A professional pilot whose New York to Paris flight made him world-famous
HUGE CROWDS WELCOMED LINDBERGH when he arrived at Croydon aerodrome shortly after his solo flight across the North Atlantic from west to east. People swarmed across the aerodrome, and it was with difficulty that officials cleared a space for him to land. Similar enthusiasm was shown wherever Lindbergh went.
THE name of Charles Augustus Lindbergh will always be associated with his epic solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. This is as it should be, for that superb achievement earned him a place among the immortals. It was the climax to a long and arduous apprenticeship to and experience of aviation. Lindbergh’s career is an interesting study, for he is typical of the young men who, since the war of 1914-18, have set out to make aviation their career.
Lindbergh was born at Detroit, Mich., in the United States of America, in 1902, and his interest in aviation began in 1912, when he first saw an aeroplane. It was not, however, until 1922 that he took a practical interest in flying. Then he left the University of Wisconsin to enrol as an aviation pupil, with the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation. Only a month later, after having had some eight hours’ flying instruction, he was ready for his first solo.
The president of the Corporation (familiar, perhaps, with the unfortunate results of some solo flights) demanded a financial bond to cover any damage to the aeroplane. Lindbergh was unable to supply this. But he was determined to succeed in aviation and was undeterred by failure. He took part in “barnstorming” trips in Nebraska with E. G. Bahl, who had bought the aeroplane in which Lindbergh had learnt to fly. “Barnstorming” is the term used in America by aviators for passenger “joyrides” and exhibition flights.
Lindbergh’s courage and coolness, which were to be characteristic of his later career, were soon in evidence during this tour, when he did wing-walking “stunts” in the air for exhibition. After a spell of this barnstorming he returned to the flying school for further instruction.
Lindbergh has made four emergency parachute descents and is the world’s most famous Caterpillar. His first attempt at parachuting nearly ended in disaster when one of his parachutes failed to open for several hundred feet.
After this adventure Lindbergh took part in another barnstorming trip, during which he made several parachute jumps and gave wing-walking exhibitions.
In April 1923 he bought his own aeroplane. He paid 500 dollars (about £100) for an ex-U.S. Army machine fitted with a new Curtiss OX-5 engine. With this machine Lindbergh showed once again his coolness and apparent indifference to danger. When he took over the aeroplane from the Government he had never made a solo flight, but he decided to do so immediately. His first attempt was spoilt by a high wind; but, after a few practice flights and some dual flying with another pilot, Lindbergh took off for Minnesota, his first cross-country flight, within a week of having made his. first solo, and his first flight of any consequence for six months.
With this machine Lindbergh did some more barnstorming and gave passenger flights for five dollars a trip. But he was not content to be an exhibition pilot. Although his barnstorming trips had been profitable, they were not progressive enough for a young man who had set out to make aviation his career. He wanted experience in the largest, fastest and newest machines of the day, and he had an opportunity of gaining that experience as a Flying Cadet in the U.S. Army Air Service.
Lindbergh spent about a year at Brooks Field and at Kelly, Texas. His instructors made him forget most of the rough-and-ready flying that he had already done. At these Army flying schools he learnt to be a first-class aviator and was taught every aspect of modern aeronautics. When he left Kelly, at the end of his twelve months’ instruction period, he was a fully-qualified pilot and was appointed a second lieutenant in the United States Air Corps Reserve of Officers. Of the 104 cadets who had enrolled with Lindbergh twelve months before, only eighteen had survived that rigorous training. During this period he made two of his four emergency parachute landings, and had qualified for membership of the Caterpillar Club. Lindbergh now searched for some opening in which his skill as a pilot could be used. He soon received a tentative offer from the Robertson Aircraft Corporation, who were willing to appoint him chief pilot on their projected air mail service if they obtained the contract to carry U.S. Post Office mail from St. Louis, Missouri, to Chicago. While he waited for the air mail decision, Lindbergh returned to barnstorming. Although he was determined to be something more than a barnstorming pilot, this return to it was the only way in which he could keep in practice; and he flew because he liked to fly.
No Weather Forecasts
After Lindbergh had barnstormed for several months, the Robertson Aircraft Corporation obtained the mail contract, and he was appointed chief pilot. De Havilland machines were to be used on the St. Louis to Chicago route.
