I know that I’m a few days late. This weekend ended up being busier than I had anticipated. I’ve only written the Lindbergh portion so far. I’ll get to the other parts over the next few days. I haven’t put any citations in this because I wanted to get it to you as soon as possible in case anything else happened. I’ll re-submit this later with proper citations. My main source of reference is “Lindbergh” by A. Scott Bergh.
In aviation, there were many distance records set before 1927 and many distance records after 1927, but none of them grabbed the world’s attention quite like Charles Lindbergh’s solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic in May of that year.
The 1920s saw a growth in technology that arguably rivaled the growth seen during the Great War. Despite the fact that the first all-metal monoplane, the Junkers J.1, flew in 1915, virtually all airplanes at the beginning of the 1920s were still rickety cloth and wood contraptions that had a propensity to spontaneously crash, break apart into a million pieces, and burst into flames, and not necessarily in that order. If the planes didn’t break, then their pilots would routinely get lost and run out of fuel or inadvertently fly into bad weather. However, by the end of the decade, regularly scheduled passenger flights would span across continents using all-metal multi-engine monoplanes – such as the Ford Trimotor and the Junkers Ju-52 – while the world’s first “blind flight” solely using instruments would be flown by James Doolittle.
One of the key motivators for this rapid advancement was the growth of airmail, particularly in the United States. Historically, communication between the east and west coasts of the U.S. could take weeks or even months. The advent of trans-continental rail and telegraph lines in the previous century reduced this significantly, but the airplane’s speed offered the promise of putting a letter or small package in the mail early in the morning and having it delivered across the country by the next evening.
The temperamental nature of early aircraft coupled with essentially non-existent aerial navigation aids forced the US Postal Service to invest in more reliable aircraft and to invent new navigation techniques. By 1924, a network of ground navigation aids and emergency landing fields, called the Transcontinental Airway System, stretched from coast to coast. As the US Postal Service was ironing out the kinks in airmail flying, airmail routes were being systematically handed over to commercial aviation. By 1927, private contractors were flying all airmail routes in the US.
Given all of this it should come as no surprise that the first person to cross the Atlantic solo non-stop would come from the airmail service. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1902, Charles Augustus Lindbergh would spend most of his childhood in Little Falls, Minnesota. From a very early age, Charles exhibited an interest in all things mechanical. He took up flying shortly after flunking out of the mechanical engineering program at the University of Wisconsin in 1922. Soloing for the first time in May of 1923, he spent the next year flying across the US as the barnstorming pilot “Daredevil Lindbergh”.
In an attempt to get his hands on something faster and more modern than war surplus aircraft, he entered into a yearlong US Army pilot training program in March of 1924. The intense Army training program forced Cadet Lindberg to study harder than he ever did in college. When he completed the program in March of 1925, he graduated first in his class of only 19 pilots. The class started out with 104 cadets. Though the Army was in little need of new pilots in 1925, he was ultimately able to receive a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Missouri National Guard.
Between his barnstorming and blossoming military career, Charles Lindberg had earned a bit of a reputation for himself as an able pilot back at Lambert Field in St. Louis, where he had done most of his pre-military flying. In October of 1925, he was hired by the Robertson Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis to begin scouting a path for the company’s recently acquired Contract Air Mail Route between St. Louis and Chicago. That route was only the second contract awarded under the Contract Air Mail system.
During this time, he also applied to be a pilot on Richard Byrd’s North Pole expedition but was ultimately turned down. Undeterred, Lindbergh set his sights on other avenues of aerial conquest. In May of 1919 New York Hotel Owner Raymond Orteig offered up a $25,000 reward to the first pilot or pilots from an Entente country to fly non-stop from New York to Paris or vice versa. After hearing of the efficiency records set at the 1926 National Air Races by the brand new Wright-Bellanca WB-2 and its efficient Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine, Lindberg calculated that it was now theoretically possible for that or a similar aircraft to win the Orteig Prize.
After securing sufficient funding from several St. Louis-based financial organization, Lindberg set about acquiring an aircraft. After a failed attempt at procuring the Wright-Bellanca WB-2 – a one-off prototype – he settled on a custom-built airplane from Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego, California. He chose Ryan because they produced the M-1 monoplane used on the West Coast airmail routes and because several other more prestigious aircraft manufacturers had turned him down, citing that a single-engine single-seat airplane was a ludicrous proposition for crossing the Atlantic.
The Ryan NYP – which stood for New York to Paris – was powered by the same Wright Whirlwind engine that powered the WB-2 and was designed specifically for the crossing. Aircraft performance was the primary concern and very little attention was paid to pilot accoutrements. The aircraft even lacked a front windshield as the space required was needed for more fuel. Lindberg deemed that a retractable periscope would suffice for the few minutes of forward visibility needed for takeoff and landing.
As the NYP – now dubbed The Spirit of St. Louis in honor of her financiers – neared completion, competition began to heat up. Three other American teams and one French team had entered the race, all better funded and better organized than Lindbergh. In case fortune chose not to favor him, Lindbergh started to make backup plans for a Pacific crossing. His primary focus still remained on crossing the Atlantic, however as April of 1927 began any luck that Lindbergh experienced typically came at the tragic misfortune of someone else.
