SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Flight of the lone eagle

EVENT

D. N. PATWARY

Epic flight: A legend in his lifetime.

Epic flight: A legend in his lifetime.  

MAY 21 was the 78th anniversary of Charles Augustus Lindbergh's transatlantic solo flight in a single engine airplane, "Spirit of St. Louis", from New York to Paris in 1927.

Charles Lindbergh was born in 1902 in Detroit almost exactly a year before the Wright Brothers' first manned flight at Kitty Hawk beach, North Carolina. Lindbergh caught the flying bug while he was studying engineering at the University of Wisconsin. In 1924 Lindbergh enlisted in U.S. army so that he could train as Army reserve pilot.

After graduating from army's flight training school as best pilot of the class, he became a "barnstormer" or a performer of dare devil stunts. His reputation as a cautious and capable pilot became well known and the Robertson Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis hired him to fly mail between St. Louis and Chicago.

While flying as a mail pilot, he heard about Orteig prize — a prize of $25,000, announced by a New York hotel owner named Raymond Orteig in 1919, to be given to the first pilot who would fly solo non-stop between New York and Paris. The prize had not been won till 1927. Lindbergh believed he could win. To Lindbergh, it was a great challenge and he could not resist it. To him, the Prize was not the lure, rather it was the adventure of flying non-stop from New York to Paris.

Initially, it was almost impossible for Lindbergh to get a suitable airplane for the solo journey over the Atlantic Ocean. Desperate for finances, he knocked on the doors of possible philanthropists. Lindbergh's unassailable reputation as an ace pilot brought forward Harry Knight, the President of St. Louis flying club. Lindbergh convinced Bixby to support him by predicting a great future for St. Louis in aviation history if his flight was supported. A budget of $15,000 was agreed upon. True to Lindbergh's prediction, St. Louis is a very important hub of several airlines in the U.S.

Lindbergh located Ryan airlines Inc. in San Diego, California, to manufacture a special airplane to be called "Spirit of St. Louis" for his journey. Donald Hall designed the Spirit of St. Louis under Lindbergh's direct supervision with only one thought in mind — to get to Paris from New York non-stop.

Lindbergh did everything to reduce the weight of the airplane in order to accommodate as much fuel as possible. He designed a lighter wicker pilot's seat instead of the regular heavy leather one. He designed special lighter to be used during the flight. Even the route maps he carried had only the reference points. Every ounce mattered.

The empty weight of Spirit of St. Louis was 975 kg; while the empty weight of a modern airliner is approximately 180 tonnes. The wingspan was 14 metres in contrast to that of modern airliners — approximately 65 metres.

On April 28, 1927, Lindbergh test flew the "Spirit of St. Louis". With the entire factory staff looking on, Lindbergh taxied down the muddy field, lined up the on the runway and opened full throttle. Twenty minutes after lift-off, he touched down to a cheering, rousing reception from the jubilant workers of Ryan Airlines Inc.

On May 10, 1927 Lindbergh took off for New York. On the way, he landed at St. Louis to thank the people for their generosity on supporting him. On May 21, Charles Lindbergh lined up his heavily loaded airplane (heavily loaded with fuel) on the wet runway of Roosevelt field, Long Island, New York. He took off, watched by cheering crowds. From that moment on Charles Lindberg was "the Lone Eagle".

About 28 hours later, he sighted a mountainous coastline in the northeast. It was the southern tip of Ireland. He crossed Ireland and flew on to England. He flew at an altitude of 1,500 feet over England and had a good look of the country. As he saw the sun set for the second time, he saw the city of Cherbourg.

He saw the first lights of Paris at 5 p.m. by his watch but 10 p.m. by actual time. He located the rotating beacon of Le Bourget airport and descended to a lower altitude. He could make out the long lines of hangars at Le Bourget. The roads near the airport appeared to be jammed with cars.

He flew low over the field once to circle around into the wind and made a perfect landing at 10.21 p.m. Paris time. Exactly 33 hours, 30 minute and 29.8 seconds after take off, he had covered 3,610 miles. Charles Lindbergh had not slept for 55 hours but the Orteig prize was now his.

As he opened the door, a hysterical and ecstatic crowd broke through the restraining ropes and stampeded toward him, cheering and shouting.

Minutes after his landing, the New York Times May 21, 1927 Paris dispatch said: " Lindbergh Does it! To Paris in 33 1/2; Flies 1,000 Miles Through Snow and Sleet; Cheering French Carry Him Off Field."

He came home aboard the USS Memphis. President Coolidge welcomed him and bestowed the Distinguished Flying Cross upon him. In New York, four million people lined the parade route to watch Mayor Jimmy Walker pinning New York's Medal of Valour upon him.

His epic flight electrified the world. The press idolised the tall, handsome pilot and dubbed him "Lucky Lindy", "Lone Eagle". He became a legend in his lifetime and a victim of his fame later in his life.

Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" is now housed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

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