Wright Brothers – Famous Aviators

Articles relating to the famous aviators of the world other than the Wright Brothers.

Harriet Quimby

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Aviators

Harriet Quimby was a female pioneer in aviation. She was the first woman to receive a pilot’s license, the first woman to fly solo over the English channel and the seventh woman to be enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

She was flamboyant, ambitious, beautiful, daring and tragically the first woman to die at an aviation meet.

Harriet loved anything associated with speed. In October 1910 she heard about an international air show to be held at Belmont Park. She decided to attend and while there she met daredevil pilot John Moisant. She was excited when he won a race around the Statue of Liberty and asked him to teach her to fly.

“Flying looks easy,” she said to Moisant. “I believe I could do it myself and I will.”

Her self-confidence came from a mother who didn’t want her daughter to grow up depending on a man. Harriet’s father had gone into bankruptcy as a poor farmer while she was growing up in Coldwater, Michigan.

The family subsequently moved to Oakland, California, searching for a better life. Harriet thrived in the freer lifestyle of California. She tried acting for a while, but found her niche in journalism, writing articles for the San Francisco Bulletin in 1890.

Her boundless energy caused her to travel to New York City, the journalism capital of the world, in 1903. When she arrived she had no job or place to live. It wasn’t long before she found a journalism job as a drama critic for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a top magazine of the day.

Soon after, she engaged in activities usually reserved for men; such as driving and fixing her own automobile, using a typewriter and photographing her own pictures to accompany her articles.

Her writing expanded to subjects as controversial as exposing child neglect. She even wrote seven movie scripts that were made into movies, another first for a woman.

She convinced Leslie’s to finance her flying lessons in return for writing articles about her flying experiences. She wanted to obtain her lessons at the Wright brother’s flying school in Dayton, but the school didn’t accept woman students.

In a seeming contradiction, Katharine Wright, the Wright brothers’ sister was active in the suffrage movement and Milton, her father, and Orville contributed money to the movement. They even marched through downtown Dayton in behalf of the movement.

The Wright flying school did later admit women for pilot training and graduated three of them before the school closed.

Harriet turned to Moisant’s Aviation School on Long Island, who accepted her in 1911. John Moisant was no longer at the school because he was killed in an air meet in New Orleans.

Her instruction consisted of 33 lessons with a little over 4 1/2 hours flying time. On July 31st she flew her first flight test, performing everything right except that she over shot the landing, coming down 40 feet outside the required 160 foot circle. Her flight instructors thought that would discourage her and she would give up.

They didn’t really know Harriet. The next day she tried again and set an accuracy record for her landing. She triumphantly walked over to one of the officials, looked him in the eye and said, “Well, I guess I get my license!”

She did, thus becoming the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license. Earlier that year, a French woman was the first women in the world to receive a license.

She was not a feminist by any means; she opposed confrontation. She viewed her ability to fly as demonstrating through example that woman can do almost anything men can do.

Leslie’s appointed her Aviation Editor and instituted a new department devoted to the subject of aviation. Her articles on her flying experiences in Leslie’s sold out. Some of her articles had titles such as “How a Woman Learns to Fly” and “How I Won My Aviator’s License.”

She created a new fashion style for woman in aviation. The normal flying suits were not flattering to woman. Her outfit consisted of a one-piece suit made of purple satin with knee-length pants and a satin hood. Her accessories were flying goggles, elbow-length gloves and high-laced black boots. She became known as the “Dresden China Aviatrix.”

She joined an exhibition group and won her first cross-country race, winning $600. She followed that up by winning $1,500 for a night flight under a full moon.

Similar to the Wright brothers, she would not fly on Sunday. In her case it was at the request of her mother.

Only three months after earning her flying license, she decided she wanted a new challenge. She decided that she wanted to be the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. She ordered a new airplane for the event, a 50-hp French Beloit monoplane.

Three years earlier, Louis Bleriot had won the London Daily Mail’s 1,000-pound prize for the first successful crossing and became an instant French hero.

By the time Harriet arrived in Britain, the weather had turned bad and her plane had arrived late. The two unexpected events deprived her from having an opportunity to practice flying her new plane. But, she was impatient and concerned that some other woman might make the attempt before she did.

