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Visibility Zero

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Thu, 06/25/2020 - 14:45

Charles Lindbergh and the First Nonstop Solo Flight Across the Atlantic

Story 3 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century

Part 1

Charles Lindbergh sat in his cramped cockpit and fought to stay awake. If he fell asleep his aeroplane, the Spirit of St Louis, would soon spiral out of control and crash into the Atlantic Ocean. He was sitting on an inflatable cushion on a wicker chair. He had decided to have this as a seat because it was lighter than a leather seat. He kept the side windows open so that the cold air would stop him from dozing. In front of him was his instrument panel. His feet rested on the rudder pedals below the panel. But he was a tall man and there was not enough room to stretch his legs.

Beyond the instrument panel was a large fuel tank which left no space for a forward windscreen. This was an unusual design. Normally the fuel tank would have been behind the cockpit. But if he had a crash-landing he did not want to be crushed between a fuel tank behind him and the engine with its propeller right at the front. To give him a glimpse of what was in front he had a periscope, but, even in daylight on a clear day, very little could be seen through this. However, it was night time and the fog below was getting worse and worse. He was flying high to keep above it. The altimeter showed he was now 3,000 metres above the sea, but there was still a haze above him. He could only see a few stars through the skylight and there was no moon.

With visibility so bad he had to rely on his instrument panel. As well as the clock and altimeter, it had various gauges showing fuel pressure, oil pressure and temperature. It also had a compass. What he had to concentrate on at all times was the indicator which showed whether or not he was in level flight. If the plane started to bank or turn he would not notice by looking out of the windows. He had to rely on the ‘bank and turn’ indicator and trust it was giving an accurate reading.

The compass showed which way was east. But he needed more information than this. He was not just trying to cross the Atlantic. To win the prize, he had to fly to Paris in France. He had not much fuel to spare. He could not afford to fly in a wrong direction for long. As he looked anxiously out of his side windows, he tried to work out which course to take.

By now he was amongst gigantic storm clouds. They towered thousands of metres above him. They were too high to fly over. He decided to fly through them. At first all seemed well, but then he flew into driving sleet. He looked through the windows and saw ice forming on the wings. Ice would make the plane heavy and impossible to fly. And all the time, the tiredness was getting worse and worse. He just wanted to sit back and go to sleep.

Part 2

Charles Lindbergh was born on 4 February 1902 in the American city, Detroit. He lived in Washington for most of the year where his father worked. He didn’t do well at school and was a loner. The family had a farm in the Midwest of America in the state of Minnesota. During the summer holidays, Charles stayed with his mother on the farm. In the holidays he enjoyed being outdoors and learned many skills such as canoeing and making a fire. Sometimes he would lie on the ground and look up at the birds and imagine what it must be like to fly. He started to take a great interest in aeroplanes. During the First World War he would read all he could about the aerial combats above the Western Front.

In 1920 he went to the University of Wisconsin to study mechanical engineering, but he was dismissed because he did not do well enough. He decided to learn to fly and in 1922 he went to Nebraska to work at an airfield. He worked mostly in the hangars, helping to repair and maintain the aircraft. He only had a few hours actually flying, and always with an instructor, but he learned a lot about aeroplanes. He then left to work with barnstorming pilots. These would fly from town to town and farm to farm offering joyrides. To advertise the flights the pilots would perform stunts such as loop-the-loops and barrel rolls. Another stunt they did was wing walking where a person stands on the wing, safely secured with wires, while the plane flew. Charles would often perform this stunt.

By 1923 Charles had saved up enough money to buy his own plane. He rode on his motorbike to Souther Field, an airfield near the town of Americus in Georgia. After the First World War ended, there were many surplus aeroplanes which were no longer needed by the Army Air Corps. During the war, Souther Field had been used for training pilots. Now the airfield had hundreds of unwanted brand new Curtiss JN-4 biplanes for sale. Charles soon bought one, but there was a problem - the planes were in pieces in a box and needed to be assembled. With the help of some of the workers at the airfield he spent the next few days constructing his plane in a hangar. He slept each night in the disused barracks which had been used by soldiers during the war. When the plane was completed Charles attempted a takeoff on his own, but the plane never left the ground. He sheepishly taxied back to the hangar and asked a pilot if he would fly with him to give him some instruction. After a few hours Charles was truly ready to fly on his own. He gunned the engine and sped along the field. He pulled back the stick and took off. After flying over the cotton fields around the airfield he safely landed. He had made his first solo flight.

