Charles Lindbergh lands the Spirit of St Louis in Paris

Posted in America, Aviation, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Tuesday, 3 April 2012

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This edited article about Charles Lindbergh originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 681 published on 1 February 1975.

Lindbergh's flight over Paris, picture, image, illustration

Lindbergh used the lights of night-time Paris to help him steer the Spirit of St Louis past the Eiffel Tower to Le Bourget Airfield in Paris

At 7.52 on a damp, muggy summer morning the little monoplane trundled sluggishly up the windswept airstrip. In the closed cockpit the pilot, an unknown young American named Charles A. Lindbergh, anxiously wondered if he would be able to get his tiny plane off the ground.

He knew the aircraft was nose-heavy with extra petrol. Its wheels were clinging to the muddy ground as if they would never let loose. Ahead lay some dangerously low-lying telephone wires. And beyond them were trees also too low for safety.

As the plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, slowly raised her tail, then her nose, off the ground, the mechanics running alongside each wing prayed that there would be no last-minute disaster.

For they, as well as Charles Lindbergh, knew that in the eyes of the public, the Press, and even it was believed, the American President, the Spirit of St. Louis was an already doomed failure.

Lindbergh, the twenty-five year-old air-mail pilot, was attempting what no man had ever dared before. To fly single-handed across the Atlantic from Roosevelt Field. New York, to Le Bourget Airfield in Paris. This in 1927 – when flying was still in its infancy and the “baby” was by no means assured of a full and healthy life.

The newspapers had gathered the opinions of aviation experts on the flight, and their views were: “A long chance. Lindbergh is alone and has only one motor.” “It seems impossible even that he will get such a heavily-loaded plane into the air.” Lloyds of London, who usually gave odds on any risky venture, would not quote prices on Lindbergh’s chances. And the British Government asked to comment on the attempt, said briefly that it was “suicidal”.

None of this, however, discouraged Lindbergh, who was so confident of soon eating a gourmet’s meal in Paris that he took with him on the flight only five meat sandwiches. Less confident, though equally hopeful, were the group of St. Louis businessmen who had financed the endeavour.

Lindbergh in his quest for money had chosen St. Louis as being potentially a great aviation centre. The city at the time was undergoing a slump as far as publicity was concerned, and many of its influential citizens were desperately keen to put it back on the map. Lindbergh’s “crazy” flight seemed as dramatic a way to them as any.

So it was very much against general expectations that the Spirit of St. Louis even got off the ground. But once airborne, Lindbergh’s spirits rose with the plane. And, shaking off the accompanying newspaper aircraft, he reached a speed of ninety miles-per-hour, and headed via Newfoundland towards the grey wastes of the Atlantic.

At his home in Detroit a newspaper ‘phoned to his mother the news of Lindbergh’s successful take-off. Although fearful she would never see her son alive again, she told reporters: “Tomorrow will either be the happiest or the saddest day of my life. For by tomorrow my boy will either be in Paris, or he will be lost.”

During the first few hours, Lindbergh felt his chances of success increasing. Already he had used up the extra petrol, some 150 gallons, and the plane, that much lighter, was responding with speed and grace.

It was not until he was well out over the Atlantic, at an altitude of ten thousand feet, that he noticed the plane’s gradual loss of power. He had already buttoned-up his flying jacket against the intense cold, and he had put a bare hand through the cockpit window to test the air. Immediately he pulled his hand back. It was prickled and scarred by dagger-pointed slivers of ice!

By now it was black night, and using his torch, he flashed its beam along the wing-struts. Everywhere the beam struck was covered by a thickening film of ice. Quickly Lindbergh was jerked out of his complacent tiredness. Alertness took its place.

His one avenue of safety was to find a part of the sky not infested by the killer ice. With tremendous effort – already his controls were icing-up – he turned the plane into a long slow turn. Round and round . . . up and up . . . flying blind and praying that the ice was not already denying the plane the manoeuvrability it needed. Then, just as he thought he would never make it, he burst through some cloud and out into the clear star-studded night. The ice-storm was safely behind him.

Thankfully he once again turned the plane – “my little box with fabric walls” he called it – towards Europe. He was now doing an encouraging eighty-five miles-per-hour.

Sleep was now the hazard that worried Lindbergh most. He felt greatly fatigued, and with little to see save unbroken expanses of blue cloud and dull grey sea, he feared he could easily doze off and so crash the plane while he slept.

To ward off his tiredness he sniffed smelling salts, played puzzle games in his mind, checked and re-checked his fuel consumption, his probable position, his direction, the effect of wind-drift.

Then in his twenty-seventh hour of flight glancing casually below him, he noticed a group of black dots on the water. At first he could not make out what they were. Suddenly, with an upswing of triumph in his heart, he saw that they were fishing boats. He had done what everyone had said was impossible. He had flown to Europe!

“Where Is Ireland?”

Swooping down to within fifty feet of the small boats he called out: “Ireland? Which way is Ireland?” But the men were too startled by the sight of the plane to answer him. Determined to waste no more time on them, Lindbergh circled and climbed. He knew now that land could not be far away. And it was only an hour later that he suddenly found himself approaching a rocky coastline with beautiful bays and tall green hills. It was Ireland.

From now on all he had to do was reach the English Channel, fly inland over France, and then follow the twisting Seine down to Paris. Over the valley of the Seine Lindbergh remembered he had eaten no food since leaving New York.

Jubilantly, he opened his packet of sandwiches and chewed hungrily at the bread and meat. Excitement, however, had taken the edge off his appetite. He finished only one of the five sandwiches he had brought.

Meanwhile at Le Bourget in Paris thousands of people, avid followers in the Press and on the radio of his flight, had gathered to give him a hero’s welcome.

None of this, however, was known to the aviator as he followed the beads of light blinking at him from the night-bound outskirts of Paris. He was concentrating first on finding the Eiffel Tower, then circling it and heading north-east to the floodlit area he knew would be Le Bourget.

So, after thirty-three-and-a-half hours in the air, on Saturday, May 21, 1927, the modest, quiet, but deadly-determined air-mail pilot made flying history. And as his now famous Spirit of St. Louis taxied slowly to a halt, Charles Augustus Lindbergh was amazed at his rapturous reception.

The one person slow to acclaim the hero was the then American Ambassador, Myron T. Herrick, a dubious old man who said that he did not believe the “ridiculous stunt” had a hope of succeeding. Herrick appearing contritely at the airport with a huge bouquet of red roses, forced the flowers on the wrong man.

For the full acclaim of his countrymen, and all the glory due to him, Lindbergh had to wait until his return to New York.

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