The Spirit of St. Louis: The Legendary Flight

In 1927, the first perpetual transatlantic flight was made. Charles Lindbergh defied all the odds and flew from New York to Paris in a solo flight, only to become the most famous man on the globe.

A Strange Offer

Raymon Orteig, originally from France, made an unusual offer for the rookie flying world. The owner of hotels Brevoort and Lafayette located in New York City promised a whopping $25,000 (about $350,000 in today’s money) to the very first aviator who manages a nonstop flight from New York to Paris or vice versa, from Paris to New York City. He added that the offer would be valid for the following five years.

The years passed by, but no one achieved the feat. What’s more, no one dared to try. This urged Orteig to prolong the offer for five more years. However, by 1926, when another five-year term began, the aeronautics technology significantly progressed. Some aviators started believing it was feasible to make that long transatlantic flight, Charles Lindbergh being one of them.

Who Was Charles A. Lindbergh?

Charles A. LindberghLindberg was born in 1902 to Detroit-based parents. His father was a lawyer by profession and a U.S. Congressman representing Minnesota’s 6th District in the 1907–1917 period.

As proper education was essential for the Lindberghs, they sent young Charles to the University of Wisconsin. However, when he was 20, Lindbergh decided to leave university. As he eagerly wanted to become a pilot, he joined the U.S. Army.

In March 1925, Lindbergh was commissioned as a second lieutenant. However, several Army pilots persuaded him to go to St. Louis. There, he became a mail pilot.

Competing for a Prize

When Lindbergh found out about the prize, he decided to participate in the competition. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean was not a problem — dirigibles managed to fly over it, and so did fixed-wing airlines, but in phases. No one had ever attempted to fly over it in one go. The major problems were fuel and unreliable engines.

The feat was so dangerous that four men lost their lives just while testing the planes. Only twelve days before Lindbergh’s departure, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, both from France, took off from Paris. They hoped their seaplane would successfully land at the New York City port. However, they ended up listed as missing and belated.

The Quest for the Right Manufacturer

Lindbergh started reconsidering the transatlantic flight in 1926. He managed to attain financial support in the amount of $15,000 from a St Louis-based businessmen in order to buy a suitable plane for his mission.

Three manufacturing companies turned Lindbergh down (Travel Air, Wright-Bellanca, and Fokker) before Ryan Aeronautical from San Diego agreed to construct a plane for him. The plane would cost $10,580.

The contracts were signed on February 25, 1927. As the plane had to be completed as soon as possible, all employees at the company worked long hours. The construction of the aircraft was finished by April 1927. Lindbergh took it over on May 10, and immediately went to New York City.

The plane was given quite a specific name — the Spirit of St. Louis. The inside of the nose cone was uniquely decorated. Namely, it included the names of all the workers who participated in the plane construction. It also included a swastika, a Native-American symbol. The symbol had nothing to do with Nazi Germany whatsoever. In the pre-World War II period, Native Americans believed it brought good luck.

The Specific Design

The plane was constructed according to Lindbergh’s instructions. He insisted that should include a seat for one pilot only (himself, of course) and be equipped with a single-engine. Also, it had to contain more than a sufficient amount of fuel to endure the entire flight. Lindberg himself helped with the original design of the aircraft, while the main engineer at Ryan Aeronautical, Donald Hall, eagerly worked on it.

The plane was equipped with additional tanks that would carry fuel reserves. Four hundred and fifty gallons of fuel were stored in the aircraft’s wings and nose. In the end, the fuel’s weight amounted to 2,750 lbs, which exceeded half of the plane’s entire weight when loaded completely. As Lindbergh deemed the fuel gauges of that time unreliable, he would turn petcocks to level the fuel discharge. He made marks with his pencil on the instrument panel to follow the amount of burned fuel.