Air mail flying in America in the nineteen-twenties was carried out in different conditions from those which prevail today. Although there was then some sort of organization, it could not compare with the complete organization that existed later; in those early days mail-carrying was a more hazardous business.
The hazardous part came during the winter and when night flying. It was then that Lindbergh learnt what no flying school could teach him - the ability to handle a machine in almost every type of weather. He learnt to land to the best advantage at small, ill-equipped airports. He learnt to fly through dense fog without the elaborate and detailed organization that existed later, whereby pilots were constantly “talking” to and receiving instructions from control officers. He learnt to handle an aeroplane when ice had formed on the wings, the controls and the propellers, and in the days when there was no de-icing mechanism. While Lindbergh was an air mail pilot he made two more emergency parachute landings, and thus became four times a Caterpillar. These emergency descents occurred in 1926.
He flew along unlighted routes with inaccurate and unreliable weather reports. In those days, there were occasions when weather forecasts were not issued at all, so that if the weather at the departure airport was good enough for a take-off, Lindbergh and the other pilots did so, heedless of the weather that lay ahead.
Helped by a certain amount of luck, but mostly by expedience and that instinct which marks the good pilot, these air mail pioneers did their work with extraordinary efficiency.
OFF TO BRUSSELS after his epic flight. Lindbergh preparing to take off from Le Bourget, Paris, in his aeroplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, to fly to Belgium. In spite of all the feting he received, Lindbergh remained the unassuming professional pilot he had set out to be.
Although the time was not far off when Lindbergh was to do something much more spectacular and dangerous, his most important contribution to aviation is probably his pioneer work as an air mail pilot. It must not be inferred from this that the greatest feat of his career (his flight from New York to Paris) was nothing more than a spectacular piece of flying. This flight, too, had its pioneer value, and it was a link in the chain which Alcock and Brown had begun in 1919; and whatever developments there may be in transatlantic air services, the work of Lindbergh and others will have been invaluable. But the progress of commercial aviation must depend rather on the routine work of the professional pilots, flying machines of a more normal type than on spectacular flights, the ultimate results of which must often be speculative. While he was flying on the St. Louis to Chicago route, Lindbergh contemplated the idea of a flight from New York to Paris. Once he had decided on this, he met with more success than do most pioneers (and aviation pioneers in particular), in that he found no difficulties in obtaining financial backing for his projected flight. This is the more remarkable when we recall the numerous pioneers and inventors whose work has been hampered by the lack of courage and vision on the part of men with money. Lindbergh did not have to search far for his money, for in St. Louis itself there were men ready and willing to back his enterprise.
Lindbergh’s North Atlantic flight was to be the first direct attempt by heavier-than-air aircraft since Alcock and Brown’s successful crossing eight years before. This is not the place to discuss which was the greater of these two achievements, even if such a discussion were desirable. Both flights were epics. Alcock and Brown flew in a converted war-time bomber with an open cockpit and without the improved navigation instruments that Lindbergh was able to use. On the other hand, Lindbergh flew the greater distance (3,600 miles as against Alcock and Brown’s 1,960 miles) and he flew it alone, whereas Alcock and Brown sat side by side in the cockpit, were able to share the risks and had the inestimable value of each other’s company; Lindbergh had to do his own navigating. He had, however, a machine specially designed and built for his attempt.
Having obtained the necessary financial backing, Lindbergh worked out every detail of his flight with characteristic thoroughness. His most important problem was that of the type of machine. First, he had to decide between a monoplane and a biplane. At that time most aviators would probably have decided on a triple-engined biplane, but Lindbergh had too independent a mind to follow general practice unless he believed it to be right for his purpose.
How thoroughly he worked out his plans, and how closely he had studied every aspect of aviation, is proved by his choice of a monoplane. In his book, We - Pilot and Plane, he wrote: “A monoplane ... is much more efficient than a biplane for certain purposes, due to the lack of interference between the wings, and can consequently carry a greater load per square foot of surface at a higher speed. A single motored plane, while it is more liable to forced landings than one with three motors, has much less head resistance and consequently a greater cruising range. Also, there is three times the chance of motor failure with a tri-motored ship, for the failure of one motor during the first part of the flight, although it would not cause a forced landing, would at least necessitate dropping part of the fuel and returning for another start.”
