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Charles Lindbergh and Flight

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of the innovations in communication and technology in the United States over time

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Charlie Chaplin, The Kid, 1921 Primary Source to show how new mass media contributed to the spread of national culture and how national celebrities were able to emerge.

During the spring of 1927, the international competition to become the first aviator to fly 3,000 miles nonstop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris (or vice versa) was heating up. Pilots hoped to win the Orteig Prize of $25,000 for accomplishing the feat, as well as lasting fame and publicity. The challenge enthralled American and European imaginations, while mass culture heralded fliers as romantic heroes emblematic of technological progress and individual gallantry. Pilots from around the world courted the dangers of flying to be the first to achieve historic flights.

Rapid technological strides had been made in the airplane in World War I and it was used during the conflict for reconnaissance and then for bombing and strafing missions. Reports of aerial dogfights created popular images of chivalrous and daring pilots. In 1919, three U.S. Navy seaplanes (with multiple pilots) attempted to fly from New York to England over several hops, and one plane made it. In 1923, two U.S. Army pilots flew across the continental United States. In 1926, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett flew across the North Pole. In 1926 and 1927, several aviators were preparing to attempt the seemingly impossible and fly nonstop between New York and Paris. Michigan native Charles Lindbergh took up the challenge.

Portrait of Charles Lindbergh.
Charles Lindbergh, pictured here in an undated photograph, was eager to become the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean from New York City to Paris, France.

Lindbergh was born in 1902, just a year before the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1922, he made his first flight and instantly fell in love with flying airplanes. “My early flying seemed an experience beyond mortality. There was the earth spreading out below me, a planet where I had lived but from which I had astonishingly risen,” he wrote.

Lindbergh piloted planes and also studied every detail of the way they worked. He went on barnstorming tours of the Midwest and West, where he performed stunts and gave rides to the public. From a sense of patriotic duty and to perfect his flying, he joined the Army Air Service in 1924. Over the next two years, he delivered air mail on the Chicago-St. Louis route. He had to bail out of his plane three times and had the good fortune to survive each parachute landing. Still, nothing would stop this intrepid pilot from braving danger to fly.

Early in 1927, Lindbergh raised $10,000 from financial backers in St. Louis. The Ryan Aircraft Corporation in San Diego agreed to build a plane to his specifications for approximately that amount. He arrived in San Diego and worked closely with engineers on every aspect of design and production, intent on building the plane to be as light as possible. The Spirit of St. Louis was a single-seat monoplane with a wingspan of 46 feet and a fuselage 28-feet long. It had a single Wright J-5 air-cooled engine and could hold 450 gallons of fuel. While it was being built, Lindberg pored over navigation charts and plotted his course across the Atlantic.

On April 28, Lindbergh took the Spirit on its maiden test flight and afterward proclaimed, “This is a very good airplane.” During the next 10 days, he flew it for 28 hours to learn its idiosyncrasies. On May 10, he flew from San Diego to St. Louis at night to practice the Atlantic crossing and made it despite some engine trouble. He then flew from St. Louis to Long Island and set the transcontinental speed record of 21 hours and 20 minutes of total flight across the country. During the next week, storms over the Atlantic grounded Lindbergh and the other aspirants for the Orteig Prize. In addition to this setback, Lindbergh was incensed at being hounded by reporters taking his photograph and asking questions for their stories.

On the evening of May 19, Lindbergh and some friends were making their way to a Broadway play when they stopped to call a meteorologist. They heard one of the most significant weather reports of the century when they learned that a high-pressure system would soon clear out the Atlantic storms. They raced back to Long Island so Lindbergh could nap; he faced approximately 35 hours in the air without sleep-picked up a few sandwiches for the flight, and then prepped the plane before returning to the hotel. A friend was posted at the door to keep away the press. Just as Lindbergh was falling asleep, his friend knocked loudly on the door and asked, “Slim, what am I going to do when you’re gone?”

