The Flying Fool

In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a French immigrant and hotel owner in New York City, attended a dinner organized by the Aero Club of America honoring the World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Rickenbacker had received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Medal of Honor for his bravery, as well the Croix de Guerre from France for his aerial service to that country during the war. During his speech, he emphasized the special relationship between France and America, despite the current tensions due to the Paris Peace Treaty, and pushed for a day in which the two countries would be more accessible to each other via air travel.

Inspired by Rickenbacher’s speech, Orteig, in a letter to president of the Aero Club, Alan Ramsay Hawley, offered a prize of $25,000 to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. The prize was good for 5 years; but, by the time it expired in 1924, not a single serious endeavor had been attempted. Not one to give up, Orteig further extended the prize for another 5 years. And this time around, he started to attract some attention, mainly from well-experienced and well-known pilots.

And a scrappy little barnstormer named Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh had been fascinated with planes from an early age, quitting college to enroll in the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation’s flying school in Lincoln, where he first learned to fly in a a two-seat Lincoln Standard “Tourabout” biplane. After leaving the school, he began barnstorming–a term used to describe acrobatic and stunt flying shows–across Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, working as a wing walker and parachutist. He then spent some time flying with the United States Army Air Service, where he earned his Army pilot’s wings and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve Corps. A peace-time Army, however, did not need full-time pilots so following graduation, Lindbergh returned to civilian aviation as a barnstormer and flight instructor, though he continued to serve part-time in the Missouri National Guard.

By the late 1920s, Lindbergh was working for the Robertson Aircraft Corporation as a mail pilot, ferrying letters and packages between St. Louis and Chicago. He was also watching the race for the Orteig Prize closely. Many well-known and respected pilots had tried–and failed–to capture the elusive prize. By 1927, four pilots had been killed, including World War I French flying ace René Fonck’s Sikorsky as well as U.S. Naval aviators Noel Davis and Stanton H. Wooster, may others had been injured, and two–French war heroes Charles Nungesser and François Coli-–were still missing somewhere over the Atlantic.

That’s when Lindbergh decided to give it a go. He persuaded several St. Louis businessmen to finance his attempt, as well as contributing $2000 of his own savings, to travel to San Diego and build a special plane that Lindbergh and Ryan Aircraft Company’s chief engineer Donald Hall designed. All other attempts to cross the Atlantic had been made using multi-engine planes. Lindbergh’s, on the other hand, was a fabric-covered, single-seat, single-engine, high-wing monoplane that didn’t even have a parachute or radio, the design team having to make a decision between these “non-essentials” and extra gasoline. When newspapers got word of this, many dubbed Lindbergh “the flying fool.”

On May 20, 1927, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” as Lindbergh had christened his plane in honor of his financial backers, took off down a muddy, rain-soaked runway from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, loaded down with 450 gallons of fuel. The plane was so heavy, it barely cleared the telephone wires at the end of the strip.

Lindbergh reached the ocean as the sun set. Fog thickened overnight, sleet plagued his wings, and he was forced to navigate via “dead reckoning,” a tricky and often fatal form of navigation over the featureless ocean, as he had no radio and the fog made navigation by stars impossible. He also struggled with drowsiness, fighting to stay awake as he sometimes flew only 10 feet above the ocean to escape the clouds and ice.

But after traveling more than 3,600 miles in 33.5 hours, Lindbergh landed in Paris at Le Bourget Aerodrome at 10:22 p.m. on Saturday, May 21.. A crowd of 100,000 were there to meet him, including Raymond Orteig and his wife, who happened to be in France on vacation when they received word of Lindbergh’s attempt. He was able to meet Lindbergh at the American Embassy on 22 May 1927–exactly eight years to the day since he had first offered the prize. Less than a month later, Orteig officially presented the prize to Lindbergh at a ceremony held in the reception hall of the Breevort Hotel in New York City. Where more experienced pilots had tried and failed, a poor, scrappy barnstormer had succeeded.

And aviation in America–and the world–would never be the same.

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