Forty miles from Lebourget Air Field in Paris, he began to see the flares. Thirty-three hours earlier, 500 people had watched the 25-year-old pilot take off from a muddy Roosevelt Field runway in New York. He was hoping to become the first pilot to make a solo non-stop flight to Paris. As the airplane dropped toward the Paris runway, Charles Lindberg saw the throngs of people – a scene that would remain with him for a lifetime. One hundred thousand cheering people had surrounded the airport awaiting his arrival.
Lindberg, born one year before the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight, fell in love with the idea of flying. While studying engineering at the University of Wisconsin, he dropped out of school to chase his dream. After two years of Army pilot training, he got a job flying mail from Chicago to St. Louis.
In 1919, Raymond Ortieg, a New York hotel owner, offered $25,000 ($350,000 today) to the first pilot to fly solo non-stop between New York and Paris. By 1925, several pilots had died trying but no one had claimed Ortieg’s prize. Lindberg pledged his life savings of $2,000 and was able to convince several St. Louis businessmen to collectively donate $15,000 for the attempt. After being turned down by the four biggest airplane builders in the United States, Lindberg found a small company in San Diego, California, to specially design a plane for the trip.
In order to reduce the weight of the plane and accommodate more gasoline, Lindberg choose to forego the heavy pilot seat (he would sit on a light wicker chair), the radio, and a parachute. He planned to carry 2,700 pounds of fuel in a 2,500-pound plane. Lindberg had many concerns about the flight, including engine reliability, running out of gasoline, and navigational error, but pilot fatigue was his chief concern.
Thirteen days before his scheduled flight, two World War I French aviators took off from Paris in route for New York and were never heard from again. Undeterred, on May 20, 1927, after two days of weather delays, Lindberg took off at 7:52 a.m. from the 5,000-foot runway at Roosevelt field. With 450 gallons of gasoline on board, he needed every foot of the runway to clear the first hurdle, the telephone lines at the end of the runway.
Lindberg used a simple altimeter to determine altitude, a compass and a stopwatch to navigate his course, and he made pencil marks on the gas tanks to track fuel levels. Benefitting from good weather, he maintained a speed of 100 miles per hour and an altitude between 100 and 500 feet and reached Newfoundland by 6:00 p.m. At 9:00 p.m. a thunderstorm forced him to fly to 10,000 feet in order to get over the storm. With ice forming on the wings, he feared the plane would become too heavy to fly. According to Lindberg, “The ice forming worried me a great deal and I debated whether I should keep going or go back. I decided I must not think any more about going back.”
At 2:00 a.m. with daylight dawning, Lindberg calculated that he was half way to Paris, but with another 18 hours to go, rather than excitement he felt only dread. At 5:00 a.m. dense fog forced him to fly ten feet above the ocean to maintain visual contact. He fell asleep repeatedly, waking seconds, sometimes a minute later. Finally, after flying for hours in the fog, the sky cleared and he spotted several small fishing boats. Twenty-seven hours into his mission, he had made it to the coast of Ireland. Lindberg was now wide-awake.
At 10:22 p.m. Paris time, 33.5 hours and 3,597 miles after leaving New York, Lindberg’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis touched down at Lebourget Airfield. He had not slept in 55 hours. The huge crowd stormed the barricades and pulled the weary pilot from his plane. They paraded him around the field on their shoulders before taking him to meet the awaiting press corp. Over night, Charles Lindberg became a world hero. A little more than two decades after the Wright brothers’ 59 second flight in their “heavier than air flying machine,” Charles Lindberg’s daring flight secured his place in aviation history and opened the door to transcontinental flights between America and Europe.
“A single feat of daring can alter the whole conception of what is possible.” Graham Greene