Lindbergh vs. Atlantic: The Sequel

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Aviators

More than any other single flight since the Wright Brothers, Lindbergh’s solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris in 1927, revolutionized aviation. It hastened the transition of the airplane from an instrument of war and sport to that of commercial use. Lindbergh prophesized after his flight that “the year will surely come when passengers and mail will fly every day from America to Europe.”

In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the event, Erik Lindbergh honored his grandfather by recreating the famous solo flight.

I have a personal interest in this exciting event as I attended the Naval Officers Candidate School with Erik’s father, Jon, in 1954.

Charles Lindbergh Honors Orville Wright

Charles Lindbergh and Orville Wright enjoyed a close friendship and admired each other. When Lindbergh returned to America after his famous flight, he was committed to attend ceremonies in Washington, New York and St. Louis. After he fulfilled these commitments, his next act was to visit Orville in Dayton to pay his respects to the surviving inventor of the airplane.

He landed at Wright Field on the outskirts of Dayton on June 22, 1927, less than a month after the flight to Paris. A large crowd was awaiting them in downtown Dayton. Orville didn’t like crowds any more than Lindbergh did, so he suggested they take a back way to Orville’s home, Hawthorn Hill in Oakwood, skipping the crowds. Lindbergh readily agreed.

The plan went awry when the crowds showed up at Hawthorn Hill just as Orville and Lindbergh sat down for dinner. They shouted for Lindbergh to appear, in the process trampling Orville’s flowerbeds. Lindbergh saved the flowers by agreeing to appear briefly on a small balcony outside of Katharine’s room to wave to the people.

They met periodically thereafter, since they served on a number of committees together, which included the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics.

On one occasion, Lindbergh attempted to mediate the controversy between the Smithsonian Institution and Orville over the rightful refusal by Orville to display the 1903 Flyer in the Smithsonian Institution. Orville demanded that the Smithsonian recant their claim that the Langley Aerodrome was the first airplane that was capable of flight. Lindbergh failed in his mission, noting that Orville was as difficult to deal with as the Smithsonian, but that the greater fault was with the Smithsonian. Lindbergh wrote, “He has encountered the narrow mindedness of science and dishonesty of commerce.”

On other occasions, Lindbergh urged Orville to write an autobiography about the Wright Brothers. Lindbergh, himself, had written his own autobiography because he thought it was important to accurately record important historical events for posterity. After repeated attempts he gave up. Orville just wasn’t interested enough to tackle the task. He agreed to have others try, but he didn’t like what they had written.

Lindbergh demonstrated his profound admiration for the Wrights by his agreement to move his famous monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, to make room in the Smithsonian for the arrival of the 1903 Wright Flyer when the Flyer was finally returned to the U.S. from the London Science Museum in 1948. Orville and the Smithsonian had belatedly reached an agreement on the display of the Flyer after the Smithsonian admitted that the claims for the Aerodrome could not be substantiated.

The Spirit of St. Louis had been the centerpiece in the Hall of Arts and Industries Building since 1928. Lindbergh sold the airplane to the Smithsonian for $1 after the completion of his successful U.S. and Latin American air tours. Lindbergh considered it an honor to move it to the rear of the hall.

Lindbergh Flies Again

When Erik was a child he would ask his grandfather how it felt to fly across the ocean alone. His grandfather would respond with, “read the book.” Later when Erik was older, he made a carving of the Spirit of St. Louis. That set him thinking again about his grandfather’s flight and how it must have been to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. He decided that “I want to do that.” Now was the time to find out for himself how his grandfather felt and to honor him on the 75th anniversary of the event by restaging his grandfather’s famous flight.

Erik followed the same flight plan as his grandfather had done in 1927. He left Lindbergh Field, San Diego, on April 14, 2002 (a month earlier than his grandfather) in the New Spirit of St. Louis.

San Diego was the starting point because Ryan Airlines in San Diego had built the original Spirit of St. Louis.

The next day Eric flew to St. Louis where the original financial backers for his grandfather resided.

