Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Lindbergh’s Flight

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Aviators

Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo first flight from New York to Paris in 1927 captured the imagination of the world and made him the first modern media star. With very little sleep the night before and carrying five sandwiches and a quart of water, he flew 3610 miles into history.

The flight, more than any other single flight since the Wright Brothers, revolutionized aviation.

In early morning drizzle, Lindbergh bounced along the wet, muddy runway of Roosevelt Field, New York. At the last moment, he was able to lift the fuel laden, silver “Spirit of St. Louis,” off the runway and barely clear the telephone lines at the end of the runway.

Several others had tried to make the trip before Lindbergh, but failed. Six lost their lives. French war ace Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli made the most recent attempt. They took off from Paris headed for New York on May 8 and were never heard from again.

The Spirit of St. Louis

These failed attempts were made with multiengine airplanes and had more than one pilot. Lindbergh believed that he could be successful by keeping things simple and holding weight to a minimum. He would be the only pilot. There would be only one engine because more than one raised the probability of an engine failure. Also, a single engine has more range than a multiengine plane because the single engine in the nose provides a streamlined profile that reduces drag.

Lindbergh found financial support for his venture from eight businessmen in St. Louis. One of them, the president of the local chamber of commerce, suggested the name, “Spirit of St. Louis,” for the airplane.

Lindbergh found a small company, the Ryan Aircraft Corporation, located in San Diego that agreed to custom build an airplane for him in two months that would have a cruising range of 3,500 miles. The price was $10,580. They designed a high-wing monoplane containing an extra-large fuel tank.

The power is provided by a 223-horsepower Wright Whirlwind J-5-C radial air-cooled engine capable of a cruising speed of 108 mph. The Wright Aeronautical Corporation manufactured the engine. The company retained the Wright Brothers name both no longer had any ties with the Wright Brothers.

The body of the plane was constructed of tubular steel, wooden ribs and wings and covered with silver painted fabric. A large 425-gallon main fuel tank was placed directly in back of the engine as a safety factor.

Lindbergh wanted the cockpit built behind the fuel tank so that he would not be crushed in the event of a crash. The downside of this design was that his forward vision was blocked. This necessitated the provision of a periscope for forward vision to go along with the vision out of the side windows.

Grandson Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Flight

In contrast, on May 2, 2002, Erik Lindbergh commemorated the 75th anniversary of his grandfather’s 1927 flight in a state-of the-art Lancair 300 airplane. The Lancair is a lightweight carbon-and-fiberglass plane capable of cruising at 185 mph with its 310 horsepower engine. It is equipped with satellite communications and global positioning. Three seats were removed to accommodate an extra fuel tank that enables the Lancair a 3600-mile range capability. The cost of the plane was $289,000.

Erick, age 36, made the trip in 17 hours. It took his grandfather twice as long.

The 1927 Flight

On May 20, 1927 the Spirit of St. Louis was sitting at the western end of the mile-long runway ready to take off. The 25-year old Lindbergh might have thought back to when at age 8 he first became enamored with flying. His father had taken him to see an air show involving airplanes like the Wright biplane.

In the final checkout before take-off, Lindbergh realized that the compass was mounted too high to read easily. The problem was corrected with a woman’s compact mirror and some chewing gum to serve as adhesive.

The plane would have 5,000 feet in which to lift off and gain enough altitude to clear telephone lines near the end of the runway. The plane contained 2,750 pounds of gasoline and 140 pounds of oil. The plane itself weighed 2,150 pounds. Lindbergh weighed 170 pounds and there were 40 additional miscellaneous pounds. Lindbergh carried no parachute, radio or sextant to conserve weight. The plane had never before carried this much weight on takeoff.

Lindbergh had five sandwiches for nourishment. He was asked if that was enough food. He answered: “If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more, and if I don’t get to Paris, I won’t need any more, either.”

The newspapers were not optimistic. They referred to Lindbergh as the “flying fool.”

At 7:51 a.m. the plane started down the runway in a drizzle. At the halfway mark, the point where he had to decide if he was going to abort to avoid a crash, the plane still wasn’t airborne. He kept going.

The plane briefly bounced. With 2,000 feet to go, the plane bounced a second time. Now there was only 1,000 feet left. One last time he attempted to lift the plane sharply enough to clear the telephone lines. This time the plane responded. The plane was airborne and cleared the telephone lines by less than 20 feet. The crowd cheered. He was on his way to Paris.

The next big challenge would be to stay awake during the expected 36-hour flight. A prospect made more difficult by the fact that he had not gotten any sleep the night before because of tension and noise outside his hotel room.

The first leg of the flight took him over New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Leaving the U.S. mainland, he had to navigate 250 miles over water without a landmark to Nova Scotia. He arrived there without incident, only six miles off course.

The next objective was Newfoundland, another two hundred miles away over water. This was the last landmark before the big leap over the Atlantic. Already fatigue was starting to have it effects. His eyes were feeling “dry and hard as stones” and he had trouble keeping them open.

He was experiencing a condition known as “microsleep,” which lasts between 2-30 seconds and causes a pilot to have performance lapses.

