Solo of the century. For sheer heroic drama, nothing has ever quite equaled Charles Lindbergh's nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris
The preparation IT was a lot of money, especially in 1919: $25,000 for the first pilot to fly New York to Paris, nonstop. But by 1927, the purse, offered by Raymond Orteig, the French owner of the Brevoort and Lafayette hotels in New York, was still unclaimed.
In that year, however, the Wright brothers developed an air-cooled motor that vastly improved the prospect of successfully completing such a flight. By May 15 three planes, scheduled for nonstop transatlantic hops in quest of the prize, were waiting for favorable weather at Roosevelt Field on Long Island: The Columbia, piloted by Clarence Chamberlin and Lloyd Bertand; the America, commanded by Lt. Commander Richard Byrd, who had flown over the North Pole; and the Spirit of St. Louis, flown by young Charles Lindbergh, who had just made a record coast-to-coast flight from San Diego to New York.
Making the perilous journey alone, this handsome young man from the Midwest - naive, modest, every bit the ``typical'' American boy - caught the sentiment and imagination of the public.
Lindbergh had an impeccable record. Born in Little Falls, Minn., he graduated from the local high school, then entered the College of Engineering of the University of Wisconsin. At the end of his third semester he left to enroll in a Lincoln, Neb., flying school. There followed a year in the air service of the War Department and the National Guard.
In the spring of 1925, he became an air-mail pilot, and it was while flying the route from St. Louis to Chicago that he decided to compete for the Orteig prize. Financed by St. Louis businessmen, he placed an order for a Wright Whirlwind monoplane for $14,000. They named the aircraft the Spirit of St. Louis, a name that would soon be known around the world.
The race to prepare for the flight turned out to be a hurry-up-and-wait situation. A week-long storm over the North Atlantic delayed all departures. On the evening of May 19, though the weather continued to be bad in New York, there suddenly came reports of improvment in the mid-Atlantic. Lindbergh was the only one ready to take off. He had gone to bed around midnight, but couldn't sleep. Shortly after 2 a.m., he rose and fired up the Spirit of St. Louis. Before takeoff, when reporters asked Lindbergh if the four sandwiches he was taking would be enough for the 30-hour flight, he replied:
``If I make Paris, I won't need any more. If I don't, I won't need any at all.''
Liftoff, 7:52 a.m. The Associated Press issued a bulletin:
``ROOSEVELT FIELD, NEW YORK, MAY 20 - AP - CHARLES A. LINDBERGH, `CAPTAIN' TO THE MISSOURI NATIONAL GUARD, BUT `SLIM' TO HIS BUDDIES, SET OUT TODAY ON AN UNMARKED AIR TRAIL FOR PARIS.''
The country became exhilarated with a common emotion. In darkened motion-picture theaters recently converted to sound by William Fox, gasping and cheering audiences saw the Spirit of St. Louis roar into life, thunder down the field, and lift shakily into the air. In 100 feet of film, Fox had put drama and reality into sound movies for the first time.
Lindbergh's route to Paris was the shortest. Called the great circle, it cut across Long Island Sound, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, then skirted the Newfoundland coast. Staying awake was his biggest problem. The moment he neglected the plane, it would wander from the course he had set. Each time he dozed, even for a few seconds, he had to estimate the deviation and make the necessary corrections.
After daylight, when Lindbergh spied some fishing boats, he swooped down to glide near enough to ask if Ireland was just ahead, but he got no answer. Ireland, it turned out, was just ahead, and he flew over it, southern England, and the English Channel.
Paris that month was shocked over the disappearance of the French flying team of Nungesser and Coli on May 8 in an attempt to fly the Atlantic from east to west. The French newspapers were reporting the activities at Roosevelt Field, but little space had been devoted to the Midwesterner and his little monoplane. Lindbergh's plan to fly alone with a single motor was reported with skepticism. War aces and commercial flyers interviewed at the headquarters of the International League of Aviators in Paris were ``almost unanimous'' in their conviction that Lindbergh was taking a ``crazy'' chance, though most added that it was a ``fine'' idea.
As hope for Nungesser and Coli dwindled, the fantastic rumor began to circulate that they had been killed by Americans in order to keep them from stealing the glory from the fliers poised at Roosevelt Field. The rumor spread in ever-widening circles, stirring up an undertone of resentment and animosity. Parisians manifested an ugly feeling for American tourists, and at one point a crowd forced the newspaper Le Matin to take down the United States flag flying from its building.
The US ambassador to France, Myron T. Herrick, feared for the safety of any American flier who might reach Paris. His anxiety had not diminished by the time he reached the airfield at Le Bourget in the late afternoon, as Lindbergh approached.
The roads were already crowded when Herrick drove out. When Le Matin announced shortly after 9 p.m. that Lindbergh had been sighted over Cherbourg, and as subsequent reports charted his progress up from the coast, scores of thousands climbed simultaneously into their cars and drove toward the field, where other tens of thousands had long been gathered.
But the mood had changed. It was not long before Ambassador Herrick, who earlier feared he might have to try to protect Lindbergh from rough treatment at the hands of a hostile crowd, realized that during the flight animosity had given way first to grudging concessions of admiration and then to worried solicitude for Lindbergh's safety.
Lindbergh followed the Seine River to Paris and circled the city before spotting the field at Le Bourget. At 10:15 a.m., the sound of an engine was heard across the airfield; then it faded into silence. The crowd sighed in more than disappointment, almost despair. Suddenly the sound returned, and the craft came slanting toward land.
``F-L-A-S-H PARIS - LINDBERGH LANDED 5:21 PM.''
The flier was not prepared for the thousands of people who swept toward the Spirit of St. Louis crying, ``Leen-behrg, Leen-behrg,'' as he tried to taxi up to the front of the hangars. He had to chop his engine to keep his propeller from slicing into the crowd. In 33 hours and 29 minutes, he had connected the continents with a 3,600-mile crossing of the Atlantic at an average speed of 107 miles an hour.
``Here we are,'' he said, grinning, as the crowd opened the door.
Meanwhile, news bulletins on the flight had been flashed on an electric sign in Paris's Place de l'Op'era. Montmartre was in full swing, celebrating as though it were New Year's Eve. Josephine Baker stopped the show at the Folies-Berg`ere to announce Lindbergh had made it to Paris.
Later, after Lindbergh was widely feted, he was commissioned colonel and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and so many foreign decorations and honorary memberships it would take pages to list them all.
He was offered $2.5 million for a tour of the world by air and $700,000 to appear in films. His signature sold for $1,600. A Texas town was named for him, and scores of streets, schools, restaurants, and corporations used his name.
Other feats of aviation followed quickly after Lindbergh's successful flight. Chamberlin and Byrd both reached Europe - Chamberlin almost to Berlin, Byrd just to the Channel coast (he landed in the Channel, but close enough to the shore to wade in). A pair of American aviators, Brock and Schlee, crossed the Atlantic, then continued to Tokyo with 15 stops along the way. A young woman named Ruth Elder tried to be the first female transatlantic passenger, but the plane landed in the sea off the Azores, and she was picked up by a tramp steamer.
The official welcome to America for fliers and visiting dignitaries was not Washington, but a parade on Manhattan Island, where, in open limousines, heroes rode almost weekly beneath a shower of ticker tape.
New York custom-made welcomes with budgets to fit the importance of the celebrity. Ruth Elder got the bargain-basement welcome, costing $333.90; Chamberlin had one priced over $1,000; $12,000 was allotted for the President of the Irish Free State; $26,000 for Byrd; but Lindbergh had the super number, at $71,000.
Heroes were a la mode for a long time to come, but there were no more Lindberghs.