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Charles Lindbergh & the First Solo Transatlantic Flight | The Greatest Moments in Flight

Charles Lindbergh
The Spirit of St. Louis carried Charles Lindbergh from New York to Paris in 33 and a half hours, the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Credit: Library of Congress

This is part of a series of articles on the Greatest Moments in Flight, the breakthrough events that paved the way for human spaceflight and its next steps: asteroid mining and bases on the moon and Mars.

As the Spirit of St. Louis rolled down the dirt runway of Roosevelt Field in New York, many doubted it would successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, when Charles Lindbergh landed safely in Paris less than 34 hours later, becoming the first pilot to solo a nonstop transatlantic flight, he changed public opinion on the value of air travel and laid the foundation for the future development of aviation.

Preparing for the voyage

Born only a year before the Wright brothers made their first historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Charles Lindbergh grew up in the grip of aviation fever. Though he attended college to study engineering, he was drawn to the skies.

"The life of an aviator seemed to me ideal. It involved skill. It brought adventure. It made use of the latest developments of science. Mechanical engineers were fettered to factories and drafting boards while pilots have the freedom of wind with the expanse of sky. There were times in an aeroplane when it seemed I had escaped mortality to look down on earth like a God."— Charles Lindbergh, "We, Pilot & Plane," 1927

Lindbergh left college to become a barnstormer, performing daredevil stunts at fairs. In 1924, Lindbergh enlisted in the Army, training at the U.S. Army flying school, where he graduated first in his class. After graduation, he became a postal pilot, flying the mail from St. Louis to Chicago.

In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a hotel owner in New York City, offered a prize of $25,000 to the first pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. By 1927, four men had died, three were seriously injured, and two others went missing in the attempt, but the prize still remained tantalizingly out of reach. Lindbergh convinced nine St. Louis businessmen to finance his attempt, using their funds to build a special plane that he helped to design. Named in honor of his sponsors, the plane was called the Spirit of St. Louis.

The plane's single-engine design caused many to doubt its ability to cross the vast Atlantic. Previous attempts had all included multi-engine planes. Also, co-pilots had been a staple on the 3,500 mile journey, but Lindbergh intended to fly alone. Lindbergh omitted a parachute and a radio from his gear, opting to include more gasoline. The newspapers called him "the flying fool."

Alone in the sky

On May 20, 1927, at 7:52 a.m., the Spirit of St. Louis accelerated down the runway off Long Island and lifted into the sky while a crowd of 500 watched. The plane barely cleared the telephone wires at the end of the strip.

"The field was a little soft due to the rain during the night, and the heavily loaded plane gathered speed very slowly."

Lindbergh flew over Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, reaching the ocean as the sun set. Fog thickened in the night sky, and sleet formed on his plane when he attempted to pass through the clouds. He struggled with drowsiness, fighting to stay awake as he sometimes flew only ten feet above the ocean.

A tiny fishing boat provided the first sign that he had reached Europe, and within an hour he had reached land. He flew about 1,500 feet over Ireland and England, headed toward France as the weather cleared. Darkness fell again as he passed over the coast of his target country.

"I first saw the lights of Paris a little before 10 p.m., or 5 p.m., New York time, and a few minutes later I was circling the Eiffel Tower at an altitude of about four thousand feet."

After traveling more than 3,600 miles in 33 and a half hours, Lindbergh landed safely in Paris. A crowd of 100,000 swarmed around the plane, hoisting the pilot on their shoulders and cheering his achievement. The papers redubbed him the "Lone Eagle" and "Lucky Lindy."

After the flight

On his return home, Lindbergh toured 92 cities in 49 states, extolling the virtues of aviation to adoring crowds. He received the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Flying Cross from President Coolidge and continued to serve the United States as an aviation consultant. He flew to several countries in Latin America at the request of the U.S. government, where he met his future wife, Anne Morrow, daughter of the American ambassador to Mexico. Lindbergh taught his wife to fly, and the two flew together around the world, plotting routes for various airlines.

Lindbergh baby kidnapping

Tragedy struck in 1932 when the couple's first child was kidnapped from their home. The crime made headlines around the world. The Lindberghs paid the $50,000 ransom but, sadly, the boy's body was found in nearby woods weeks later. A carpenter, Bruno Hauptmann, was arrested and charged with murder. He was found guilty and was executed in 1936. The couple soon left the country in search of greater privacy. They went on to have five other children.

America First

In 1941, Lindbergh joined the America First Committee, which opposed the U.S.'s entry into World War II. Some people accused him of having Nazi sympathies. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, Lindbergh became a technical adviser to the Army and Navy. He flew 50 combat missions and helped develop cruise control techniques that increased the capabilities of American fighter planes.

After the war, Lindbergh withdrew from public attention. He was a consultant to the U.S. Air Force, became involved in the conservation movement, and wrote several books, including "The Spirit of St. Louis," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954.

Lindbergh died of cancer on Aug. 26, 1974, at his home in Hawaii.

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