Finally there was a break in the weather on April 16, 1912 so she decided to go even though there were reports of fog near the French coast. The only instrumentation she had was a compass that a friend gave her.

She put on an extra raincoat and took off from Dover at 5:30 a.m. It wasn’t long before she hit the fog bank and couldn’t see where she was going. To make matters worse, her plane had an open cockpit that allowed oil from the engine to blow back in her face.

She flew up to 6,000 feet but that didn’t help. She was forced to rely on her compass that she held cradled between her knees. When she finally broke through the fog, she was 25 miles south of her destination at Calais. She decided to land safely on the sandy beach at Hardelot. The flight had taken one hour and 9 minutes.

It was a remarkable achievement, but she received little recognition for the event. It was her fate that the Titanic disaster, that took 1,573 lives, occurred two days before her flight. The news on the Titanic pushed her achievement off the front page.

That didn’t discourage Harriet, she was off to another air meet two months later. She was offered $100,000 to participate in a Boston air meet, which would take place over Boston Harbor.

At the meet, promoter William Willard asked her for an airplane ride in her 70-hp Bleriot, one of the latest models of military monoplanes. She agreed, but then his son wanted to go also. They decided to settle the matter by a flip of the coin. Willard senior won. As fate would have it, that gamble was one too many.

William Willard weighed some 200 pounds, which stretched the weight limit for the fragile Beloit plane. There was no problem with the take-off on July 1, 1912, but then at about 2,000 feet Willard did something surprisingly stupid – he stood up. No one knows for sure why; maybe it wanted to say something to Harriet. The Beloit plane is configured so the passenger sat in a separate cockpit behind the pilot, so Harriet couldn’t see what was happening.

Then he tumbled out of the plane. There were no seat belts in the plane, which was common for airplanes at that time. It permitted easier access to the engine that often caught on fire or needed some adjustment.

Harriet was confronted with a tail that rose suddenly with the shift in the center of gravity without knowing the cause. She fought to control the plane that was now pitching violently. Then she too was catapulted out of the plane.

To the horror of some thousands of spectators, the two tumbling bodies hit the shallow muddy waters of the bay some 300 feet from the shore. They were both killed instantly. She was 37 years old.

Ironically Harriet had earlier written an article on the dangers of flight in which she advocated the use of seat belts. In another article, Good Housekeeping Magazine, she wrote, “Only a cautious person – man or woman – should fly. I never mount my machine until every wire and screw has been tested. I have never had an accident in the air. It may be luck, but I attribute it to the care of a good mechanic.”

In another twist of fate, If she had been flying a Wright airplane, Willard would have been sitting next to her instead of behind and the accident would probably not have happened. The fact that she was not using a Wright plane most likely goes back to her not being able to attend the Wright flying school.

There were other explanations given in addition to the one I have provided for the cause of the crash such as adverse weather and mechanical problems. I believe the one I provided is the cause that is most believable.

The Boston Post, still not accepting that a woman could fly, gave her faint praise by giving her honorary male status by writing, “She took her chances like a man and died like one.”

She lived life to the fullest and in the process she helped open the door to women to fulfill their life’s potential.

Now, some 100 years later she is remembered on a 50 cent U.S. Postal Stamp and only recently by induction into the U. S. Aviation Hall of Fame. There is a brief description of her achievements on a historic sign near her grave in Kensico Cemetery, Westchester, N.Y.

The headline on the New York Times read: “Miss Earhart Forced Down at Sea, Howland Isle Fears; Coast Guard Begins Search.”

She was one of the world’s most famous pilots and now she had disappeared on a around-the-world flight on a leg from New Guinea to tiny Howland Island in the Pacific ocean.

To this day she has not been found and no one knows for sure what happened to her, the airplane, or her navigator.

There has been plenty of conjecture, some of it bizarre, such as the claim that she was on a spy mission and had been captured by the Japanese.

Roy Conyers Nesbit has written a new book: Missing Believed Killed, that offers a plausible explanation of what really happened. My article is based on his extensive research.

