Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris heralded a new era of air transportation and global commerce.

Summary of Event

Charles A. Lindbergh, born in Michigan in 1902, was an adventurous child who did not like school. After barely graduating from high school, he made a failed attempt to study at the University of Wisconsin and ended up as a flying cadet in the U.S. Army. After completing the training and joining the Missouri National Guard instead of choosing active duty, Lindbergh was appointed chief pilot of a new airmail route linking the Midwest with New York City. [kw]Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight (May 20, 1927) [kw]First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight, Lindbergh Makes the (May 20, 1927) [kw]Nonstop Transatlantic Flight, Lindbergh Makes the First (May 20, 1927) [kw]Transatlantic Flight, Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop (May 20, 1927) [kw]Flight, Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic (May 20, 1927) Aviation;development Airplanes Transportation;air [g]France;May 20, 1927: Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight[06880] [g]United States;May 20, 1927: Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight[06880] [c]Science and technology;May 20, 1927: Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight[06880] [c]Space and aviation;May 20, 1927: Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight[06880] [c]Transportation;May 20, 1927: Lindbergh Makes the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight[06880] Lindbergh, Charles A. Bixby, Harold

Aviation in the 1920’s was fairly dangerous, especially flying the mail. Pilots had to fly with little ground support and unreliable weather reports, often with visual ground contact as their only guide. Most aircraft were still unsafe in their own right as well. Because of these problems, Lindbergh and other airmail pilots were continually pushing the U.S. Post Office Department to improve the quality of air facilities. The government did begin providing ground facilities, such as beacons and emergency fields, along contract airmail routes, but it would not provide airplanes, money for their purchase, or funding for private aeronautical research. This perpetuated a fundamental problem: Few contractors could afford to provide safe aircraft for their pilots, and few lenders provided money to do so. Lindbergh himself knew that safer planes could be built, but he also felt that before money would be made available, aviation had to become a less adventurous way to travel and a more normal, accepted means of transport. He had often considered how this might be accomplished, and he was intrigued when he read of a transatlantic flying contest sponsored by millionaire Raymond Orteig. Orteig, Raymond

Orteig had for several years offered a prize of twenty-five thousand dollars to anyone who could complete a nonstop flight linking New York and Paris. René Fonck, Fonck, René a well-known French pilot, had already tried and failed, his plane crashing at the end of his reserved New York runway before takeoff, killing several crew members. Attempting the trip in reverse, two French pilots had departed from Paris but disappeared over the Atlantic. Another group of pilots were caught in a legal entanglement and were forbidden to take off at all. Lindbergh felt that the contest was the perfect way to get aviation into the public eye, and he began preparing for an attempt.

Whereas the other pilots had placed their faith in multiengine biplanes, Lindbergh envisioned a single-engine monoplane. He also wanted to fly alone. Although Lindbergh hated soliciting for support, his plane would cost an estimated ten thousand dollars, so he had to make the effort. He finally got help from a group of businessmen led by St. Louis banker Harold Bixby. The group produced fifteen thousand dollars to finance Lindbergh’s flight, which would be billed as a St. Louis-to-Paris flight, with a stop in New York. Ryan Airlines, Inc., of California was contracted to work with Lindbergh on an aircraft meeting his own specifications. Because Bixby was from St. Louis, he suggested the plane be named The Spirit of St. Louis. Spirit of St. Louis, The (airplane)[Spirit of Saint Louis]

The Spirit of St. Louis made its maiden test flight in April, 1927, in California, but the plane would never be fully tested. Lindbergh learned that several other pilots were set to take off from New York on their transatlantic voyages. Lindbergh feared he would be too late if he waited, so despite the lack of test flights, the plane was readied. Lindbergh flew from San Diego to St. Louis and then on to Long Island, New York, where he landed on May 12, 1927.

Upon arriving on Long Island, Lindbergh had his first extensive contact with the press. The Orteig contest was current news, and reporters began calling Lindbergh the “flying fool” because he planned to use a single-engine aircraft and fly solo. He also would not carry a parachute; he needed as much fuel as the plane could carry, and he thought that if he had to bail out over the Atlantic Ocean, he would in any case perish before he could be rescued. Despite disliking the press and considering their attention distracting, the aviator did not want to ignore the media, because he wanted public attention to focus on aviation.

Another problem was that, because Lindbergh had not expected to be in New York so soon, he had not yet cleared all of the eligibility requirements for the contest. Afraid that if he waited he would be beaten across the ocean, Lindbergh contacted his sponsors, who agreed that the flight itself was more important than the prize money. The aviator was given the green light to embark when ready. Bad weather kept Lindbergh from departing immediately, but he finally took off on Friday, May 20, despite not having slept for twenty-three straight hours.

During his solo transatlantic flight, Lindbergh’s greatest danger was not inclement weather, fog, low clouds, or even a sizable storm around which he had to detour. The aviator’s biggest problem was his desire for sleep. In his later writings, Lindbergh described his experience in surreal terms, with phantoms and other apparitions appearing as he drifted in and out of a state of half sleep. Lindbergh was able to nap briefly, for as he nodded off, the plane, which did not fly particularly smoothly, would jerk him back awake. After sixteen hours of flying, Lindbergh crossed the southwest coast of Ireland, then passed over Cornwall, England, two hours ahead of schedule and landed at Le Bourget aerodrome outside Paris after thirty-three and one-half hours in the air. Lindbergh had been so efficient in his flying that there was still enough fuel in the tanks for a flight to Rome.

