the Royal Air Force Cross.
The New York Times “devoted its first five pages to Lindbergh the day after his flight and the first 16 the day after he returned from Paris,” according to Tom Wolfe in “The Right Stuff.”
The crowd lining the route for a ticker tape parade in New York was estimated at 4 million. Lindbergh was awarded the Medal of Honor by special act of Congress. On June 16, he was formally presented with the Orteig prize in New York.
Between July and October, he flew The Spirit of St. Louis on a tour of the nation, touching down in 49 states. He subsequently visited Mexico and 12 other Central American and West Indies countries on a 9,000-mile goodwill excursion.
A Place in History
Lindbergh’s popularity took a nose dive in the early 1940s as the result of his expressed admiration for the Germans and his regret that the United States was pulled into an alliance against them. [For the full story, see “The Cloud Over Lindbergh,” Air Force Magazine, August 2014, online.] That, however, did not change his towering achievement in 1927 and his reputation recovered to considerable degree with passage of time after the war.
Lindbergh wrote several accounts of the flight, notably in two books, both of which are still in print. “We” (referring to himself and the airplane) was published in 1927. He did not choose the title and disliked it. The choice was made by the publisher.
He delivered a more substantial version in “The Spirit of St. Louis” in 1953. It won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie. Jimmy Stewart, 49, was convincing in his portrayal of the 25-year-old Lindbergh.
In May 1929, two years after the Paris flight, Lindbergh and his partners sold The Spirit of St. Louis to the Smithsonian for $1. It currently hangs in a place of honor at the National Air and Space Museum.