Amelia first burst on the national scene in 1928 when she became the first woman to fly the North Atlantic from New York to London. She never flew the airplane. She was a passenger and log keeper. But that didn’t minimize her achievement to the public.

She was important enough to stand next to Orville Wright during the dedication of the cornerstone of the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1928. The occasion was held on the 25th anniversary of the Wrights’ first flight.

Her place in history was assured in 1937 when she became the first woman to fly solo across the North Atlantic. She flew her red Vega from Newfoundland to a field of cows near Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Her husband called her “Lady Lindy” after Charles Lindbergh who had accomplished the feat ten years earlier.

She went on to establish many flying records including cross-country speed records and was the first person to fly solo over the Pacific from Hawaii to California.

By the time she was 38 years old, she knew that her risky career would be coming to an end in the near future, so she wanted to do something adventurous to cap off her career.

She decided to set a new record by flying around the world following a course that would keep her close as possible to the equator.

The feat would require a larger and faster airplane than her single engine Vega. She chose a twin-engine Lockheed 10-E Electra.

The Electra was modified to hold about 1,200 US gallons of fuel by adding 6 fuel tanks in the fuselage and 6 tanks in the wings. This gave a theoretical range of 4,000 miles in still air at airspeed of 145-mph and an altitude of 4,000 feet.

It was known from the beginning that the long flight, which included several over the water segments including the 2,556-mile nonstop flight to Howland Island, would require a navigator to help Amelia.

She was not a knowledgeable navigator and couldn’t perform celestial navigation because of her mathematical inadequacy. Her technique up to this time had been to fly a compass course as accurately as possible and then try to pick up visual landmarks. When flying across oceans she headed toward large land masses which she was bound to reach eventually.

Initially two men were selected for the navigation job. The first was Captain Harry Manning, the commander of the USS, President Roosevelt. The other was Frederick J. Noonan, an experienced ship and aerial navigator who served as a navigator for the Martin 130 China Clipper that flew from California to Hong Kong.

Another man, Paul Mantz, was hired to teach Amelia how to fly the twin engine Electra. When fully loaded, Amelia’s Electra weighed over 3,300 pounds more than the standard Electra. The heavier airplane required very careful handling, especially on take-off.

Amelia soloed in 1921 after 10 hours of instruction. Some pilots said she lacked an instinctive feel for the controls of an airplane. Mantz was concerned with her tendency to jockey the throttles on take-off to correct the slight swings in yaw instead of using the rudder. She did practice diligently under Mantz’s guidance, including spending time in a Link Trainer.

Additionally, it was decided that Mantz would serve as co-pilot on the first leg of the round-the-world flight from California to Hawaii to provide additional tutoring.

The flight to Hawaii was without incident. The next morning they were to fly to Howland Island. Then disaster struck. The machine ground-looped on take-off. It was a miracle that the fully fuelled airplane didn’t catch on fire, but no one was hurt.

They returned to California and sent the airplane back to Lockheed for rebuilding. The repairs took two months and cost $14,000.

The weather underwent a seasonal change so it was decided to make the second attempt flying in a reverse direction to the east. Fred Noonan was still available to make the flight.

One other change was made that later would have tragic consequences. Amelia had the 250 foot trailing aerial removed that was used for obtaining bearings on 500 kilohertz frequency (kHz) that was normally transmitted in Morse code from ground stations. She didn’t like the bother of winding in and out the antenna and neither she nor Noonan were good at Morse code.

She began their second attempt of flying around the world on May 20, 1937. They left Oakland and thence forth traveled to Tucson; New Orleans; Miami; Puerto Rico; Venezuela; Dutch Guinea; Brazil; Senegal; French West Africa; French Chad; Anglo-Egyptian Sudan; Italian Eritrea; India; Burma; Singapore; Java; Australia and on June 29, Lae, New Guinea. They had flown 22,000-miles since leaving Oakland.

While in Australia, Amelia decided to leave the parachutes behind to save weight and because they would be of no use flying over the Pacific. That may have been another mistake.

Their next destination was Howland Island, a small island that was two miles long and a half a mile wide setting about 20 feet above sea level at its highest point.