“The reliability of the modern air-cooled radial engine is so great that the chances of an immediate forced landing due to motor failure with a single motor would, in my opinion, be more than counterbalanced by the longer cruising range and consequent ability to reach the objective in the face of unfavourable conditions.” Lindbergh chose a Ryan monoplane fitted with a radial
air-cooled Wright Whirlwind engine of 220 horse-power. While the monoplane was being built, Lindbergh devoted his time to the working out of numerous navigation problems. He worked out even the smallest and apparently insignificant details with the greatest care and regarded the flight extremely seriously.
AT THE AGE OF TWENTY-FIVE Lindbergh made his epic solo flight in the Spirit of St. Louis. Fifteen years before he had seen an aeroplane for the first time. It was not, however, until he was twenty that he took a practical interest in flying. During his career as a pilot he has made four forced descents by parachute.
For the most part, America did not regard it as a serious effort. When the details of his proposed flight were made public, Lindbergh was christened “the flying fool”. Meanwhile, indifferent to public or any other opinion, Lindbergh went ahead with his preparations, confident of success, but not with the confidence that would have justified the name of “flying fool”. He knew that the Ryan Airlines’ designers and workmen, who spent days and nights building his machine, would manufacture the best possible aeroplane. He had every confidence in himself, but he planned to fly 3,600 miles alone. Only a “flying fool” would have minimized the extreme danger of such a flight, and Lindbergh allowed for forced landings. He took special equipment, and he knew that after a few hours flying there would be enough air in the fuel tanks to keep his aeroplane afloat if the weather were not very bad.
One of the most interesting and valuable items he carried with his other equipment was a cloth-covered cup which could condense the moisture from his breath into drinking water. Under the cloth covering were a series of baffle plates through which the breath could be blown. On May 12, Lindbergh gave the scoffers something to think about. He left San Diego, California (where the Ryan had been built) at 3.55 p.m. (local time) and arrived at St. Louis at 3.20 (local time) the next morning, having flown his new machine a distance of about 1,600 miles over mountains, deserts and rivers, in fourteen hours twenty-five minutes. The next morning he left for New York at 8.13 and arrived at Curtiss Field, Long Island, at 5.33 that afternoon, having made a record flight from San Diego to New York. The “flying fool” was not so foolish after all. This flight was an achievement, and even his detractors had to acknowledge it as such; but these critics were not defeated. They scoffed at his machine, the Spirit of St. Louis.
Lost Over the Atlantic
They scoffed at the single engine, although they had not given to that particular problem a tithe of the concentration and study that Lindbergh had. They scoffed at the enclosed cabin, not realizing that what Lindbergh was using then, aviation in general would use in the future.
The scoffers and prophets had something to justify their gloomy forebodings. A few days before Lindbergh took off from New York, two French aviators, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, disappeared over the North Atlantic while attempting the same flight as that planned by Lindbergh.
People throughout the world turned from contemplating the tragedy of Nungesser and Coli to watch Charles A. Lindbergh try to achieve the impossible.
At 7.40 on the morning of May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, near New York, on the flight that was to confound his critics and to make him the world’s most famous pilot. The machine was heavily loaded with petrol and for several hundred miles Lindbergh flew only a few feet (often as low as ten feet) above the water; but visibility was good until he crossed the 300-miles’ stretch of water between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia; then he met storms and heavy rain. Worse conditions were ahead. As he flew northward he saw snow on the ground beneath him. The coastline was hidden by fog. Between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland the sea was covered with ice; when he had passed St. John’s, Newfoundland, darkness fell. Night flying was no new experience to Lindbergh, but although on the mail route he had flown in almost every type of weather, he now had to meet different conditions.
A SPECIALLY DESIGNED AEROPLANE was used by Lindbergh for his flight across the North Atlantic in 1927. It was a single-engined Ryan monoplane. After he had given careful consideration to the possible advantages of a multi-engined biplane, Lindbergh chose a monoplane with a single engine. He surprised critics by choosing an enclosed cockpit instead of the open type that was more generally used in those days.
