Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history
Many years ago, a test pilot friend on the Isle of Wight passed me a book to read with his personal recommendation. The title was The Spirit of St Louis and its author the man himself, Charles A. Lindbergh. This, he assured me, was a wonderfully written account of what he considered the most amazing flight in history, namely the fi rst solo crossing of the Atlantic on 20-21 May 1927. I read it avidly then, and I’ve revisited it several times since. My friend’s assessment was spot-on.
In the preface, Lindbergh recalls that the book had taken him 14 years to write, having started the manuscript in Paris in 1938 but not completed it until 1952. While it gives the most complete account of his epic trans-Atlantic flight — face it, nobody could be better placed to write it — it is other parts of his text that give a real insight into Lindbergh the man.
In 1926, Lindbergh was piloting DH4 mail-planes for the Robertson Aircraft Corporation out of Chicago. There he had learned flying the hard way, and he relates an incident when, after encountering a bank of fog and then running out of fuel, he was forced to abandon the aircraft and take to his parachute. Unhurt, he was picked up by a farmer, who drove him around the area to search for the crash site. When they eventually located it, the aircraft was totally wrecked but had not burned. Lindbergh calmly retrieved the mail sacks and took them to a nearby post office to continue their journey.
He recalls what inspired him to go for the Orteig prize of $25,000 for the first non-stop fl ight between New York and Paris. Raymond Orteig was a wealthy American hotelier of French origins, and also what would now be called a ‘total aviation person’. Enthused by his meetings with World War One French aviators, Orteig offered the prize just days before Alcock and Brown’s successful Newfoundland to Ireland flight. The distance from New York to Paris was, though, just about double the distance Alcock and Brown would now be called a ‘total aviation person’. Enthused by his meetings with World War One French aviators, Orteig offered the prize just days before Alcock and Brown’s successful Newfoundland to Ireland flight. The distance from New York to Paris was, though, just about double the distance Alcock and Brown And there had been many of them — witness Peter Allen’s The 91 Before Lindbergh (Airlife, 1984) that details previous attempts to cross the North and South Atlantic by air. Lindbergh approached potential backers for financial support, but too many dismissed as ‘crazy’ his idea of a single-engined aircraft with a single pilot. Most manufacturers were either dismissive or less than co-operative, and it was not until he met Donald Hall at the Ryan company that Lindbergh found an outfit that was confident it could build a single-engined aircraft capable of the flight, and at an affordable price.
By autumn 1926, aged 25, Lindbergh methodically analysed what had gone wrong with every failed prize attempt to date
Details of the design of the Ryan NYP (for ‘New York to Paris’) Spirit of St Louis are well-known. It offered no forward vision for the pilot, as that was where a fuel tank was located, although Lindbergh anyway averred that there was little need to see ahead in normal flight. Taking a parachute would incur a weight penalty he could not afford, although he did purchase a small rubber raft from a sports shop. His seat in the aircraft was of wicker construction, intentionally uncomfortable to ensure he stayed awake (no comparisons, please, with Ryanair seating). The result was an aircraft with maximum fuel load but with everything else pared to a minimum. As a result — and with luck on his side — his ‘all or nothing’ attempt succeeded where others had failed. Incredible man, incredible flight.