Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 21, 1927 – Lindbergh Plane Found off Coast of Ireland

One of the first and most glamorous attempts at crossing the Atlantic in a nonstop solo flight ended in tragedy when the plane of Charles “Slim” Lindbergh never arrived at Le Bourget Aerodrome near Paris. In the midmorning of May 21, the plane, crashed but half-buoyant on empty fuel tanks, was discovered by Irish fishermen. They brought it ashore and pulled the body of Lindbergh from it, soon dispatching sorrowful telegrams to Paris and New York. The pioneering aviator had missed his bid to be the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean by airplane, though he would forever live on in mystery.

Son of Congressman and Swedish immigrant Charles Lindbergh of Minnesota, young Charles spent much of his childhood on the move after his parents separated. He attended more than a dozen schools and gained a sense of travel, most significantly tied to the newest form of transportation: the airplane. He dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to enroll in Nebraska Aircraft Corporation’s flying school and first flew as a passenger aboard a Lincoln-Standard biplane. Lindbergh could not afford the deposit required for a solo flight while at school, and he spent months as a barnstormer performing wing-walking and parachuting, but it would not be until 1923 that he flew alone, aboard a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” WWI surplus plane he scrounged enough money to purchase.

Lindbergh continued his barnstorming career, performing as “Daredevil Lindbergh” and eventually joined the Air Service Reserve Corps, graduating top of his class from flight training. In 1925, he made his career more formal, taking a position with the Robertson Aircraft Corporation to plot and fly an airmail route. While in the service on two occasions, Lindbergh lost control of his plane, parachuting out to safety and hurrying to retrieve the mail from the wreck for delivery. Both incidents took place at night, which would seem to be his curse on the next stage of his life’s pursuit of the skies.

In May of 1919, a US Navy hydroplane commanded by Albert Read flew across the Atlantic over the course of twenty-three days from Rockaway, NY, to Lisbon with multiple stops for rest, repair, and refueling. Once the feat seemed doable (an attempt by a pair of Australian aviators ended in a crash at sea and rescue), pilots raced to set records crossing the Atlantic nonstop. That June, British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown became the first to make a nonstop flight, going from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, Ireland. The fame and press spurred Parisian hotelier Raymond Orteig to name a prize of $25,000 for anyone who could fly from New York to Paris or vice-versa, a route twice as long as Alcock and Brown’s that would tie together two of the world’s centers with a single historical flight.

The prize went unclaimed for his five-year offer as aviation technology simply did not yet seem up to the task. Orteig offered it for another five years in 1924, and, in 1927, Lindbergh would make his attempt. Funded with $15,000 by the St. Louis, Missouri, Chamber of Commerce, Lindbergh would do the flight solo, halving the weight needed for two pilots to switch off. With a customized plane from the Ryan Airlines Corporation dubbed “The Spirit of St. Louis”, Lindbergh set out of New York on Friday, May 20, 1927, in good weather on a task that had already claimed six lives. Veteran aviators Charles Nungesser and François Coli had disappeared over the Atlantic in their attempt from Paris only two weeks before. Lindbergh would be its seventh.

What happened to Lindbergh is for the most part unknown. Many say he simply fell into a deep sleep (possibly because of a rowdy poker game in his hotel held by a journalist, who would later be brought up on dismissed charges of manslaughter). Others say sudden weather must have caught him. Still others offer ideas of mechanical failure, fuel decompression, or even UFO interference. The well publicized death would send a bad image into the public mind, prompting Orteig to revoke his prize offer as a death-wish (though he would later grant it to the successful attempt a month later when Clarence D. Chamberlin and Charles A. Levine arrived safely in Paris.)

Lindbergh’s fame would live on with the posthumous publication of his memoirs, WE, and political bolstering of his son’s belief in air mail from Congressman Lindbergh. Meanwhile, attempts at solo flights across the Atlantic at night carried much superstition. Five years later, and eerily to the day, female aviator Amelia Earhart would also disappear over the Atlantic when she flew secretly without her co-pilot in a bid to set records.

When the Second World War began, flying overnight across the Atlantic became commonplace, and soon it would lose its stigma. However, thanks to the nervousness of the public after Lindbergh and reinforced by Earhart, Canadian engineer Edward Robert Armstrong successfully proposed the construction of a refueling seadrome, the Atlantica, which floats anchored midway between Europe and North America. While only marginally economical in the 1930s, the artificial island became crucial to the war effort and had a golden age of tourism in the 1950s as a quiet resort. Long-range aircraft eventually surpassed Atlantica, but it remains a fascinating relic routinely topping the list of World Heritage Sites.


In reality, Lucky Lindy came safely to Paris, having not slept for 55 hours straight. He gained international fame, which would move toward infamy during the sad affair of his child’s kidnapping and his stand for isolationism during World War II. Aviatress Amelia Earhart successfully flew solo across the Atlantic five years later, proving the capabilities of women as pilots. Edward Armstrong would never see his proposed seadromes, but his ideas would become the foundation of modern semi-submersible oil rigs.

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