Newfoundland was his last contact with land until Ireland. After Newfoundland, he would be without contact with the world for the next 15 hours. The world waited with nervous anticipation for further word.

At the 14-hour mark he ran into his first serious problem with weather; ice was beginning to form on the plane. The wind was blowing him every which way. He turned the plane 360 degrees, looking for an opening. As if he didn’t have enough problems, his compass was malfunctioning, possibly because of a magnetic storm. Fortunately, just as things looked bleak, the great thunderstorms parted and the moon came out.

At the 17-hour mark, Lindbergh had gone 24 hours without sleep. He was numb to both hunger and cold. He lost control of his eyelids. Luckily, the Spirit of St. Louis was not a stable plane. It had to be physically flown. The required activity helped keep him awake.

Desperate to stay awake, he decided on a dangerous maneuver. Since he was flying in an open cockpit, he purposely flew close enough to the ocean for the spray to hit him in the face. Despite his best efforts, he began having hallucinations and hearing voices.

As if he didn’t have enough problems, he began to worry that he may not be on course because of the storms he had flown through. But after 28 hours of flying, he spotted Ireland. Amazingly, he was only 3 miles off course.

Now, he was only 6 hours from Paris. He arrived there without incident but had trouble finding Le Bourget Field outside Paris. He saw a long strand of lights that confused him, causing him to initially fly past the airfield. Upon closer examination, he discovered it was tens of thousands of headlights of cars stuck in traffic trying to get to the airport.

The exhausted Lindbergh landed at 10:24 p.m. Paris time, May 21, 1927, 33 1/2 hours after taking off from Roosevelt Field. An estimated 150,000 people were there to greet him.

Little did he realize that his problems were not over; he faced another danger. The mob of humanity knocked down a restraining fence and rushed past the overwhelmed police and soldiers and crashed over him. In immediate danger of being crushed, two French pilots came to his rescue. One pulled off Lindbergh’s helmet and placed it on a nearby reporter. The second threw his coat over him. In the confusion they managed to hustle the disguised Lindbergh into a car and drove him to a nearby-darkened hanger.

Eventually, he was driven to the American Embassy in Paris, where, after 63 hours of no sleep and in borrowed pajamas, he finally went to bed.

Most Famous Man On the Earth

The flight transformed a 25-year-old boy into the most famous man on earth. Upon his return to New York City, 4 1/2 million people welcomed him home with a gigantic ticker tape parade.

Lindbergh used his hero admiration to crusade for commercial aviation. He began by making a 22,350 mile air tour of the U.S. in three months landing in each of the 48 states. His tour demonstrated that modern airplanes could keep to regular schedules as successfully as railroad trains.

On his return President Calvin Coolidge presented him with the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Gold Medal before 6,000 Washington dignitaries. Lindbergh in his acceptance speech proclaimed, “I hope and believe that in the near future we will flying over practically every corner of the world, and the airplane will unite more closely the nations than they are today.”

Orville Wright was on the platform behind the podium and was honored after the presentation of the medal during a historic pageant reviewing the outstanding achievements in aviation.

Lindbergh followed that up with an air tour of Central America. While visiting Mexico he met his future wife, Anne Morrow, who was the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. After their marriage, he taught her to fly and she became the first woman glider pilot.

In 1933, Charles and Anne Lindbergh flew 30,000-miles in an epochal flight covering four continents and 31 countries. On their return flight, they honored aviation’s beginning 30 years before by Wilbur and Orville Wright by flying over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The year before they had endured the tragedy of their 20-month old son’s kidnapping and death.

Flying Combat Missions As A Civilian

During World War II at age 42, Lindbergh, as a civilian, flew 50 combat missions and shot down at least one Japanese fighter. Prior to Pear Harbor, Lindbergh, was actively opposed to America entering World War II as was his father in World War I. Lindbergh, who was formerly a commissioned officer in the Army Air Corps reserve, abruptly changed his pacifist views after the Japanese sneak attack on December 7, 1941. Two days after the attack, he offered his services to the Air Corps.

The Roosevelt administration upset at his prewar peace activities refused his offer. Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, told Lindbergh that he was “unwilling to place in command of our troops as a commissioned officer any man who had such a lack of faith in our cause, as he had shown in his speeches.”

Undeterred, he obtained a job as a technical representative with United Aircraft and was sent to the South Pacific to test the F4U Corsair and the P-38. Once there, his military friends secretly let him fly combat missions in addition to his civilian duties.

In 1953, President Eisenhower belatedly recognized Lindbergh’s military contributions. He restored his commission in the Air Force Reserve and promoted him to Brigadier General.

In the latter stage of Lindbergh’s life, he devoted his time to advocacy of environmental causes working with the World Wildlife Fund.

He died of cancer in August 26, 1974. At his request, he was buried in khaki work clothes in a plain wooden coffin in Maui, where the Lindbergh’s had a winter home.

He wrote, “After my death the molecules of my being will return to the earth and the sky. They came from the stars. I am of the stars.”

Lindbergh was multitalented person. He was an engineer, scientist, philosopher and Pulitzer Prize winning author among other things. Of all his achievements, he will mainly be remembered for his historic flight of the Spirit of St Louis to Paris in 1927.

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