• Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first airplane to fly solo across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris, piloted by Charles A. Lindbergh.

In 1927, there was no more famous aviator in the world than Charles A. Lindbergh, and no more famous aircraft than the Spirit of St. Louis, the California-built Ryan monoplane that he flew alone and nonstop from New York to Paris that year. The flight was made in an attempt to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize, to be awarded to the first person to make a nonstop flight between New York and Paris.

Raymond Orteig offered his prize of $25,000, for the first pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris, in 1919. Originally, the prize was open for a period of five years, but airplane technology was not yet advanced enough for anyone to even make the transatlantic attempt in the early 1920’s. When the prize was still unclaimed in 1926, Orteig extended the prize’s term to 1931. By this time, transatlantic flight had begun to seem technically possible, and Lindbergh, who was already making a name for himself as a barnstormer, mechanic, and airmail pilot, was one of several aviators who decided to try his luck.

In 1926, Lindbergh raised $15,000 in backing from a consortium of St. Louis businessmen and set out to find a plane. Most people believed that multiple engines were the key to long-distance flight, but Lindbergh believed that he would have a better chance of success with the lightest possible plane, thereby increasing his fuel efficiency. He initially tried to purchase a single-engine plane from Columbia Aircraft Corporation, a New York company, but negotiations failed when the president of Columbia Aircraft wanted too much control over the project.

The Aircraft

Lindbergh had previously contacted the Ryan Aeronautical Company, a San Diego aircraft manufacturer, and in February, 1927, Lindbergh finally contracted with the company for the aircraft. The plane, which cost $10,580, was custom-built for that one flight. Named for Lindbergh’s financial backers, the Spirit of St. Louis was a high-wing monoplane constructed out of steel tubing, an aluminum cowling over the nose, spruce, and cotton cloth painted with aircraft dope covering the body of the plane. Much of the space in the aircraft was taken up by fuel tanks, according to Lindbergh’s desire to fly solo so as to save weight and carry more gasoline. The pilot’s position was behind the large fuel tank positioned just behind the engine, necessitating a small periscope for forward vision (the pilot could also look out of side windows); the plane carried a total of 451 gallons of fuel. The engine was a remarkably reliable 223-horsepower, nine-cylinder Wright Whirlwind air-cooled radial engine mounted in the nose of the aircraft. The plane was 27 feet, 8 inches from nose to tail and 46 feet from wingtip to wingtip. She weighed 2,150 pounds empty and 5,135 pounds fully loaded.

The Flight

Though U.S. Navy flying boats had made a crossing from Newfoundland to Portugal, with a stop in the Azores, in May, 1919, and British Royal Air Force officers John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown had flown nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland the next month, Lindbergh’s would be the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight, and his route was considerably longer. Lindbergh planned his flight carefully, and took off from Roosevelt Field in New York at 7:54 a.m. on May 20, 1927. At 10:24 p.m. on May 21, Lindbergh landed in Paris after a 33.5-hour flight, having fought exhaustion (he had not slept for twenty-four hours before his flight), hallucinations, and ice formation on the plane during the flight. Upon landing, the plane was mobbed by thousands of spectators and slightly damaged before it could be taken into a hangar. A week later, the plane repaired, Lindbergh flew the plane to Belgium, then to England, from where he and the crated airplane returned to the United States on an American cruiser.

The Aftermath

After a year of touring the United States and South America, the remarkable plane was donated on April 30, 1928, to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is now part of the permanent collection of its National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The flight catapulted Lindbergh (soon dubbed “Lucky Lindy”) to a worldwide fame that would never leave him; he spent the rest of his life as an ambassador for the advancement of aviation and, later, for environmental causes. The accomplishment of the plane itself was also remarkable for many reasons. It showed that a small, single-engine aircraft could be rugged and reliable enough for the rigors of transatlantic flight; it further proved that nonstop crossings were feasible, and it showed that airplanes in general had reached a level of safety and reliability that meant they could be used for regular transportation.

Bibliography
  • Berg, A. Scott. Lindbergh. New York: Berkeley, 1998. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lindbergh, which contains detailed information on the planning and construction of the aircraft.
  • Greenwood, John T., ed. Milestones of Aviation: Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin, 1995. Covers the important markers in aviation history, including a detailed section on the Spirit of St. Louis and its transatlantic flight.
  • Lindbergh, Charles A. We. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1927. Lindbergh’s story of his life up to and including the famous flight and its immediate aftermath.
  • Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. “Milestones of Flight.” (www.nasm.edu/galleries/gal100/gal100.html) This World Wide Web site contains information on many historic aircraft, including a section on the Spirit of St. Louis.

Airplanes

Charles A. Lindbergh

Monoplanes

Record flights

Transatlantic flight

The Spirit of St. Louis was specially designed by the Ryan Aeronautical Company to Charles Lindbergh’s specifications for his historic transatlantic solo flight in 1927.

(Hulton Archive)
Categories: History Content