Foiled in his attempt to sleep, Lindbergh went down to Curtiss Field at 3:00 a.m. and made some last-minute checks. At 4:15 a.m., the Spirit of St. Louis was towed to nearby Roosevelt Field, where his competitors’ planes sat idle in the hanger. The plane’s tanks were filled with 450 gallons of fuel. The rain had stopped as expected, but the air was still cold and damp as the sun rose. A few hours later, at 7:40 a.m., Lindbergh climbed aboard his plane.

Charles Lindbergh stands in front of the airplane called the Spirit of St. Louis.
Charles Lindbergh is pictured here with his Spirit of St. Louis shortly before his 1927 flight across the Atlantic.

Lindbergh started the Spirit, and it responded somewhat sluggishly because of the humidity. He did not know whether the plane, heavily laden with fuel and supplies, could clear the telephone wires hanging at the end of the soggy 5,000-foot runway, let alone fly 3,400 miles across a broad expanse of ocean. He turned to his crew with his boyish grin and said, “What do you say – let’s try it.” With 500 spectators holding their breath, Lindbergh strapped himself in and pulled down his goggles. At 7:51 a.m., he throttled the plane forward, and it bounced on the runway twice before finally lifting into the skies to a great cheer from below.

Lindbergh followed the New England coast to the northeast. He later wrote, “I’m giving up the continent and heading out to sea in the most fragile vehicle ever devised by man.” By the time he flew over Nova Scotia at noon, he had been awake for more than 30 hours and was already battling great fatigue. He wrote, “My whole body agrees dully that nothing, nothing life can attain is quite so desirable as sleep. My mind is losing resolution and control.” After 11 hours in the cockpit flying at 100 miles per hour, Lindbergh passed over Newfoundland at dusk, where he buzzed a fishing town that was home to the last humans he would see for nearly 2,000 miles. Soon, night closed over him.

Meanwhile, at Yankee Stadium in New York, the announcer for a heavyweight championship boxing match between Jack Sharkey and Tom Maloney asked the crowd for a moment of silence to think about “a boy up there tonight who is carrying the hopes of all. . . Americans.” Humorist Will Rogers penned a newspaper piece that stated, “No jokes today. An odd, tall, slim, smiling, bashful boy is somewhere out there over the middle of the ocean. . . But this kid ain’t going to fail.” The hopes of millions of Americans, and people around the world, were invested in Lindbergh as he braved the void between the new world and the old.

Lindbergh encountered a thick fog over the Atlantic and climbed to nearly 10,000 feet to escape it, but ice built up on his wings and threatened to down the plane. He descended again and navigated the fog by using his instruments. He flew around thunderstorms and squalls as he fought off sleep. Even though he opened the window to allow frigid air and even the spray from the tops of the waves to keep him awake, he was losing the battle against fatigue. He started to see phantoms in the cockpit as he drifted off to sleep and once rescued the plane from a steep dive. Even while awake, he suffered hallucinations of landfall.

As he flew low over the waves, seagulls soon filled the skies, a hopeful sign of land nearby. Finally, the unmistakable cliffs of the coast of Ireland came into view, with boats full of surprised fishermen dotting the waters. Lindbergh was ecstatic to see that he was precisely on course and even happier to learn that a favorable tailwind had shaved a few hours off his flight.

Lindbergh still had more than 600 miles ahead of him, and the sun was setting again. He crossed the comparatively narrow English Channel and flew over northern France on his way to Paris. When he arrived over the city, he circled the Eiffel Tower and searched for Le Bourget airfield. Thousands of lights guided him, which turned out to be a huge traffic jam of excited Parisians heading to the airfield in welcome.

Lindbergh finally landed Spirit of St. Louis at 10:24 p.m. local time on May 21 and taxied to the hanger, where as many as 150,000 onlookers hoped to catch a glimpse of the historic plane and the heroic pilot who flew it. The massive crowd gathered around him and began to tear at his clothes and at the plane, desperate for a souvenir. Excited Parisians carried Lindbergh on their shoulders until he was whisked away and taken to the American embassy for a steak dinner and a well-earned night of sleep after his 33.5-hour flight.