The Specific Design  The Spirit of St. Louis

What’s quite interesting is that the aircraft included neither a windshield nor a fuel gauge. As it had to carry extra amounts of fuel, Lindbergh insisted on excluding everything that was unnecessary, as it were. Thus, Ryan M-2 mail aircraft was used as a model, but Lindbergh’s variant was greatly modified. He demanded gas and oil containers to be placed between the craft’s engine and cockpit. This meant more safety in the event of a crash but prevented the pilot from looking straight ahead. Lindbergh had to use instruments in order to fly.

Since Lindbergh was a mail pilot, he was quite comfortable with peeping through side windows in order to depart or land. To make flying easier, an engineer at Ryan Aeronautical and a previous submariner created a sort of a retractable periscope. It provided Lindbergh with a forward view, though limited, that could slide through the window located on Lindbergh’s left side. To gaze through it, Lindbergh had to look at a tiny mirror whose size equaled to a 3×5-inch index card. It was built in the instrument panel.

The Uncomfortable Spirit of St. Louis

The aircraft’s wingspan was 46 feet. This implied that the tail had to be elongated. As Lindbergh was obsessed with the aircraft’s weight, he agreed to everything he had to do just to get rid of certain extra equipment. Thus, the plane’s special features forced him to constantly hold the control stick with his hands and press the rudder pedals with his feet. Lindbergh did not want a radio and typical leather seat either. Instead, he installed an ordinary wicker chair which is far lighter than the classical pilot seat.

The Departure

The day of departure had finally come. Around 500 people gathered to watch Lindbergh depart from Roosevelt Field. Although there were other competitors as well, Lindbergh was a favorite because of his youth and bravery.

As the flight continued, however, Lindbergh was troubled by a lack of sleep. He did not sleep long enough the night before the departure. So only nine hours after he took off, he felt a devastating urge to sleep. He ate five sandwiches and drank a flask of water. He tried to delay his eating as he thought hunger would keep him awake. Also, he opened the side windows to let cold air and rain in. It was quite foggy and dark, so he had to fly using instruments only.

The Ghastly Secret

During the twenty-second hour of the flight, Lindbergh sensed someone’s presence.  He felt as if some ghostly transparent forms were with him in the aircraft. They advised him on the navigation and flight and supported him when he needed reassurance. They disappeared in about an hour.

However, Lindbergh kept this “encounter” secret for almost 30 years. It was in his book, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” that he told the story about those human-like figures.

The Long-Awaited Arrival

After twenty-eight hours of flying, Lindbergh reached Ireland. Five hours later, he finally arrived in Paris. Around 150,000 waited on Le Bourget airfield to greet him as he landed. In fact, they pulled him from the plane. As many people wanted to snatch a piece of the Spirit of St. Louis as a souvenir, the plane was eventually pulled inside and carefully guarded. Unfortunately, as Lindbergh accounted later, someone stole a clipboard that used to hold his logbook, which was especially distressing for him.

After 63 sleepless hours, Lindbergh finally got his well-deserved opportunity to sleep in the U.S. ambassador’s residence. The Spirit of St. Louis was shipped back to New York by a Navy ship. There, it was welcomed with a proper parade.

Flying Continues

Upon his return to his homeland, Lindbergh continued to fly in his aircraft across the States and to Central America. When his goodwill tours were finished, he gave the plane away to the Smithsonian Institution. In May 1928, the Spirit of St. Louis got its well-deserved display at the Arts and Industries Building.

While World War II was raging throughout Europe, Lindbergh was admitted to “America First,” the group which demanded that the USA stay out of the war. However, after the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941, Lindbergh tried to join the Army but was turned down. Afterward, he started working for Henry Ford at the position of a consultant in a bomber plane factory. He assisted in constructing P-47 fighter planes as well as other crafts.

Later on, he went to battle zones located in the South Pacific as an instructor, only to wind up flying in 50 battles against the Japanese army. When the war was over, Lindbergh remained in the aviation industry. He eventually turned into a devoted conservationist. He even met with Apollo 11 crew, the astronauts who landed on the Moon in 1969.

Charles Lindbergh died on August 26, 1974, at the age of 72. He was buried in Hawaii, in Kipahulu District.