In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made what may still be the most famous flight in history, in a one-of-a-kind airplane called the “Spirit of St Louis”.
After the war ended, the attention of the world was focused on civilian aviation. In May 1919, the US Navy seaplane NC-4 became the first plane to fly across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Lisbon with refueling stops at Newfoundland and the Azore Islands. Two weeks later, British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, in a World War One Vickers Vimy bomber, flew nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland.
That same month, a New York hotel owner named Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 reward (about $350,000 today) for the first airplane that flew nonstop across the Atlantic between New York and Paris. For the next five years, nobody made an attempt to claim the Orteig Prize, and in 1924 Orteig renewed his offer. By then, technological advances had placed it within reach, and a number of aviation luminaries attempted to claim the prize. In September 1926, the highest-scoring surviving ace from the First World War, Frenchman Rene Fonck, attempted a flight from Paris to New York, but crashed on takeoff. In April 1927, American pilot Richard Byrd, famous for his flight over the North Pole, also crashed on takeoff during his attempt to fly from New York to Paris. By May 1927, four other pilots had been killed while attempting the flight.
On May 8, 1927, French WW1 ace Charles Nungesser made his attempt. Accompanied by navigator Francois Coli, Nungesser took off from Le Bourget airfield outside of Paris in a modified Levasseur PL.8 biplane that they had christened l’Oiseau Blanc (“White Bird”). Their planned route would take them across the English Channel, over southern England and Ireland, then across the North Atlantic to Newfoundland, south to Boston and then to a landing in New York. They never arrived.
That left two pilots as the only remaining teams who were ready to fly. One of these was Richard Byrd, who was ready to make another attempt after his crash. The other was a then-unknown airmail pilot from St Louis named Charles Lindbergh.
Lindbergh was being sponsored by the St Louis Chamber of Commerce and had a budget of just $15,000. By January 1927, however, he still didn’t even have an airplane. Partly for economic reasons, but also for logistical advantage, he had made a couple of unconventional decisions. Unlike the other teams, who were using multi-engine aircraft, Lindbergh had opted for a single-engine plane. And while the others were flying with multiple crew members, Lindbergh decided that he could get better fuel mileage by reducing the weight as much as possible—which meant he would be flying alone. After much consultation the Ryan Airlines Company in San Diego agreed to special-build a high-wing monoplane, a modified and lengthened version of the company’s Model M-2 crammed with extra fuel tanks for the attempt. One of the extra tanks was placed directly in front of the cockpit, meaning there was no forward windscreen and the pilot could not even see at all directly ahead (though a small periscope was placed in the cockpit). The entire plane weighed just over a ton, and could carry a ton and a half of fuel. With the Chamber of Commerce’s blessing, Lindbergh christened the aircraft “The Spirit of St Louis”. It was designed with just one purpose in mind—to make it across the Atlantic without landing.
The “Spirit” wasn’t completed until the end of April 1927, and the St Louis team was in constant fear that someone would make the trans-Atlantic flight before they were ready. But after Byrd crashed and Nungesser disappeared, Lindbergh flew his plane from San Diego to St Louis and then on to Long Island, New York, (breaking the existing trans-continental speed record in the process), and over to the starting point at Roosevelt Field.
Byrd was already prepped for his flight, but decided to wait until a period of bad weather had cleared up. Lindbergh saw his chance, however, and decided to take the risk, and on May 20, 1927, after staying awake all night so he could leave early in the morning, he took off into a freezing rainstorm.
The flight took 33 1/2 hours. To help stay awake, Lindbergh had intentionally installed an uncomfortable wicker chair in the cockpit, and he would also periodically open the small side windows to let rain and cold air in. At one point, he reports, while just barely skimming the waves at low altitude, he saw a fishing boat on the horizon and, as he passed it, yelled out the window “Which way to Ireland?” When he landed at the Le Bourget Airfield in Paris, radio reports of the flight had already reached France and an immense crowd was there to greet him.
The era of radio news had just begun, and “Lucky Lindy” was the first “media star”. He instantly became the most famous person in the world. Ironically, though, Lindbergh is famous today mostly for the wrong reason—he was not the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic (Alcock and Brown had already done that, and a dozen others had followed them). But he was the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris (and he did it alone, which was not even a requirement for the Orteig Prize—Lindbergh did it just to save weight).
In June, the “Spirit of St Louis” was returned to the US aboard the Navy cruiser Memphis and, along with Lindbergh, made a tour of the US and South America. Lindbergh then donated the plane to the Smithsonian, where it remains on display.