Richard Byrd, fresh from his flight to the North Pole, had his chance to cross the Atlantic ripped from him on the 16th when the Fokker Trimotor he was planning to use for the flight crashed on its first test flight. On the 26th, two US Naval officers, Lieutenant Commander Noel Davis and Lieutenant Stanton Wooster, were killed during a test flight when their Keystone K-47 Pathfinder crashed shortly after takeoff from Langley, Virginia. Then, on the 8th of May, two French flying aces from the Great War, Charles Nungesser and François Coli, took off from Le Bourget field near Paris in a Levasseur PL.8 biplane named L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird) bound for New York. However, when The White Bird failed to appear over the skies of New York may hours after her scheduled arrival time the realization began to sink in that she had disappeared somewhere over the icy North Atlantic.
That only left Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis and Clarence Chamberlin in the Bellanca WB-2, now christened “Columbia”. After Lindberg’s arrival at New York bad weather across the Atlantic and rain in New York prevented either competitor or Byrd in his recently repaired Fokker to begin their journeys. On the 19th, weather reports began to indicate that a high pressure area over the North Atlantic would start to create clearer weather by the next day with conditions improving on the 21st.
After failing to get any sleep that night, the anxious Lindbergh set off for Roosevelt Field in the pre-dawn hours of the 20th to oversee the preparation of his aircraft. Despite the Spirit’s tires sinking into the muddy runway, Lindbergh decided to begin his attempt that day. With his aircraft fully fueled and his engine warmed, he advanced the throttle at 7:54 am and lumbered down the runway, bouncing several times off the muddy surface until he finally managed to takeoff, barely clearing the telegraph lines at the far end of the field.
Without the use of radio or celestial navigation aids to save weight, Lindbergh relied solely on the use of dead reckoning. This technique required flying a precise compass heading from one pre-determined waypoint to the next while occasionally verifying his location by comparing what he could see out his windows with the landmarks annotated on his aerial charts when he was over land. Being off by 1 degree could lead to a nearly 30 nautical mile (55 km) deviation in course after flying across 1,600 nautical miles (3,000 km) of open ocean from Newfoundland to Ireland.
He passed St. Jon’s, Newfoundland at 8:15 pm local time and headed out over the open ocean. During the flight across the Atlantic, Lindbergh battled poor visibility and icing conditions as well as fatigue brought on by a severe lack of sleep. The constant need to keep his unstable aircraft flying was the only thing that kept him from succumbing to exhaustion.
In the middle of the night, Lindbergh was forced to make some drastic maneuvers, both in direction and altitude, in an attempt to avoid a thunderstorm over the North Atlantic and to rid his wings of ice. The maneuvers and the electromagnetic interference from the thunderstorm made both his earth inductor compass and his magnetic compass, his only navigation aids, unreliable. It wasn’t until the clouds broke and he spotted the Moon that he had any indication of his general direction.
The extreme exhaustion he experienced due to lack of sleep also caused him to experience hallucinations in the form of ghostly apparitions and phantom islands. When he finally spotted real land the next day he was unsure what land it was. Because of his maneuvers in the middle of the night, the land in front of him could have been anything from Iceland to the Spanish coast. After careful consultation with his map, he confirmed that he was passing over Dingle Bay in Ireland, only a few miles off course.
He was spotted by the townspeople below and news quickly spread of his successful oceanic crossing. The news of his safe passage up to that point rallied stock markets around the world and had peopled either glued to their radios or mobbing newsstands for the latest editions. The only challenge left for Lindbergh was the last leg to Paris, a paltry 520 nautical miles (964 km) away.
He crossed the French coast near Cherbourg as the sun was beginning to set on the second day of his journey and headed east-southeast towards the mouth of the Seine. From there he was already able to make out the lights from the searchlights in Paris. As he approached the city, he used the illuminated Eifel Tower as a landmark.
He knew that Le Bourget Field was somewhere to the northeast of Paris, but he became confused by the patterns of light on the ground as he headed in that direction. It wasn’t until he lowered his altitude that he was able to determine that some of the lights were from a massive traffic jam that stretched all the way from the center of Paris to Le Bourget. The other strange constellation was from the cars that had already made it to the field and were attempting to light the runway with their headlights.
He made one low pass to determine the condition of the sod and then circled around for his final approach. His wheels finally touched French soil at 10:24 pm Paris time. He had been aloft for 33 and one half hours and had set a world distance record of 3,135 nautical miles (5,810 km).
A security detail consisting of airport police and two companies of French soldiers with fixed bayonets were unable to stop the human tide that rushed towards him. The first words spoken to Lindbergh came from a Le Bourget workman who shouted “Cette fois, ça va!” (“This time, it is done!”). Unable to hear much of anything due to 33.5 hours of constant engine noise he simply replied with “Are there any mechanics here?”
The frantic crowd finally reached him and he was pulled from his aircraft without being able to even set foot on the ground. As the jubilant crowd lifted him up on their shoulders he could hear cracking and tearing sounds as some members of the crowd sought souvenirs from the Spirit. The ecstatic crowd paraded him around the airfield on their shoulders for several minutes. He was ultimately rescued by a few members of the crow who created a diversion by putting Lindbergh’s pilot helmet on an American reporter who happened to be standing by and disguised him by throwing a coat over him.
Once rescued, he was ultimately able to make his way by awaiting motorcar to the house of American ambassador Myron Herrick after a brief detour at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He made one brief press conference in pajamas provided to him by the ambassador and finally at approximately 4:15 am Paris time on the 22nd of May 1927, some 63 hours after he last slept, Charles Lindbergh finally went to bed.
When he awoke at 1:00 pm that afternoon, he found himself the most famous man in the world.