As aircraft technology advanced, making greater payloads, higher altitudes, and increased distances possible, so, too, did the goals set for them—from crossing the country and surmounting mountains to connecting continents. One of the major ones during the 1920s was crossing the formidable obstacle between North America and Europe known as the Atlantic Ocean.
Catalyst to its aerial triumph was the $25,000 prize offered in 1919 by Raymond Orteig, a French hotel operator living in New York, to the first person to fly between New York and Paris without stopping.
Although British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June of that year in a modified World War I Vickers Vimy bomber from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, County Galway, Ireland, the 1,800-mile distance they covered was only half that expected by the Orteig prize.
It was not until 1926 that airplane design had reached a level that could enable pilots to consider such a feat, and a year after that, Charles Lindbergh became the first to successfully do so. But were there others who tried? Who were they? And what happened to them?
First to attempt such a 3,600-mile oceanic crossing was Captain René Fonck, a French World War I flying ace, in a specifically-designed Sikorsky S-35 trimotor crewed by himself and three others.
A one-mile-long by 150-foot-wide swath horizontally traversed by three dirt roads for automobiles had been cut in the grass at Long Island’s Roosevelt Field, and a dawn takeoff had been planned so that the full moon would provide some light at night over the Atlantic if it was not obscured by cloud.
At 06:00 on the morning of September 21, 1926, the engine was started and shattered the silence. Countless car headlights provided artificial light as spectators gathered to witness the historic event.
But jarred and jolted as the aircraft, heavily laden with 2,500 gallons of fuel, plowed over one of the cross roads, it sustained damage to one of its wheels, as evidenced by the dust trail now behind it. The drag only enabled it to attain a 65-mph ground speed—or 15 mph less than its needed takeoff rate—and the S-35 plunged into a 20- foot gulley at the end of the makeshift runway, rupturing its fuel tank and sending a 50-foot-high fire plume into the air.
Although dazed, Fonck and his navigator emerged from the wreckage. The other two crew members were not that lucky.
Ironically, the failed attempt also ignited renewed determination in others who made their own attempts the following spring after Roosevelt Field’s snow covering had melted.
Nungesser and Coli
Like René Fonck, Captain Charles Nungesser and Captain Francois Coli, the next pair to try to connect the continents with wings, were French heroes who would respectively serve as pilot and navigator, but during a westbound crossing from Paris to New York. A French-designed Levasseur PL8 biplane, powered by a single 45-hp engine and named “White Bird,” was their chosen vehicle.
Mirroring the previous year’s event on the other side of the Atlantic, the current one entailed a dawn takeoff form Le Bourget Field in Paris on May 8, 1927, again witnessed by countless spectators.
Consuming most of the runway, it triumphantly rose skyward, morning’s first rays highlighting its wing. As a hybrid design, it discarded its undercarriage to reduce inflight weight and drag, with the intention of alighting on the water in New York Harbor with its buoyant, semi-flying boat-shaped hull.
Departing the continent, it traced its aerial path across the English Channel, southern England, and Ireland, before commencing its Atlantic crossing. Despite subsequent false sightings and misleading newspaper headlines, such as “French flyers reach North America,” White Bird vanished and was never again seen, presumably ditched at sea for reasons never determined. Neither wreckage nor remains of the two crew members were ever found.
Hardly deterred by the latest event, promise of surmounting the Atlantic continued, especially because of the caliber of the pilots who would now make the attempt.
The first of these was Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Byrd, who had made the first successful flight over the North Pole the previous year. Because the financial reward did not constitute an incentive to him, he saw the oceanic crossing as an opportunity to further scientific research.
But before he could make his own takeoff from Roosevelt Field in a high-wing Fokker trimotor dubbed “America,” he experienced a mishap with it when it tipped over after a test flight in New Jersey, resulting in aircraft damage. He himself sustained a broken arm.
Charles Levine, another who set his sights on Paris after an envisioned crossing, sustained damage in the high-wing Bellanca WB-2 named “Miss Columbia” he had acquired for the flight. After his own test fight takeoff, piloted by Clarence Chamberlin, it shed one of its wheels and immediately relanded, but the wing, scraping along the ground, required weeks to repair.
By mid-May, both the Fokker trimotor and the Bellanca were nearing flight-worthy status and promise once again loomed high. But success would be achieved by the least likely of candidates, who had also filled out an application for the Orteig prize. His name was Charles A. Lindbergh.
Quiet, shy, and often called “the lone eagle,” Lindbergh had his own high-wing, single-engine Ryan NYP monoplane built, named “Spirit of St. Louis” to reflect the businessmen in that city who had financially backed the venture. Stripped of all nonessential equipment and even devoid of a windshield through which to attain forward vision, this flying fuel tank crossed the country from San Diego, where it took form, to St. Louis, and then quietly touched down on Long Island’s Curtiss Field on May 12, 1927 as the more promising Fokker and Bellanca contenders were being prepared for their flights. But eight days later, on May 20, the actual crossing would be undertaken and it involved neither.
Following its almost symbolic roll-out into the fog-shrouded dawn, Lindbergh’s silver Ryan monoplane was plunged into the darkness, doubt, and obscurity of consensus belief concerning the attempt, yet the tiny orange glow piercing the sky on the horizon somehow reflected promise and hope–a target for which to aim. From the present standpoint, however, France was just as infinitesimal in size.
Laden with 20 gallons of oil and 450 gallons of high-quality fuel specifically shipped from California to New York for the event, the overloaded Ryan NYP airplane was towed to nearby Roosevelt Field so that it could use its longer runway.
Assaulting morning’s silence with its vibrating engine and biting into the air with its blurred propeller, the high-winged aircraft, as if blinded by its lack of eyes, assumed a precarious, laboriously slow takeoff roll until sufficient ground speed enabled the onrushing air to exert its aerodynamic effects on its flight surfaces, permitting its two spinning wheels to disconnect from the saturated North American soil at 07:54. The crossing had, in earnest, begun.
At 01:22 New York time on May 21, with 1,800 miles behind him, Lindbergh reached the halfway point. Although weather, navigation, engine reliability, and range all constituted obstacles to still-undeveloped airplane technology during the 1920s, his greatest enemy was sleep—and he fought a constant battle to transcend it, while contending with instrument failure and ice buildup.
The coast of France, at Cape de la Hague, appeared in the distance “like an outstretched hand to meet me, glowing in the light of sunset,” Lindbergh wrote in his Spirit of St. Louis account of the journey.
Paris, a three-dimensional jewel of lights, materialized in the distance, the aircraft tracing an invisible path above the Champs Elysees to the triumphantly rising, city-symbolic Eiffel Tower, which he circled before banking northeastward toward Le Bourget Airport at 21:52, Paris time.
Commencing a gradual, descending spiral at a half-throttle setting toward the multitude of floodlights below, he realized that they had been created by the countless number of cars attempting to drive to the airfield to intercept his arrival.
Assured that they marked the race’s target, he initiated his last aerial maneuver. Opening the throttle and re-ascending to 1,000 feet, he flew a quarter-mile downwind leg before banking and making a gliding approach over the airport’s hangar roofs. Its throttle pulled back a final time, the high-wing, single-engine Ryan NYP monoplane named “Spirit of St. Louis” flared, bouncing a few times until its wheels permanently adhered to French soil in the city of Paris.
Swinging around, the aircraft ceased to roll, inertia indicating its arrival. It was May 21, 1927, 22:22 local time, and it still carried 85 gallons of fuel—or enough for another 1,040 miles of flight. Ahead lay the thousands of cheering greeters, swarming it like a flurry of bees to a hive–human confirmation of Charles A. Lindbergh’s achievement. Behind him lay 3,610 miles, 33.5 hours of flight, the consumption of 365 gallons of fuel and five gallons of oil, and the hitherto untamable Atlantic Ocean—and a triumph of mind, body, and soul