Your Captain Speaking
History’s most daring solo flight
“Along with most of my fellow fliers, I believed that aviation had a brilliant future. Now we live, today, in our dreams of yesterday; and, living in those dreams, we dream again…” – From The Spirit of St. Louis.
Charles A. Lindbergh became a world-wide icon when he completed his famous, nonstop, solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. It was a monumental undertaking and a feat of bravery that changed the course of aviation history. In this month’s Volare let’s take a closer look at the man and the unique challenges he had to face during that flight.
Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 4, 1902. He spent most of his childhood in Little Falls, Minnesota, where his father served as a Congressman. Lindbergh became infatuated with aviation during his college years and soon dropped out, at the age of 20, to join the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation’s flying school in Lincoln. In an effort to get more money for his training, and enjoy the thrill of flying, he started working as a “wing walker.” For this job he would perform stunts while standing on top of an underpowered, and unstable plane which was little more than a spidery covered framework with an engine. He also worked as a “barnstormer” performing aerial tricks. The mortality rate in both of these jobs was quite high, but daredevil Lindbergh emerged unscathed.
In March 1924, after two years of barnstorming and wing walking Lindbergh began a year of military training with the United States Army Air Service. One year later, at the age of 23, he graduated at the top of his class. He then started to work as an airmail pilot, another job with a high (70%) fatality rate, and it was while on this job, delivering mail across United States, that he had the realization that a transatlantic solo flight was possible.
There had been a competition going on since 1919 to see who could be the first person to make a non-stop flight from New York to Paris. The unclaimed prize was $25,000. Many aviators with significantly more flying experience than Mr. Lindbergh attempted the daring trip but all either crashed on take-off or departed and were never heard from again. One of the men attempting to claim the prize was French flying ace, René Fonck. He had three other pilots aboard his $100,000 tri-motor biplane that was built specifically for the long flight. They wanted to do the flight in style, and brought along “red mahogany chairs, a hide-a-bed, and a food cabinet” among other unnecessary luxuries. The plane was designed to weigh 16,000 pounds fully loaded on the day of the attempt, its gross takeoff weight was estimated at 28,000 pounds. They weren’t even able to lift off and crashed- two out of the four men on board died. A total of four more experienced aviators died trying to make the flight before Lindbergh successfully made the trip.
None of this seemed to deter the young, 25-year-old Lindbergh who had relatively little flight experience, none across across large bodies of water and no money to fund his project. He took a bold and different approach to the flight. Instead of flying with three motors like the majority of his competition, Lindbergh wanted to make the flight in a single-engine plane. Flying such a plane would provide simplicity. The plane was designed entirely around the concept of carrying as much fuel as possible. The problem, though, with having so much fuel on board, is that, as it’s consumed, weight and balance changes and the plane becomes unstable. To remedy this, all the fuel was placed on the balance point, which was in the nose of the airplane. A “minor” inconvenience arising from fuel tanks in the nose is that that’s where the cockpit is, so the tanks were in front of the pilot seat thus blocking Lindbergh’s view out the front of the plane. This made flying it, and especially landing it, particularly challenging. Lindbergh did have a small periscope he could slide open to get a glimpse of what was in front of him. One can only imagine setting out over the Atlantic, alone, navigating by the stars and dead reckoning (estimating the wind effect then picking a compass heading and hoping to be on track), looking ahead through a periscope and trying to find Paris. And if successful then trying to find Le Bourget Airport at night and attempting to land after a 2-day flight with no sleep, on an unfamiliar runway. The level of audacity is beyond description.
The take-off from New York was also quite challenging. Lindbergh was departing from Roosevelt Field, the same airfield as several of his competitors. It had been raining for several days. Finally, early morning Friday, May 20, 1927 the weather cleared enough for Lindbergh to begin his trip. The decision to take off that day was a gamble, one his competitors in heavier planes couldn’t take, since the field was grass and still muddy from all the rain. As Lindbergh slowly started to build up speed the telephone lines at the end of the field inched ever closer. Eventually the plane lifted off and Lindbergh cleared the telephone lines by an estimated 20 feet. “Lucky Lindi”, as he was known, was on his way!
At 10:22PM on Saturday May 21st, 1927 history was made in front of tens of thousands of cars and eager spectators caught in “the largest traffic jam in Parisian history”.
This amazing achievement made Lindbergh immediately famous worldwide. He, however, was never comfortable with his fame. Despite his bravery and boldness, Lindbergh had always been very reserved and enjoyed his privacy. He didn’t let the discomfort of fame get the best of him, though, and he toured the U.S. as a voice for aviation. Over the remainder of 1927, applications for pilot’s licenses in the U.S. tripled and the number of licensed aircraft quadrupled. He became a national hero and was greeted by a parade of four million people upon his triumphant return to New York. Charles Lindbergh made the most of that fame and helped catapult aviation’s popularity. “It was as if everyone saw in him something that they sought in themselves – a spirit of adventure and achievement in life. Somehow he represented the symbol of hope in a weary world, for there was something unique about his integrity, courage, and indifference to honors.”
Note: The above material was taken largely from: “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Charles Lindbergh, Wikipedia and charleslindbergh.com
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