With the darkness came fog, but below him, showing through the fog, were the white icebergs, unwelcome warnings of his fate should he be forced down. The fog became thicker and Lindbergh climbed to 10,000 feet; here, although there was less fog, there were storm clouds. For two hours he flew through the darkness and the fog. The storm clouds banked menacingly above him; he tried to fly through one of these banks, but sleet formed on the wing. In those days, as there was no de-icing apparatus, it meant certain disaster to continue in such conditions. Lindbergh flew back for a time to find clearer air.
After dawn the weather improved. The temperature rose and the remaining sleet melted from the wings. But these more pleasant conditions were only temporary. Soon after sunrise, he met more fog, and was able to navigate only by his instruments. As the sun rose higher, the fog broke up into patches. Lindbergh descended until he was less than a hundred feet above the white-capped waves. Even at this low altitude he did not escape the fog for long. It dropped again, like a blanket, over the sea, and for some two hours Lindbergh flew blind some 1,500 feet up.
Once again the fog split up into patches, which resembled mirages; they showed as trees, islands and coastlines. These mirages were so perfect that, experienced pilot though he was, Lindbergh confessed after the flight that, if he had not known there could be no land on the route, he would have been deceived by them.
Again the fog cleared off the water and again Lindbergh descended so close to the sea that he was often only ten feet above the surface, and never more than 200 feet above it. He flew on during that day until he knew that he must be near Europe. The first indication he had of this was the sight of some fishing boats, but he could see no land. He tried to “talk” to a fisherman in one of the boats by flying low and switching off his engine. He shouted to the man and asked him if he knew the way to Ireland. Either the fisherman could not speak English, or he was so astonished to hear the type of question he would expect to hear only from a motorist on a road, that he did not answer.
Lindbergh flew on, and about an hour later he crossed the Irish coast and set his course for Paris. Now he was on the last lap of his great flight after having spent some thirty hours alone in a small cabin. He crossed the French coast at Cherbourg. Night fell soon after, and he saw below the welcoming beacons of the London to Paris airway. Just before ten o’clock he looked down on the lights of Paris.
Lindbergh's Aeroplane Damaged
He had arrived - the first man to fly that hazardous 3,600 miles from New York to Paris. Soon after ten o’clock he landed at Le Bourget Airport thirty-three hours thirty minutes after having left New York. Thousands of people rushed across the airport to greet him. For hours they had waited, remembering the fate of their countrymen, Nungesser and Coli, listening eagerly to reports of Lindbergh’s progress across Ireland, the south-west coast of England, over the English Channel and along the London to Paris airway. Now he was here, and the tension of waiting was relieved by the mad dash of thousands of people across the landing ground. In their excitement and eagerness to welcome the first man to link New York and Paris by air, they dragged him from the cabin and damaged the Spirit of St. Louis.
At Croydon Airport a crowd of 150,000 waited to welcome him. Before his machine alighted thousands of people broke through the cordon and surged across the ground. Only Lindbergh’s presence of mind saved some of these spectators from being killed, for many of them were directly in front of the Spirit of St. Louis as it taxied over the ground.
From that moment, except for brief hours of sleep, Lindbergh was feted as few men have ever been feted. In Paris, in London, in Washington and New York, he was the guest of honour at numerous receptions, luncheons and dinners. He was decorated in France with the Legion of Honour. He was received by Royalty and by the world’s most famous men and women. He had hundreds of offers to broadcast, to put his name to a variety of advertisements, to write articles and books, to do film work and to go into business.
Naturally modest, Lindbergh was genuinely astonished at his reception and by the world-wide admiration. But the flattery, the adulation from the world’s most famous men and women left him unmoved. He remained what he had set out to be when he had joined the Nebraska Flying School, a professional pilot. When he saw the Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor) in London, the Prince asked him what he was going to do in the future.
“I am going to keep on flying”, Lindbergh answered.
CHECKING OVER THE ENGINE before his great flight. Lindbergh used a Wright Whirlwind engine of 220 horsepower. It was of the radial type and had nine cylinders. Although Lindbergh had every confidence in his engine, he did not overlook the possibility of a forced landing. He reckoned that the air in the petrol tanks would keep him afloat on the sea if the weather were not too rough.