The Incredible story of Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic.
It’s 7:52 am on May 20th, 1927 and The Spirit of St. Louis slogs down the muddy runway of Roosevelt Field, Long Island. At the controls is Charles Lindbergh, a 25-year old Army Air Service Reserve and Air Mail Pilot who is determined make the first solo flight from New York to Paris. His custom-built plane, named after a group of sponsors from St. Louis, is loaded down with 450 gallons of fuel for the journey. As The Spirit of St. Louis picks up speed it begins bouncing down the runway and struggles to stay off the ground. It’s finally coerced into the air by Lindbergh and clears telephone wires off the end of the runway by only 20 feet. Now safely airborne, Lindbergh looks ahead to his 33 ½ hour flight that will battle poor visibility, thunderstorms, icing and sleep deprivation.
The Birth of The Spirit of St. Louis
In 1919, a wealthy New York hotel owner by the name of Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 reward to the first allied aviator to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris or vice versa (around $370,000 in today’s money). Orteig was not a pilot himself, but an admirer of aviation the early aviation pioneers and a businessman who recognized the importance of long-distance air travel.
There had been numerous attempts on the prize – several with fatalities – years prior to Lindbergh’s preparation. At the time he was hardly a household name in the aviation community. But his adventurous nature and persistence would prove to be effective qualities in the venture. Lindbergh famously said of his attempt, “Why shouldn’t I fly from New York to Paris?”
Lindbergh commissioned Ryan Airlines to build a custom aircraft for the flight. He made several bold decisions about the design of the aircraft. Instead of a tri-motor design of previous attempts, The Spirit of St. Louis was designed with one engine. To save on weight, Lindbergh excluded unnecessary equipment such as radios and a parachute. It’s rumored that Lindberg even removed the top and bottom of his flight map to devote each precious ounce for extra fuel.
One of the most recognizable characteristics of The Spirit is that it was designed without a windshield. Instead, an extra fuel tank was installed in front of the cockpit to bring the total fuel capacity to 450 gallons. Lindbergh wasn’t worried about forward visibility, he would often fly in the back of mail planes with bags of mail in the front cockpit. When he needed to see in front of the aircraft he would simply yaw the aircraft and look through one of the side windows. At the insistence of one of the Ryan employees who had served in the submarine service installed a periscope with limited forward visibility.
In the end, The Spirit of St. Louis was built in only 60 days. It was a 5,135lb, single-engine, single seat aircraft with 223 horsepower and a range of 4,100 nautical miles. The total manufacturing cost was $6,000.
Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island in the morning of May 20, 1927. He faced a 33 ½ hour flight in his solo aircraft but, due to his preparations and the excitement of the flight, Lindbergh hadn’t slept within the preceding 22 hours leading up to the flight.
It didn’t take long for the first challenges of the flight to arise. Darkness set in as Lindbergh departed the coast of Nova Scotia and headed for the open Atlantic. Shortly after Lindbergh recalled, “a thin, low fog formed over the sea through which the white bergs showed up with surprising clearness. This fog became thicker and increased in height until within two hours I was just skimming the top of storm clouds at about ten thousand feet… when I attempted to fly through one of the larger clouds, sleet started to collect on the plane and I was forced to turn around and get back into clear air immediately and then fly around any clouds which I could not get over.” Lindbergh continued avoiding the growing inclement weather, and at several instances flew as low as 10 feet above the waves to stay in the clear.
At 22 hours into the flight, Lindbergh’s sleep deprived state begins to take a toll on him. He struggles to stay awake and finds himself repeatedly drifting to sleep. He avoids eating in the hopes that hunger will keep him awake. When that doesn’t work he opens the windows to force in cold air and resorts to skimming the water in the hopes that the ocean spray will make him more alert.
In his sleep deprived state, Lindbergh experienced hallucinations of ghostly figures in the aircraft with him. They spoke to him above the noise of the engine and gave him advice about the flight. It would take several years after the flight for Lindbergh to admit to these hallucinations.
Lindbergh finds the coast of Ireland 28 hours into the flight. The first indication that he is close to land comes when fishing boats appear in the water below him. Lindbergh circled the boats to try to get any direction from them, even attempting to yell over the sound of his idling engine.
He continued on his journey and reached the English Channel and, later, the French coast. The excitement of the end of the flight kept Lindbergh wide awake.
Lindbergh reached Paris just past 10:00pm local time. He didn’t have the airfield marked on his map, he only knew that it was several miles outside of Paris. He overflew the field thinking it was a well-lit industrial area – in reality, news of Lindbergh’s imminent success had reached ahead to Paris and the lights on the ground were numerous cars that lined the outside of the airfield.
Lindbergh landed and it wasn’t but a moment after the propeller stopped spinning that the estimated crowd of 150,000 people rushed The Spirit of St. Louis.
Aftermath of the Flight
Lindbergh – and The Spirit of St. Louis – became an overnight worldwide celebrity. The pair had conquered the Atlantic. This remarkable flight proved the future of air travel was bright and facilitated the global aviation industry we know today.
“I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on the nations of the world. To me, it was like a match lighting a bonfire.”
– Charles A. Lindbergh
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