In the fall of 1926, during the lonely hours flying the mail at night, a young airmail pilot for Robertson Aircraft Corporation had his first thoughts about flying across the cold Atlantic waters in an attempt to capture the elusive Orteig Prize. His name was Charles A. Lindbergh.
The $25,000 Orteig Prize, which had been offered since 1919 by a prominent New York hotel businessman, Raymond Orteig, for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris, was not what interested Lindbergh. Instead, he was intrigued by the idea of demonstrating publicly that airplanes could safely link the United States and Europe, and at the same time, giving greater credibility to civilian pilots. As for the danger of such an incredible flight, Lindbergh believed that neither the weather nor the danger of a Trans-Atlantic crossing could be any worse than what he had already experienced flying the mail through rain, snow, ice and fog and the emergency parachute landings he made during his airmail career.
As he considered how to go about getting funding for what would become an historic trans-Atlantic journey, he considered using his personal savings, but realized this would not be enough. So he planned a presentation for St. Louis businessmen, hoping they could see what modern aircraft could do and that they would agree to sponsor his attempt at making the crossing. "First, I'll show them how a non-stop flight between America and Europe will demonstrate the possibilities of aircraft, and help place St. Louis in the foreground of aviation. Second, I'll show them that a modern airplane is capable of making the flight to Paris, and that a successful flight will cover its own costs because of the Orteig Prize," Lindbergh later wrote in his book "The Spirit of St. Louis."
Major Albert Bond Lambert was the first to pledge $1,000 toward the flight, after Lindbergh committed his own personal savings of $2,000. By February 1927, Lindbergh received complete financing for his flight from Harold M. Bixby, Harry F. Knight, Harry H. Knight, Albert Bond Lambert, J.D. Wooster Lambert, E. Lansing Ray, Frank H. Robertson, William B. Robertson and Earl C. Thompson. The group became known as the "St. Louis backers."
Because of the support from the St. Louis backers, Lindbergh was given the freedom to pursue his dream of crossing the Atlantic in an unlikely single-engine monoplane that Mr. Bixby would later name the "Spirit of St. Louis." Having been turned down in his attempt to purchase a Bellanca (the best plane available at the time for such a flight), Lindbergh ordered a specially designed aircraft from Ryan Airlines Inc. of San Diego, which he helped design. It would need to be ready in two months.
When Lindbergh registered with the National Aeronautic Association as a contestant for the Orteig Prize, he was regarded as the long-shot of all the crews because he was the only one who planned to fly alone, and in a single-engine plane. Lindbergh believed the single-engine plane was best because it could fly longer than multi-engine planes and could be more streamlined. But some still called him a "flying fool." For pilots reaching for the prize, the lack of instrumentation, accurate weather reporting and adequate lighting were obstacles to be confronted with skill and determination, but building a plane capable of getting off the ground with the heavy load of gasoline needed for a 3,600-mile flight was the greatest challenge of all. In fact, the "Spirit of St. Louis," with its huge fuel tanks that blocked his forward vision, weighed in at 5,250 pounds, of which 2,750 pounds was its 451 gallons of gasoline.
Lindbergh carefully planned every detail of his trip and evaluated the necessity of every item he would carry. He opted to leave his parachute and radio behind so he could carry more fuel, believing that if he crashed he wouldn't need them anyway. When pressed about his decision to forego the radio, Lindbergh said, "When the weather is bad you can't make contact with the ground. When the weather isn't bad a pilot doesn't need a radio." He even went so far as to trim the edges off his maps, remove unnecessary pages from his notebook, and declined to take navigational equipment in order to conserve weight on the plane.
On April 25, 1927, Lindbergh wired Harry Knight in St. Louis to inform him that the plane was ready. Two Army observation planes and a Ryan monoplane escorted Lindbergh as he left San Diego for St. Louis on May 10. He arrived at Lambert Field in St. Louis the following morning, May 11, 1927, establishing a non-stop speed record of 1,500 miles in 14 hours and 25 minutes. He spent the night in his former boarding house and left the next morning for New York.
Lindbergh arrived in Long Island on May 12, 1927. The mood was tense as Lindbergh and the other contestants waited day after day for the weather to clear enough to make a successful take-off. He spent hours reviewing weather charts, tuning his plane, dealing with the incessant media - diligently guarding his take-off plans, and occasionally taking in some sights in New York.