Two boats were stationed along the route. One, a tug, the USS Ontario, was placed at the halfway point and the other, the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca was positioned near Howland. The Itasca was equipped to receive and transmit radio bearings and provide a visual smoke signal.

Amelia decided to reduce weight further by unloading all surplus equipment and baggage and possibly even the survival kit.

Several witnesses reported that Noonan drank heavily up to the night before take-off. He had a reputation of being a heavy drinker.

At 1000 hours local time (0000 GMT) on July 2nd, Amelia took off and headed for Howland Island, 2,556 miles away. (GMT means Greenwich Mean Time and is the time that is measured from the Greenwich Meridian line located at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England). Her estimated time of arrival at Howland was 1800 hours GMT that was a few minutes after sunrise. On the way she would travel through several time zones.

In her last letter to her husband she wrote:

“Not much more than a month ago, I was on the other side of the Pacific, looking westward. This evening, I looked eastward over the Pacific. In the fast moving days that have intervened the whole width of the world has passed behind me – except this broad ocean. I shall be glad when we have the hazards of its navigation behind us.”

Throughout her flight she transmitted messages every half-hour using her call-sign of KHAQQ, not knowing whether she was heard. The estimated range of the signal was up to 400 miles, but sometimes could be heard much further.

The early part of the flight was in daylight, where being able to see islands helped navigation. The night flight was mainly over open sea and Noonan navigated using stars and planets.

The radio operator at Lae heard Amelia clearly during the early part of the flight. She gave her first position report at about 850 miles out. The Electra was making an average ground speed of about 120-mph, indicating a stronger headwind than expected.

The USS Ontario, stationed at the halfway point never received a signal. An operator on the Island of Nauru, well to the North of the ship, reported receiving a signal but couldn’t make out what she said.

The next transmission anyone heard was on the Itasca stationed near Howland for the purpose of helping guide the Electra to a safe landing. The message came at 1744 hours GMT, only 16 minutes before the Electra was due to arrive.

Amelia indicated she was located about 200 miles out. The weather was not good. There were dark clouds to the northwest of the Itasca and visibility was poor. Amelia, flying under the cloud cover, would not be able to see the smoke signal from the ship from a long distance.

The next message was at 1817 hours GMT. Amelia asked for a bearing and gave her position as about 100 miles out. This was the first indication that something was amiss. She could not have flown 100 miles in the 30 minutes since her last transmission.

At 1912 hours GMT, Amelia transmitted:

“We must be on you now but cannot see you. But gas is running low. Being unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

At 1929 hours GMT, the operators on the ship heard Amelia say,

“We are circling but cannot hear you.”

The problem with her transmission was that she was transmitting on 7,000 kHz, which was not a frequency that bearings could be taken. The operators on the ship were expecting bearings on 500 kHz, which is the frequency the trailing antenna would have transmitted if Amelia hadn’t removed it earlier in the trip.

It appears that Amelia was unable to hear any voice transmissions sent to her. She never was adept with the operation of her radio and this was a serious problem now.

At 2014 hours GMT, she sent her last message:

“We are on a line of position 157 to 337. Will repeat this message on 6,210 kcs. Wait, listening on 6,210 kcs. We are running north and south.”

The operators on the ship said her voice was heard loud and clear but broken and frenzied.

Amelia’s last desperate message was received 20 hours 25 minutes after take-off from Lae. The estimated range for the 950 gallons of gas on the Electra was 20 hours 13 minutes. They must have crashed a few minutes later somewhere not too far from Howland.

According to the skipper of the Itasca, the sea was very rough with up to 6-foot waves. Later arrivals reported snow showers and severe icing at the Equator.

Paul Mantz believes Noonan made a navigation error and missed the island. He believes that they came down under two possibilities. One was that Amelia tried to land too high above the water and stalled, killing both of them.

The other possibility was that she made a bad judgment and flew into a high roller of a wave with the same result.

If they had landed in the water safely, the Electra would have sunk within a minute or two based on experience with the airplane in WW II.

They originally carried emergency equipment on the airplane including a rubber dinghy, lifebelts, flares, flare-pistol, kite and rations. Unfortunately, the likelihood is that this emergency kit was removed earlier to save weight.

