“I’ve never landed ‘the Spirit of St.Louis’ at night before. It would be better to come in straight. But if I don’t sideslip, I’ll be too high over the boundary to touch my wheels in the area of light. That would mean circling again — Still too high. I push the stick over to a steeper slip, leaving the nose well down — Below the hanger roofs now — straighten out — A short burst of the engine — Over the lighted area — Sod coming up to meet me — Deceptive high lights and shadows — Careful, easy to bounce when you’re tired, — Still too fast — Tail too high — Hold off…..Texture of the sod is gone —- Ahead, there’s nothing but night — Give her the gun and climb for another try? — The wheels touch gently, off again… Ease the stick forward — Back on the ground… Not a bad landing, but I’m beyond the light, can’t see anything ahead, like flying in fog — slower now — left rudder — reverse it — stick over the other way — ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ swings around and stops rolling, resting on the solidness of earth, in the center of Le Bourget. I start to taxi back toward the floodlights and hangars — but the entire field ahead is covered with running figures!”
This is the very literal memory of Charles Augustus Lindbergh of his landing in Paris at the end of his long trans-Atlantic flight, the first ever by a man flying alone, which occurred at @ 10:32 p.m. Paris time on today’s date, May 21 in 1927. I have given it to you above almost word-for-word the way he wrote of it in his 1953 book about the event, “The Spirit of St. Louis”. Usually, when I have searched the internet, or libraries for an account of what someone was experiencing at a precise moment when something important occurred it has been a problem to find their specific impressions or experiences. Frequently, one can find general observations, or impressions. But this is the first time wherein the problem was the other way around…. where the account seemed to be too literal. But there he is – Charles Lindbergh describing his ascent into Paris and into history in terms that are very specific, and literal descriptions of specific physical acts. But this was the type of man he was: brave, visionary and…. decidedly peculiar.
The Challenge: To Fly Across the Atlantic Alone
In May of 1919, Frenchman Raymond Orteig (pictured below with Lindbergh), an owner of hotels in New York, who had been inspired by the spirit of cooperation he had witnessed during World War One, decided to put up a purse of $25,000 to the first aviator or aviators to fly
nonstop from Paris to New York or New York to Paris. In 1926, with no one having attempted the flight, Orteig made the offer again. By this time, aircraft technology had advanced to a point where a few thought such a flight might be possible. Several of the world’s top aviators–including American polar explorer Richard Byrd, French flying ace Rene Fonck–decided to accept the challenge, and so did Charles Lindbergh. French WWI flying ace Charles Nungesser had made the attempt earlier in May, but had disappeared, and was presumed lost. This pointed up to Lindbergh and to the world that what he was attempting was very dangerous. Lindbergh who had taken up residence in St. Louis, which was increasingly becoming a center of air-traffic had persuaded a group of businessmen to back his construction of a plane which he called “The Spirit of St. Louis” in their honor.
“The Spirit of St. Louis” and “We”….
The Ryan Airlines Corporation of San Diego volunteered to build a single-engine aircraft to his specifications. Indeed, the plane was built almost from scratch, around Lindbergh himself. Extra fuel tanks were added, and the wing span was increased to 46 feet to accommodate the
additional weight. The main fuel tank was placed in front of the cockpit because it would be safest there in the event of a crash. This meant Lindbergh would have no forward vision, so a periscope was added. To reduce weight, everything that was not utterly essential was left out. There would be no radio, gas gauge, night-flying lights, navigation equipment, or parachute. Lindbergh would sit in a light seat made of wicker. And unlike other pilots who had attempted this jump, Lindbergh would be alone, with no navigator or co-pilot. This is where the peculiarity of Lindbergh’s personality (as I see it) first comes into play. In his 1998 biography of Lindbergh, author A. Scott Berg records:
“And yet it was strange, observed Walter Balderston (one of the plane’s designers) that whenever Lindbergh spoke of getting from New York to Paris, he always used the first person plural. ‘I heard it many times before Lindbergh left San Diego, & particularly noticed his rather peculiar conversational use of it.’ Baldesrton would write. Before there was even a plane built, ‘He simply would not use the pronoun “I” when speaking of the flight itself. In the back of his mind somewhere he may have been thinking of his financial backers, but many times he used it when by no stretch of the imagination could it have meant anything or anybody other than himself.”
Lindbergh Departs From New York
At 7:52 A.M., May 20, 1927 Charles Lindbergh gunned the engine of “the Spirit of St Louis” and took off from the dirt runway of Roosevelt Field, Long Island. As she had a lot of extra fuel aboard, the plane bounced down the muddy field, gradually became airborne and barely cleared the telephone wires at the field’s edge. The crowd of 500 thought they had witnessed a miracle. And they might have. Many intrepid adventurers had ventured into the unknown in the past, but this was one man attempting it alone. To be separated from all contact with earth and living beings was a unique experience for any man, even for a comparative loner like Lindbergh. He had left with just a handful of sandwiches for food, and a little water in a canteen. And during the journey, he fought fatigue and sleeplessness, occasionally flying his plane close enough to the water that some of the spray from the white-capped ocean would come into his cockpit, slap him in the face and revive his flagging consciousness. And he many years later admitted that he at one point became delusional. And he wouldn’t just say he was having plain old hallucinations. No, these were “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane.” These fellows spoke to him with human voices giving him “messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life.”
Lindbergh Enters the Public Mind for Good (or ill?)
At the Le Bourget Aerodrome in Paris, tens of thousands of Saturday night revelers had gathered to await Lindbergh’s arrival. On May 21, at 10:24 a.m. local time, his gray and white monoplane emerged from the
darkness and made a perfect landing in the air field. The crowd surged on “the Spirit of St. Louis”, and Lind- bergh, weary from his 33 1/2-hour, 3,600-mile journey, was cheered and lifted above their heads. He hadn’t slept for 55 hours. He was an immediate international celebrity. Lindbergh was in many ways the first modern media-celebrity, becoming the subject of saturation coverage and constant attention from newspaper reporters and cameramen. He wound up becoming the original victim of the first crowds of what would come to be known as the paparazzi. He would go on to marry Anne Morrow, the daughter of U.S. Diplomat and again, all too much in the public eye, would have a son, who would be kidnapped and ultimately murdered. Again in the public eye, Lindbergh and his wife would be forced to undergo the stress of the trial – “the trial of the century” it was called – and conviction of the accused murderer. In the years leading up to World War II, Lindbergh associated with the isolationist “America First “ organization, and came to be identified with many of it’s most anti-Semitic elements. But this fall from the good graces of the once adoring public, the loss of his first son, all of this was in the future on that day in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh first stepped out of “the Spirit of St. Louis” and into the lime-light, with all of its blessings and its curses.
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“Lindbergh” by A. Scott Berg, Putnam & Sons, New York, 1998.
“The Spirit of St. Louis” by Charles A. Lindbergh, Scribner & Sons, New York, 1953.