Charles Lindberg, Erik Lindberg & the Spirit of St. Louis

In Uncategorized on September 1, 2010 by hillermuseum

By Jon Welte

The world in 2010 is in many ways a far smaller place than it once was. Scarcely 200 years ago, Spanish missionaries spent a full month toiling the length of California along El Camino Real. Today, tourists and business travelers soar between San Francisco and San Diego in scarcely more than an hour. For modern travelers, even the most distantly removed major cities are hardly more than a single day’s travel away.

Although many technological developments contributed to this shrinking of Earth’s surface, one remarkable achievement stands out in making rapid, long-distance travel a reality: Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic journey from New York to Paris. Before Lindbergh’s arrival at Le Bourget on May 21st, 1927, air travel was a dangerous novelty that few believed had practical use in times of peace. Afterwards, aviation became an engine for commerce that tied the world together in ways even its most ardent supports could have scarcely imagined.

Charles Lindbergh was an unlikely candidate to change the world. Born the son of a Minnesota Congressman and a schoolteacher from Detroit, Lindbergh was barely 20 when he dropped out of engineering school to pursue his first formal flight training in 1922. His early years as a pilot were filled with harrowing encounters—he flew as a barnstormer before having soloed an airplane and survived a mid-air collision in a De Haviland DH-4 while training with the US Army Air Service in 1925.

By the end of 1925, Lindbergh had signed on with a National Guard squadron flying the mail on a route between Chicago and St. Louis. With timely delivery of the mail a high priority, the simple aircraft available at the time were often pushed to their limits day and night in atrocious weather. Accidents were common—Lindbergh himself made two parachute jumps when nighttime fogs descended on his landing fields. Yet the experiences gained through these adventures were instrumental in awakening Lindbergh to the possibility of transoceanic flight.

Some years earlier, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig had offered a substantial cash prize to the first pilot (or pilots) able to complete a nonstop flight between Paris and New York. Airplanes had flown across the Atlantic Ocean as early as 1919, but the 3,600 statute mile distance between New York and Paris, coupled with the nonstop requirement, proved a daunting challenge. Many aviators tried for the prize and failed, but through 1926 none had been able to claim it.

On a long mail flight, Charles Lindbergh began to reflect on the technical requirements for such a flight. His experiences with the US Mail led him to several key conclusions: an single-engined airplane would be more efficient and less likely to experience engine failure than a multi-engined design; a monoplane aircraft would experience less drag and have concurrently longer range than a biplane; and flying with a single pilot, rather than a pilot and navigator, would reduce the weight to be carried and increase the available fuel. Lindbergh cultivated a number of sponsors in the St. Louis area and secured their support for a bid at the Orteig Prize. In February 1927, Ryan Airlines of San Diego received an order to build an airplane to Lindbergh’s specifications. Construction began at once, and in only two months the one-of-a-kind Ryan NYP entered flight test with Lindbergh at the controls.

By mid-May 1927 Lindbergh and the Ryan monoplane, christened Spirit of St. Louis to honor its sponsors, had arrived on Long Island to begin the flight at the first report of favorable weather. On the evening of May 19th reports of clearing skies and building high pressure across the North Atlantic committed Lindbergh to launch the next morning. Shortly before 8 AM on May 20th, the heavily-loaded Spirit of St. Louis lumbered off the airstrip at Roosevelt Field in Garden City, New York, bound for Europe.

Modern pilots traversing the “pond” are accustomed to soaring across the seas more than six miles high. Lindbergh’s experience was far different. The single 220-hp engine operated best at low altitude, and nearly the entire 36-hour flight was completed below 1,000 feet—and often far lower, as Lindbergh sought an added boost from “ground effect” by flying within a wingspan of the wavetops. From such a low vantage point Lindbergh could easily judge wind speed and direction by watching foam blow off the ocean swells, and even attempted to confirm his navigation by shouting questions at sailors on passing ships.

Hour by hour at a cruising speed of just 100 miles per hour, Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic—through two days and a night, and into night again. Twenty-eight hours after departure, Ireland materialized out of the mists ahead. Six hours later, Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Airport outside of Paris to the acclaim of an enormous crowd. As The Spirit of St. Louis rolled to a halt in Paris on the evening of May 21st, 1927, the world at last looked upon aviation as a gateway between the continents.

Some 75 years after Charles Lindbergh’s journey across the North Atlantic, Erik Lindbergh—grandson of the great aviator—started the single engine of a small airplane on Long Island, New York, and contemplated the 3,600 miles that lie between New York and Paris. On May 2nd, 2002, the younger Lindbergh commemorated his grandfather’s flight by retracing it, this time in a modern Lancair Columbia 300. The sleek, composite airplane traversed the Atlantic in half the time that the Spirit of St. Louis required, arriving in Le Bourget just over 17 hours after departure.

Today, Erik Lindbergh pursues a wide range of interests from engineering to sculpture. His aviation connections include past roles with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing and the X-Prize Foundation. The Hiller Aviation Museum is pleased to welcome Mr. Lindbergh as its featured speaker at the annual Wings, Wheels and Whirlybirds benefit, to be held at the Museum on Saturday, October 16th.


“The Spirit of St. Louis”, Charles A. Lindbergh, 1953

“We”, Charles A. Lindbergh, 1927., 4 August 2010


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