He next flew to Republic Airport in Farmington, New York, the departure point for Le Bourget Field in Paris. He chose Republic Airport as a stand-in for Roosevelt Field that his grandfather had used. The site of Roosevelt Field is now a shopping mall.

Erik did not fly a reproduction of his grandfather’s airplane, but it is similar. The Lancair 300 is a small, 310 hp single engine, state-of-the-art airplane made of composite materials that has been modified for the trip. The sleek red and white Lancair has been referred to as the Lexus of small airplanes. It is capable of cruising at a speed of 184 mph. That is 76 mph faster than his grandfather’s plane. The extra speed permits him to fly the 3,610 miles to Paris in 17-20 hours compared to his grandfather’s 33 1/2 hours, cutting the time of the flight almost in half.

Eric’s actual time was 17 hours and 7 minutes.

The original plane cost $10,580 ($100,000 in today’s dollars). The new “Spirit” cost $289,000.

Erik’s plane is smaller, with a wing span that is 10 foot smaller, but it is more reliable. He could also see better. The “Spirit” had no front windshield because a gas tank was placed in the space.

It was also more comfortable. His grandfather sat in a hard wicker chair. Eric had comfortable leather seat.

Erik, 36, had a better airplane, but he was faced with a challenge his grandfather didn’t have. Erik has rheumatoid arthritis disease that nearly crippled him by the age of 21 and required knee replacement surgery. Before the arthritis hit him, he was a champion gymnast and ski racer. Some two years ago he began taking a new drug that has resulted in significant improvement in his condition.

His Lancair has a side stick control and room inside the cockpit so he can stretch. Erik spent months training for the trip under the guidance of Stanley R. Mohler, Director of Aerospace Medicine at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

The family worried that the trip might cause his arthritis to produce dangerous fatigue. Even for a perfectly healthy person, the trip was a risky proposition. But Erik was determined, so the family supported him.

In addition to honoring his grandfather, he hopes his trip will raise awareness of the Arthritis Foundation as well as several other organizations.

One of these is the X Prize Foundation. The foundation has offered a prize of $10 million for the first private reusable spacecraft to carry passengers to an altitude of 62 miles and back. The X Prize has a similarity to the Orteig prize that motivated Erik’s grandfather. Erik is the Director of the X Prize Foundation.

Raymond Orteig, a French expatriate and New York hotel owner, believed that the future of aviation lay in the peaceful pursuit of transoceanic air travel. In 1919, he offered a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator to fly the Atlantic Ocean nonstop between New York and France. It is estimated that 117 people flew over the Atlantic Ocean before Lindbergh’s flight met Ortieg requirements.

The History Channel filmed Erik’s flight (www.HistoryChannel.com).

Erik was a speaker at the Wright Brothers’ Centennial Celebration at the Wright Brothers National Memorial and I had the privilege of speaking with him.

Erik revealed that a suspenseful sequence shown in the History Channel video in which all communications ceased for a short period while flying inside a weather front was not a concern to him. He was in communications with pilots of commercial flights.

At one point during these conversations there was a humorous incident. Erik told one of the pilots that there seemed to be a group of airplanes on the horizon. He was told it was the moon, not airplanes.

Eric said his takeoff wasn’t as suspenseful as his grandfathers who barely had made made it off the ground before running out of runway. But he did have to be careful when taxiing on the runway so that he didn’t turn too fast because the wings were full of fuel and and could sway back and to tip over the airplane.

The wings had been modified to hold an additional 200 gallons of gas. This was about 2/3rds of the amount carried by his grandfather. The total weight of Erik’s plane was 4,260 pounds compared to 5,250 pounds carried by his grandfather.

Erik had no problems on takeoff.

He also was concerned at the other end of the trip about whether his reflexes after the long trip would still be sensitive enough to make a good landing. It turned out that he “nailed it.”

He said, “I made the flight in half the time of my grandfather and ate twice as much.”

Here is a picture of Erik on the left and myself on the right.

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