The most likely crash site is within 30 miles West of Howland Island

Amelia anticipated that she might someday crash and be killed. She wrote her own epitaph several years before her last flight:

“Hooray for the last great adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worth while anyway.”

The Tuskegee airmen escorted bombers into Europe during World War II and equality into America.

A representative group of the famous Tuskegee airmen spoke of their proud heritage to a group of boys and girls at recent meeting of the NASA sponsored Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) in Warren County, NC.

Tuskegee Airman

The Tuskegee Air Corps training program was initiated at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1941 at the instigation of General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. It was not a popular move at the time. Many Army Air Corps officers viewed the program with suspicion and amusement.

Arnold was not easily intimidated. He was one of first pilots taught to fly by the Wright brothers at Huffman Prairie Field in 1911 and qualified to fly with less than four hours flying time. He went on to become a five-star general and commanded the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. Huffman Field is now a part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The first five Black-Americans to qualify as military pilots graduated from Tuskegee in March of 1942. Army Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. a West Point graduate, was one of the graduates. After graduation he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and become commanding officer of the all black 99th Fighter Squadron.

In 1944, a significant event occurred that made the Tuskegee Airman famous. Bombers flying over Northern France and Germany without fighter escort were being shot down at a high rate, 114 in February. Davis volunteered his group to provide the high-risk fighter escort.

Davis’s group was now designated the 332nd and was equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts. On delivery of the airplanes the ground crew painted the tails red and from then on they were known as the Red Tail Squadron.

The Davis’s Red Tails lost very few bombers during 200 escort missions. They were so successful that bomber pilots requested them as their escorts. Representative of their success was this message from a bomber commander: “Your formation flying and escort was the best we have ever seen.” Davis, now Colonel Davis, received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

By the end of World War II, almost 1,000 Black pilots had earned their wings during the time frame of 1941 to 1946. More than half served overseas. Many earned Air Medals in combat and more than 150 earned Distinguished Flying Crosses. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. would earn a general’s star, becoming the first black Air Force general.

Because of their distinguished record, when the war ended, the War Department was pressured to reassess their segregated military policy. President Truman subsequently issued Executive Order 9981 that integrated the Air Force (the Air Force became a separate service in September 1947).

Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, is flourishing today with more than 200,000 visitors a year. Booker T. Washington founded the school. Agricultural chemist George Washington Carver discovered 300 uses for peanuts there. Famous black poet and friend of Orville Wright Paul Dunbar wrote the school alma mater.

The National Park Service is building the $29 million Tuskegee Airman Memorial that’s expected to draw 400,000 visitors annually after opening in 2007.

Mr. Leonard Hunter, President of the Tuskegee Chapter in Goldsboro, NC provided a strong message to SEMAA students. He told them (majority of which were black) that if the airmen could succeed despite the handicaps of discrimination, they could succeed now with the opportunities they have. “It would be a disservice to yourself and your parents if you didn’t. You can do it!”

Mrs. Lavon-De Driver, wife of one of the attending airman and historian of the chapter, didn’t leave the girls out of the discussion by indicating that there were many black woman involved in providing support services for the Tuskegee airmen during the war.

Update: The Tuskegee Airman were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in early 2006. There were about 40 Tuskegee airman from North Carolina during World War II.

About SEMAA:

SEMAA is an exciting science program featuring hands-on fun activities. NASA substantially funds the program’s curriculum and a computer-enhanced laboratory. Unfortunately, budgets cuts at NASA may result in the termination of the program.

Three repeating Saturday sessions are offered during the academic school year. Each session last eight weeks. In addition there is a summer camp during June. All sessions are free. All kids at the Warren County site with perfect attendance are provided with an expense free trip to Washington, D.C. during the summer. As if that wasn’t enough, kids are given a free airplane ride by the EAA.

Check out the SEMAA web site, http://www.semaa.net.

The Wright Brothers sold their first airplane to the U.S. Amy in 1909. It would be 39 years later before the first black man was able to fly for the U.S. military. This is the story of that pilot.

Many people have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American U.S. Army pilots who flew during World War II. Less well known is Jesse Leroy Brown, the first African-American U.S. Navy pilot who flew during the Korean War.

Blessed with strong determination, he overcame racial barriers of the times while making many unlikely friends. Shot down in Korea in 1950, his story is an inspiration to all and an example of the commonality of man.

Born a sharecropper’s son in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Jesse dreamed of becoming a pilot after his father had taken him to a local air show when he was just six years of age. First, however, he realized he had to go to college. Ohio State University (OSU) was his choice since one of his heroes was Jesse Owens, the great black Olympic champion. Owens had been a track star at OSU. Jesse Brown was a track star in high school.

Ignoring advice that he should attend a black school instead of OSU, Jesse enrolled in the engineering school in 1944 with the intent of becoming an architect. Although there were few black students at OSU and only seven had received diplomas the previous year, he received a friendly reception from his classmates.

Jesse was excited to find that OSU had a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corp (NROTC) program that could lead to pilot training. The Navy recruiter, however, told him bluntly that the Navy had no black pilots and had no plans to have any.

Undeterred, he passed the Navy exams and during his second year of college he entered Navy pilot training. Pilot training is tough and being black didn’t make it any easier. While he experienced racial prejudice, his fellow trainees and instructors for the most part treated him like any other trainee and in some cases even encouraged him.

Jesse earned his golden wings on October 21, 1948, the first black person to do so. His picture appeared in Life magazine.

The Navy had a strict rule that no marriages were permitted until after graduation from flight school. Jesse was in love and he was certainly not averse to taking risks. He ignored the prohibition and married his high school sweetheart, Daisy, during his training even though he risked being kicked out of the program. He successfully kept it a secret even though it became more difficult after Daisy became pregnant.

Jesse’s life changed abruptly in 1950 when 100,000 Chinese soldiers poured into North Korea over the Yalu River, trapping 8,000 Marines. The Marines had to run a gauntlet to the sea where they could be rescued. Jesse’s squadron, flying off the USS Leyte, was assigned to protect the Marines.

Flying his 20th mission, Jesse’s Corsair was hit by ground fire over hostile territory and lost power. The only place to land was on the side of a mountain covered by snow. LTJG Thomas Hudner, a Naval Academy graduate and Jesse’s wingman watched in horror as Jesse’s plane pancaked hard on the mountainside.

Hudner was briefly buoyed by hope to see Jesse wave from the open canopy. But he wasn’t making any effort to get out of the cockpit. Something was very wrong, and to make matters worse, there was smoke rising from the shattered plane.

Hudner made a quick decision to try to rescue Jesse. That meant crash landing his plane next to Jesse on the side of the mountain, which he successfully did. Meanwhile, the rest of the squadron circled overhead to watch for Chinese soldiers and radioed for a rescue helicopter.

Hudner found Jesse trapped in the buckled cockpit without his helmet and gloves in below zero temperature and undetermined internal injuries. He covered Jesse’s head with a wool cap and his numb hands with a scarf and used the snow to put out the smoldering fire. But he couldn’t budge Jesse no matter how hard he tried.

Charlie Ward, a pilot friend of Jesse’s, arrived, making a difficult landing with the helicopter. Charlie had an axe, but that didn’t help free Jesse since the axe just bounced off the metal surface of the plane. Jesse kept getting weaker as the two men desperately tried to free him.

Their efforts were for naught and Jesse died as they worked in frustration. His last words were, “Tell Daisy that I love her.” Hudner and Ward wept.

Back on the ship, Jesse’s squadron debated what to do. They didn’t want to leave him for the Chinese so they decided to give Jesse a “warriors funeral.” The next day seven aircraft left the carrier and flew over the crash site. While one plane accelerated in a vertical climb toward heaven, the others dove and released their bombs on the mountainside. The voice of one of the pilots could be heard over the radio reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

On April 13, 1951, President Truman awarded the Medal of Honor to Jesse’s friend and wingman, Thomas Hudner. Jesse was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

On March 18, 1972 the Navy christened the Destroyer Escort, USS Jesse L. Brown. It was the first Naval Ship named after an African-American.

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.