In the weeks preceding Lindbergh's take-off, the magnitude of the danger of the flight became even more eminent. Newspapers were peppered with stories of plane crashes and fatalities surrounding the competition. French pilot Rene Fonck and three others crashed on takeoff from Roosevelt Field on Long Island on Sept. 21, 1926, killing two crewmen. Both Richard E. Byrd (who had already flown over the North Pole) and Clarence D. Chamberlin, a noted aviator, had minor accidents during the testing of their planes in April 1927, and a third plane, piloted by Noel Davis also crashed that month, killing Davis and his co-pilot. French pilot Charles Nungesser and navigator Francois Coli left Paris for New York in a single-engine biplane on May 8, just two weeks prior to Lindbergh's flight, and disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean. To make matters worse, he had not yet become eligible for the Orteig Prize, which stipulated that 60 days must elapse between acceptance of his entry papers and take-off of the flight. His St. Louis backers told him to fly when he was ready, despite the prize.
May 19 was dreary. The weather forecasts offered little hope of a clearing in the weather in the next few days. That evening, after touring the Wright plant in New Jersey with some of his new friends, Lindbergh and some others had planned to attend the Broadway show "Rio Rita." Before they arrived at the theater, however, they stopped for one more check on the weather. There was good news. A sudden break in the weather was predicted, with high pressure beginning to clear patches of clouds over the ocean. An early morning departure was possible. The group headed back to the airfield to begin making preparations and final inspections.
After working on the plane for a few hours, Lindbergh returned to the hotel just before midnight. If he was to be ready at daybreak as he had planned, he needed to get some sleep. Upon arriving at the hotel, however, Lindbergh was confronted by a throng
Lindbergh excused himself as quickly as possible. Once in bed, his mind raced with a thousand thoughts - questioning, reasoning, of reporters anxious to interview him. Word of activity in his hangar had already spread. calculating, reviewing every decision he had made. At 1:40 a.m., he realized there was little hope for sleep.
At 2:30 a.m. on a misty Friday, May 20, 1927, Lindbergh rode from the Garden City Hotel, where he and the other contestants were staying, to Curtiss Field to prepare for take-off. Even at that early hour, 500 on-lookers waited. At 4:15 a.m. the rain stopped. Lindbergh ate one of the six sandwiches he had been given the night before and ordered the "Spirit of St. Louis" to be wheeled outside. The weather had been too bad the night before to move the plane to Roosevelt Field. Six Nassau County motorcycle patrolmen escorted the concealed plane, which was tied to the back of a truck and hauled across the deeply rutted road to Roosevelt Field, where Lindbergh had planned to make his departure.
With the nose of the plane pointing toward Paris, Lindbergh worried about the take-off. He would have 5,000 feet to lift off the ground and gain enough altitude to clear the trees and telephone wires at the end of the field. The "Spirit" had never been tested carrying this much weight. If it weren't for the water-soaked runway, the lack of headwinds, the heavy humidity that would lower the engine's r.p.m., and the untested weight of the plane, he would not have been so concerned. A bucket brigade formed to fill the plane's five fuel tanks, and by 7:30 a.m. the tanks were filled to the brim.
Hundreds more people joined the crowd. With the wheels sinking into the ground Lindbergh readied himself for take-off, mentally gathering all his flying experience from the past four years.
At 7:51 a.m. he buckled his safety belt, put cotton in his ears, strapped on his helmet and pulled on his goggles and said, "What do you say - let's try it." At 7:52 a.m., Lindbergh took off for Paris, carrying with him five sandwiches, water, and his charts and maps and a limited number of other items he deemed absolutely necessary. The heavy plane bounced along the muddy runway, splashing through puddles. At the half-way point on the runway, the plane had not yet reached flying speed. As the load shifted from the wheels to the wings, he felt the plane leave the ground briefly, but returned to the ground. Looking out the side window, Lindbergh could see the approaching telephone lines. Now less than 2,000 feet of runway remained and he managed to get the plane to jump off the ground again. It bounced again, and with less than 1,000 feet, he lifted the plane sharply, clearing the telephone wires by 20 feet. At 7:54 a.m. he was airborne.
Although he had no forward vision during the flight (except a small periscope), and fighting off fog, icing and sometimes overwhelming drowsiness, he navigated his journey to a perfect landing 33 hours, 30 minutes, and 29.8 seconds later at LeBourget Field where a huge crowd of 150,000 on-lookers awaited his arrival. At that very moment, the 25-year-old farm boy from Minnesota was transformed into the most famous aviator in the world.
From the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation