A pioneering flight: Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic crossing

In May 1927, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh became the first person to make a nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, soaring from New York to Paris and capturing the imaginations of people all over the world.

On the 90th anniversary of this pioneering journey, author Dan Hampton shares the story of the aviator’s tumultuous arrival in Paris…

Pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, photographed alongside the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’. (© Bettmann/Getty Images)

On the morning of 20 May 1927, a little-known pilot named Charles Lindbergh waited to take off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York. The 25-year-old had never flown over water before, yet 33 hours later, his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, would touch down in Paris, making Lindbergh one of the most famous aviators of all time.

While two British pilots, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, had made the first nonstop transatlantic flight in 1919, Lindbergh was the first person to complete this feat while flying solo. His was also the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris.

In 1919, the challenge to become the first to fly solo across the Atlantic had been bolstered by Raymond Orteig, the French owner of a New York hotel. Fascinated by the travel and advancement opportunities offered by aviation, Orteig promised $25,000 to “the first aviator of any Allied country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris”. The Orteig Prize, as it became known, was initially intended to run for five years, but when 1924 arrived with the money still unclaimed it was renewed for another five-year period. 

Despite the prize money on offer, it was a passion for aviation that drove Lindbergh, writes author Dan Hampton in his new book The Flight, a pilot’s-eye-view of the journey: “Charles Lindbergh believed in the power of aviation: its untapped potential and inherent capacity to join peoples, advance technology and bring the world closer together”.

Hampton also describes Lindbergh as “a complicated man and, in later years, a controversial one”: an acknowledgment of Lindbergh’s mixed legacy in the years following his momentous flight. In 1932, the aviator found himself in the spotlight once more, following the tragic death of his 20-month-old son during a kidnapping dubbed “the crime of the century”, and in later years, Lindbergh also made headlines for his high-profile opposition to US involvement in the Second World War and well-documented anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies.

Yet back in 1927, Lindbergh’s accomplishment saw him become one of the most famous people in the world overnight. While only 500 people showed up to see the aviator depart from New York on 20 May, upon his arrival in Paris he was mobbed by a crowd of more than 100,000 people. In this extract from his new book, courtesy of publisher William Morrow, Dan Hampton shares the story of Lindbergh’s arrival at Le Bourget airfield…

 

From The Flight:

Pandemonium. This is an entirely apt description of the one hundred thousand hysterically exuberant French citizens who poured across Le Bourget’s grassy field toward the Spirit of St. Louis and its startled young pilot. “I had barely cut the engine switch when the first people reached my cockpit,” Lindbergh later wrote about his first moments in Paris. “Within seconds my open windows were blocked with faces.”

He was immediately concerned about his beloved aircraft. He felt it “tremble with pressure” from the press of bodies, and then heard wood crack as three fairings gave way beneath the human weight. It was critical to get the Spirit covered and under guard, as souvenir hunters were already clawing strips of fabric away from the steel framing. 

Much has been made of Lindbergh’s opening statement on French soil, usually in error, but all he truly managed to yell was “Are there any mechanics here?” He was greeted with excited shouts in French, and screamed back, “Does anyone here speak English?”

The plane was being rolled forward now, but the tail skid dragged in the grass. Slim [one of Lindbergh’s nicknames] needed to deal with the problem, so he opened the door for the first time since New York and stuck out a leg. That was as far as he got. The first men around the Spirit yanked Lindbergh from his plane and hoisted him horizontally above the throng. Thousands of jumping, stumbling people were cheering and calling his name. Helplessly prostrate “in the center of an ocean of heads that extended as far out into the darkness as I could see,” and stiff from hours in the same position, he was unable to break loose from the dozens of hands gripping his body. Inexorably carried off toward the lights, 25 years later he reflected on that night and remembered, “After the warnings I had been given in America, I was completely unprepared for the welcome which awaited me on Le Bourget.”

He had indeed been warned. The French, both proud and nationalistic, had been embarrassed by Nungesser and Coli’s failure to reach New York [two leading French aviators who had attempted a nonstop transatlantic flight two weeks before Lindbergh]. A rumour, quite incorrect, was circulated that the US Weather Bureau had withheld essential meteorological information from the French aviators in order to give Byrd, Chamberlin, and Lindbergh a better chance at success. Tensions between the United States and France had lingered since the Great War, and Washington was insisting that France’s portion of some $10 billion in outstanding loans be paid in full. Many Europeans felt the debt should be forgiven in return for the blood they had spilt, and as the loans were generally used to buy American goods it was unfair for the United States to profit twice. Roughly 1,700,000 French soldiers and civilians had perished fighting the Germans and it was not an uncommon perception that the United States had avoided entry into the war until most of the fighting was over. Adding to the bitterness was the fact that Europe’s economies were still battered while America was enjoying the Roaring Twenties.


A postcard featuring the French aviators Nungesser and Coli, who disappeared while attempting to fly nonstop from Paris to New York in 'L'Oiseau Blanc’, their Levavasseur PL.8 aircraft. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

Conversely, Americans believed that Europe’s issues were Europe’s issues, and intervention in a war that did not affect our national interests had been an act of supreme sacrifice. Britain and France in particular should be properly grateful for assistance in winning a war not of Washington’s making. Large numbers of tourists, most of whom spoke no French, took advantage of the strong dollar to travel in Europe and this did not help. It was not unusual for Americans to receive poor service at restaurants or cafés, and sometimes tourist buses were pelted with stones. Washington’s high tariffs on French imports, combined with American isolationism, angered many Frenchmen who believed they sacrificed lives to save the world from Imperial Germany, and were owed more aid than they were receiving.  

As with all such issues there was some truth in both points of view, but the situation in May 1927 was so bad that US Ambassador [Myron T] Herrick cabled Washington advising against any American attempt at the transatlantic prize – Lindbergh’s included. Reports to the contrary aside, the French had planned for Lindbergh’s arrival. A Franco-American welcome committee was formed to handle the arrangements, and the Élysée Palace sent Colonel Denain, military aide to the president of France, with full authority to act as he deemed fit. Commander Richard Byrd had also dispatched a representative to Paris weeks earlier to assist as needed. The French priority from the beginning had been the plane: escorting the Spirit of St. Louis to the main apron near the terminal, shutting it down, and safely securing it in a hangar. Lindbergh would then be taken to the welcome reception, then across to the military side of the airfield, where he would spend the night.

The American priorities were different. Ambassador Herrick, like nearly everyone else, knew nothing about Charles Lindbergh and had no idea how he would behave, or what he would say when faced with the press. Concerned with relations between the two countries, Herrick sought to isolate the young pilot until he could better judge the situation and the man. Above all, he wanted to keep Lindbergh away from the press unless Herrick himself was present. Enlisting the aid of Commandant Pierre Weiss, commander of the 34th Bombardment Squadron, the ambassador’s plan was for the French officer to meet Lindbergh at his plane and immediately whisk him away to the more secure military buildings. Weiss, who was himself a pilot of note, would have a mechanic inspect the plane, as well as have several French aviators nearby who spoke passable English. While this was happening, Herrick had arranged for a Lindbergh double dressed in flying clothes, one Jean-Claude d’Ahetze, to make a token appearance and satisfy the crowd.

On the face of it this seemed a logical approach. The French had also augmented the civil police with two companies of soldiers, and the chief of the Paris police sent an extra 500 men. But no one anticipated the wild response Spirit’s landing would generate, so maintaining order over 100,000 ecstatic Parisians and 12,000 vehicles was entirely problematic.

After the Spirit landed and turned back toward the lights, the small military group moved out to intercept it. Unfortunately, the clustered reporters saw them and believed they were being scooped by other newsmen. Breaking into a run across the field, the reporters apparently set off the stampede that broke down the fences. Lindbergh, of course, knew none of this and only saw the faces at his window. The chances that a senior mechanic and two English-speaking French pilots randomly arrived at his plane are remote and this lends credibility to the story of Herrick’s plan.


Thousands of spectators watch Charles Lindbergh arriving at Croydon, London in the Spirit of St Louis, soon after completing the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)
 

Two fellow aviators finally rescued Lindbergh from the mob. Michel Détroyat was a French Air Force pilot, and George Delage flew commercial airliners between London and Paris for Air Union. “Come,” Delage had shouted. “They will smother him!” He yanked Lindbergh’s helmet and goggles off, tossing them to d’Ahetze, the stunt double, to wear, but somehow the gear ended up in the hands of a young, blonde American named Harry Wheeler (who has been alternately identified as a reporter or a furrier shopping for rabbit pelts. Raymond Fredette, in The Making of a Hero, states that Wheeler was a Brown University student travelling in Europe, and this seems most likely).

As the mob latched on to Wheeler, Delage threw his coat over Lindbergh’s shoulders and they managed to get into the Frenchman’s little Renault. Driving away from the madness, they made it to the safety of a quiet hangar on the military side of the field called the North Block. Lindbergh’s hearing still hadn’t fully returned, and since he spoke no French, progress was slow. The Frenchmen chuckled at the young pilot’s concern over the lack of a visa and his immigration questions, but then Lindbergh asked about Nungesser and Coli and they visibly saddened. No, there had been no news; the men were believed dead. Détroyat scurried off to find a higher-ranking officer who could take charge of the American, and returned with Commandant Weiss. Weiss, who hadn’t known about the double, took one look at Lindbergh and said in French, “C’est impossible... Lindbergh has just been carried triumphantly to the official reception committee.”

From The Flight: Charles Lindbergh's Daring and Immortal 1927 Transatlantic Crossing by Dan Hampton, on sale in the US and available to pre-order elsewhere. Reprinted with permission from William Morrow / HarperCollins.

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