Significance

Later, in his autobiographical works, Lindbergh admitted that nothing could have prepared him for the commotion that followed his successful flight. He had expected to land and spend the day talking to and trading experiences with French pilots. Instead, he was suddenly the world’s greatest celebrity. After nearly running over crowds of people who swarmed onto the runway, Lindbergh was literally carried off and welcomed by all manner of people, showered with awards and honors, toasted and praised. There were ceremonies, dinners, parades, meetings with French and U.S. officials, and audiences with royalty. He was no longer the “flying fool” but rather “Lucky Lindy,” and he was flooded with telegrams, invitations, and business proposals. He received a similar welcome when he flew on to England, after repairing the parts of his plane that people had torn off as souvenirs.

Lindbergh was taken back to the United States by the U.S. Navy, and when he arrived in Washington, D.C., and as he traveled from there to New York City, he was busy with dinners, speeches, and receptions. At a dinner with President Calvin Coolidge, the aviator met Dwight W. Morrow, an ambitious but capable politician, and Morrow’s three daughters. Lindbergh paid the daughters little attention, but one of them, Anne, would later become his wife. The aviator also was given a huge parade in New York, receiving the city’s biggest welcome ever. More than four million people lined the streets, and eighteen hundred tons of ticker tape rained down on the cavalcade bearing Lindbergh.

On June 16, Lindbergh was given the Orteig Prize of twenty-five thousand dollars, despite the fact that he had never been technically eligible for the contest. Along with more than two million pieces of mail and all manner of business endorsements, Lindbergh was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to the rank of colonel. His later life and career would be filled with all manner of accomplishments, in and out of aviation, but he also met with considerable controversy surrounding his view of Hitler’s Luftwaffe just before World War II.

The first solo transatlantic flight was clearly a boost for aviation. Lindbergh’s success made flying seem slightly more routine and also showed that a single-engine craft could make such a journey. The flight was also important as a watershed date in U.S. history. During the 1920’s, many Americans still did not want to accept that the United States was part of a growing global community; the flight forced them to accept that fact, and it encouraged them to begin to look toward the future. Aviation;development Airplanes Transportation;air

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. 3d ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. A thorough history of aviation in the United States by a leading historian in the field. Chapter 2 places Lindbergh’s flight in the context of its era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dick, Ron, and Patterson, Dan. The Early Years. Vol. 1 in Aviation Century. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press, 2003. Highly illustrated history details the progress of aviation from 1900 to 1939, analyzing why developments in flight took the directions they did and presenting information on the individuals who created the world’s aviation industry, including Lindbergh. Features bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fife, George Buchanan. Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle: His Life and Achievements. New York: World Syndicate, 1927. Representative of a literary genre on Lindbergh that appeared within a year of his successful New York to Paris flight. Not only captures the phenomenal public response to the achievement but also describes with excellent detail the layout and instrumentation aboard The Spirit of St. Louis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gill, Brendan. Lindbergh Alone. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Extremely well-written short biography of Lindbergh concludes with the years immediately after the 1927 transoceanic flight. Traces the “lone eagle’s” life, his development as a pilot during the early 1920’s, and the events that led to his transatlantic achievement. Especially of interest for its analyses of Lindbergh’s claims to have seen phantoms or ghosts during the flight.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindbergh, Charles A. Autobiography of Values. 1976. Reprint. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. Written near the end of his life and published posthumously, this autobiography provides a second look at Lindbergh’s 1927 flight, supplementing his award-winning 1953 The Spirit of St. Louis. Also sheds light on Lindbergh’s personality, including his concern with environmental issues and his perceptions of the dynamic relationships among science, technology, and society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Spirit of St. Louis. 1953. Reprint. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Beautifully written account of Lindbergh’s New York-Paris flight written some twenty-five years after the event. Remains the most important source for the details of Lindbergh’s momentous achievement. Uses flashbacks and free association in describing the exhilaration and hazards of the flight, the scenery observed, and navigational methods employed to maintain the airplane’s course.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milton, Joyce. Loss of Eden: A Biography of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Introduction to the lives of the Lindberghs focuses on the couple’s relationship, not on specific historical events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mosley, Leonard. Lindbergh: A Biography. 1976. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2000. Examines Lindbergh’s long career, paying special attention to the aviator’s efforts in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s to prevent the United States from entering World War II. Addresses the controversial aspects of Lindbergh’s life with a journalistic flair, but also perhaps with a degree of simplicity in matters of scholarship that fails to deal with the subject adequately and with total fairness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parfit, Michael. “Retracing Lindy’s Victorious Trip Across the Country.” Smithsonian 18 (October, 1987): 200-220. Informative article describes Lindbergh’s forty-eight-state tour of 1927, following his historic flight. Asserts that Lindbergh not only kept the excitement of his achievement alive among the public but also did more in a short time to promote civil aeronautics than previous federal government attempts. Argues that Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and his subsequent tour convinced the public that flying was no longer a sport for daredevils, but that it was safe, reliable, and could be used to move precious cargo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Walter S. The Last Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. A balanced account of Lindbergh’s life; more objective than many other works on the aviator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, John William. “Charles A. Lindbergh: His Flight and the American Ideal.” In Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas, edited by Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981. Insightful article focuses on the consequences of Lindbergh’s flight. Argues that the hero worship directed at Lindbergh was the result of Americans’ need to celebrate both the individual in an increasingly bureaucratic age and, paradoxically, the modern mechanical technology that made The Spirit of St. Louis possible. Lindbergh represented the individual pioneer, rooted in the past and untainted by the modern institutions of a new industrial order that emerged in early twentieth century America.

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