Lindbergh had done the impossible by flying solo across the Atlantic. He was honored in the United States with a ticker-tape parade, an appearance before Congress, a Distinguished Flying Cross, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the Orteig Prize. He signed a book deal and went on a speaking tour, but he humbly turned down numerous other lucrative offers. President Calvin Coolidge said Lindbergh’s success was “the same story of valor and victory by a son of the people that shines through every page of American history.”

His achievement helped to grow the nascent commercial airline industry over the next decade by encouraging cooperation between business and government. In addition to civilian uses, the airplane had significant military applications in World War II. Lindbergh’s flight made him a hero at a time when other celebrities such as Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, and Babe Ruth were becoming a part of the new consumer culture of movies, radio, and advertising.

Review Questions

1. The most important advantage of the airplane during World War I was that

  1. it was used on reconnaissance missions
  2. it was used to deliver heavy equipment to outposts
  3. aerial dogfights contributed significant military victories
  4. pilots could deliver heavy bomb payloads across long distances

2. Before becoming the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Charles Lindbergh became the

  1. first person to fly across the United States from coast to coast
  2. first U.S. pilot to fly the length of Canada
  3. person who completed a transcontinental flight in the shortest time
  4. first person to fly over the North Pole

3. The airplane became a significant form of transportation during the 1920s because

  1. rapid advancements were made in jet propulsion technology
  2. redesign of the wing made flying more reliable
  3. demand increased for rapid long-distance travel
  4. rapid technological strides were made in airplanes during World War I

4. Before Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean, he achieved all the following except

  1. being a fighter pilot in World War I
  2. flying with the Army Air Service
  3. giving rides to passengers
  4. delivering airmail

5. The opening of the Atlantic Ocean to air travel was equivalent to which nineteenth-century accomplishment?

  1. The Market Revolution
  2. The U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War
  3. The emancipation of slaves
  4. The completion of the transcontinental railroad

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain Charles Lindbergh’s motivation for attempting the first solo trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris.
  2. Explain how Lindbergh’s nonstop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean represented the American identity during the 1920s.

AP Practice Questions

“Lindbergh’s exploit swept Americans off their feet. Fed up with the cynicism and debunking of the jazz age, they found in this wholesome and handsome youth a genuine hero. They clasped the soaring Lone Eagle’ to their hearts much more warmly than the bashful young man desired. Lucky Lindy’ received an uproarious welcome in the “hero canyon” of lower Broadway [New York City], as eighteen hundred tons of ticker tape and other improvised confetti showered upon him. Lindbergh’s achievement it was more than a stunt’ did much to dramatize and popularize flying, while giving a strong boost to the infant aviation industry. The impact of the airship was tremendous. It provided the restless American spirit with yet another dimension. At the same time, it gave birth to a giant new industry. Unfortunately, the accident rate in the pioneer stages of aviation was high, though hardly more so than on the early railroads. But by the 1930s and 1940s, travel by air on regularly scheduled airlines was significantly safer than on many overcrowded highways.”

David M. Kennedy, et al, The American Pageant, 14th edition, 2010

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Charles Lindbergh’s achievement can best be described as

  1. a heroic accomplishment that inspired many
  2. a stimulus to increase defense spending
  3. an event that challenged the carefree attitude of the jazz age
  4. an inspiration to revolutionize the travel industry

2. Based on the historical analysis in the provided excerpt, compared with the railroad, the airplane

  1. was a safer form of transportation
  2. was a more reliable and convenient form of transportation
  3. was as risky as other forms of transportation at the time
  4. was not cost-effective in its early years

3. An event similar to the one described in the excerpt was the

  1. signing of the Declaration of Independence
  2. purchase of Louisiana from France
  3. dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan
  4. successful landing of humans on the moon

Primary Sources

Lindbergh, Charles. The Spirit of St. Louis. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.

Suggested Resources

Berg, A. Scott. Lindbergh. New York: Putnam, 1998.

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Hampton, Dan. The Flight: Charles Lindbergh’s Daring and Immortal 1927 Transatlantic Crossing. New York: William Morrow, 2018.

Hixson, Walter L. Charles A. Lindbergh: Lone Eagle. New York: Pearson, 2006.

Kessner, Thomas. The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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