top of page
  • dlg631


Ever since the advent of powered flight, man has dreamt of spanning the oceans. During the early years of aviation, the prevailing aircraft were capable of only a limited load and range.

However, this changed in May 1927 with the successful transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh.

During this blog, we'll tell the story of that eventful flight across the Atlantic.

In the early 1920's, as aircraft engines became more reliable, a number of national air races were spawned such as the Pulitzer Trophy, sponsored by publishing magnates Ralph, Joseph Jr. and Herbert Pulitzer of the New York World and the St. Louis Dispatch. These air races were annual events from 1920 to 1925. A rival race, the Schneider Trophy competition became the world's most famous air race event. Established by the French industrialist and aviator, Jacques Schneider in 1912 to encourage the development of commercial seaplanes with American and European military teams competing to achieve advancements in technology, inter-service rivalry and international prestige. Another national race was formed in the late 1920's by two brothers from California, Clifford and Phillip Henderson. The Henderson brothers were able to convince Cleveland manufacturer Charles Thompson to sponsor a new national air race. The Thompson Trophy Race was designed to encourage the development of faster land planes. Though the Thompson race was a closed-circuit, pylon-marked contest, like the Pulitzer, there the similarity ended. The Pulitzer had a single aircraft racing a pre-determined course, while the Thompson had all of the planes racing the course at the same time. With the advent of the Thompson race, more civilian pilots began to participate in the events flying in a number of homebuilt aircraft. Of the four major air races , the Thompson proved to be the most popular. The Bendix Trophy race debuted in 1931. This national race was the result of the Henderson brothers persuading industrialist Vincent Bendix to sponsor a transcontinental point to point race with the primary motivation behind to race to promote faster aircraft of longer range and endurance to encourage the development of commercial aircraft.

In 1919, the Orteig Prize was offered by a prominent New York hotel businessman Raymond Orteig for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris. At $25,000, the Orteig Prize was the peak reward for aviation achievement, but the flight did not have many takers due to weather conditions in crossing the Atlantic, as well as designing an aircraft with a range suitable for the trip. However, this began to change in the fall of 1926 as an airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh became fascinated with the concept of connecting the continents by air. Lindbergh began the effort by drawing from his personal savings to fund an aircraft design. Realizing his own funds would not be enough, Lindbergh organized a presentation before a group of St. Louis businessmen (since he was based in St. Louis with the airmail service) to promote a vision for commercial aviation, based upon current aviation capabilities. Lindbergh's address was based upon two considerations; first that a trans-Atlantic flight would demonstrate the possibilities of aviation, placing St. Louis in the foreground of the effort and secondly, by proving current aircraft capable of an Atlantic crossing, the Orteig Prize proceeds would be more than enough to cover the costs of developing such an aircraft. Within three months, Lindbergh received complete financial backing from a number of St. Louis businessmen, including a $1,000 pledge from Major Albert Bond Lambert, with the remainder pledged by Earl C. Thompson, William B. Robertson, Frank H. Robertson, E. Lansing Ray, J.D. Wooster Lambert, Harry Knight and Harold M. Bixby in addition to Lindbergh's contribution of $2,000. These men became known as the St. Louis backers.

Due to the support of the St. Louis backers, Lindbergh had the freedom to search for an aircraft capable of trans-Atlantic flight. Based upon both his airmail and private flying experience, Lindbergh preferred a single-engine monoplane with a single pilot, which was safer and more easy to fly than multi-engine planes. While Lindbergh had the right plane design, all of the major aircraft manufacturers turned him down, as well as Bellanca, which had the only prebuilt plane capable of making the flight. At the urging of his backers, Lindbergh then approached Ryan Airlines of San Diego. Though Lindbergh considered the flight feasible, he began to have doubts about the project. The decision to award Ryan the contract for the plane came down to the relationship of Lindbergh to Donald Hall, the Chief Engineer at Ryan. Both Hall and Lindbergh were authorities in current aviation technology, in addition to both attending flight school in Austin, Texas a year apart from each other. Fueled by their common interests and personalities, Lindbergh decided Hall was the right man for the job and both men signed the contract to produce the aircraft on February 25, 1927.

Hall and Lindbergh immediately dived into the trans-Atlantic plane project to formulate an effective plan for crossing the Atlantic, with both men in agreement on the majority of design issues. Both men agreed the decision to use a single-engine was the best, since there was a lower probability of failure if a proven engine was selected, the primary choice being the Wright J-5C. At first, Hall and Lindbergh attempted to modify the Ryan M-2, an open cockpit three-seater for the flight, but it lacked the necessary fuel reserve for the 3,600 mile flight. It became apparent that a completely new design of aircraft was a much better option. In order to meet the 60 day production goal, both Hall and Lindbergh put in many long hours, sometimes as many as ninety hours per week. Incorporating the best technology from both military and civil aircraft, as well as using a number of parts from the M-2, Ryan was able to meet the production schedule. The main fuel tank and lubricating oil tank were placed in front of the cockpit for safety reasons. This arrangement meant the plane could not be equipped with a front windshield. However, Hall was able to compensate for this by mounting a periscope in the front left cockpit extending from the left fuselage, which could be viewed from the instrument panel. The new plane was officially named the Spirit Of St. Louis by Harold M Bixby. It was powered by a 223 hp., Wright JC-5 engine with three fuel tanks providing a fuel capacity of 450 gallons. The plane was constructed of a doped canvas to save weight, yet give it a measure of rigidity. The plane's instrument panel consisted of an Eight-Day Clock provided by Waltham Watch Co. with an Earth Inductor Compass furnished by Pioneer Instrument Co. A barograph was carried on the plane to certify the flight with the International Aeronautical Federation. The Spirit Of St. Louis had a fuselage of 28 ft. with a parasol wing of 46ft., with an empty weight of 2,150 lbs. and a loaded weight of 2,900 lbs. The JC-5 gave the Spirit a maximum speed of 130 mph. with a cruising speed of 97mph.

Lindbergh saved weight on the aircraft any way he could, foregoing a radio and a parachute in exchange for more fuel. While the Spirit was under construction, Lindbergh studied celestial navigation and became familiar with the Atlantic shipping lanes. After a three day delay due to inclement weather, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island on May 20, 1927 at 7:52 AM, heading east. Just before nightfall, he passed over St. John's Newfoundland heading out across the Atlantic. After flying 3,600 miles and 33.50 hrs. later, Lindbergh landed safely at Le Bourget Field outside Paris. It was a relatively uneventful flight, with the exception of a leaky oil line, which he fixed with a pair of pliers (they were found eighty years later when the aircraft was on display at the Smithsonian). The success of Lindbergh's flight proved man could span the oceans from the air and build the aircraft to do it.

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page