In 1924 he took a one-year course of aviation training organized by the War Department. Eight days before graduation he had to bail out of his plane and parachute after colliding with another plane. He then worked as a flying instructor and also as a test pilot when he again escaped a crash by parachute. In the autumn of 1925, he became an airmail pilot delivering between Chicago and St Louis, a distance of 460 kilometres. He had various adventures and twice had to parachute to safety. He was given the nickname ‘Lucky Lindy’ because of all his escapes from accidents without getting seriously hurt or killed. But he was a very careful pilot and paid great attention to detail. He did not rely on luck.

In 1919, a Frenchman called Raymond Orteig, a rich hotel owner in New York, offered a prize of $25,000 for the first non-stop aeroplane flight from either New York to Paris, or Paris to New York. This prize, known as the Orteig Prize, had still not been won. In 1919 John Alcock and ‘Teddy’ Brown had flown across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland. But the distance from New York to Paris was much greater. By the end of 1926, Charles was thinking seriously about flying the Atlantic and winning the prize.

A plane able to fly him across the Atlantic would be very expensive. He raised money from friends and businessmen in St Louis. At first he was going to buy a readymade plane, but when this deal fell through he decided to have a plane designed from scratch. It would use a Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine and was to be made by a firm in San Diego, California. There were several other people trying to win the prize. Most thought they would need at least two crew, one to fly and the other to navigate. They also thought it would be better to have more than one engine in case one failed. But Charles thought one good engine would be enough. And he also thought it would be better to fly alone as it would save weight. His single engine plane, the ‘Spirit of St Louis’, was built within six weeks. On 28 April he flew it for the first time. It was fast and flew beautifully.

Charles knew the plane could win the Orteig Prize. But Charles knew he did not have much time. There were several other planes which were being prepared to make the attempt. He also knew it would be risky. Flying was still very dangerous, even for routine flights. He himself had had several accidents and many had been killed in those early years of flight. Flying over the vast expanse of the Atlantic would be even more dangerous. On 26 April a plane called American Legion, whilst being prepared for the attempt, crashed soon after takeoff in Langley Field, Virginia, killing its crew of two. On 8 May, Charles Nungesser and François Coli took off from Paris in their plane, the White Bird, to fly to New York. But they never arrived and their plane was never found. The dangers were obvious, but sooner or later somebody would succeed. He just hoped it would be himself.

On 12 May he flew the plane to Curtiss Field, on Long Island, New York. Nobody had heard of him before, but he soon became well-known as the press and hundreds of people gathered to look at the plane and watch his preparations. At one point his mother came to see him.  He didn’t like the fuss and attention. He just wanted to concentrate on making sure everything was right.

He did not wish to add weight to the plane by taking anything which was not really required. He took some water for drinking and some extra for emergencies. He also had a device called an Armburst cup. This was a sort of mask which collected water from the condensation of his breath. For food he had just five cans of army emergency rations. Other items he took included two flashlights, string, cord, a knife, matches and a rubber raft which could be inflated.

By 19 May he was ready to go, but the weather was bad and the forecast for the Atlantic was not good. In those days weather forecasting was very primitive, but he had to rely on it being correct. Then, at 6 p.m. he got an updated forecast from the New York Weather Bureau which said the weather would improve the next day. His men went to the airfield to start getting the plane ready. He went back to his hotel to try and get a few hours rest, but he was disturbed by somebody wanting to talk to him and he didn’t get any sleep. He arrived at Curtiss Field just before dawn. It was still raining, but eventually it stopped and the plane was taken by truck to nearby Roosevelt Field which was a better location for taking off.   

Taking off would be dangerous because the ground was soft from the rain and his plane was heavy with fuel. At 7.40 a.m. the engine was started and at 7.52 he started to move. The 150 people who had gathered watched anxiously as he gathered speed. At last the plane left the ground. It just missed some telephone lines and a tractor at the end of the field. Charles then banked to the right to avoid some trees on a hill dead ahead. He soon gained enough height and set a course for the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. For most of the time he flew just a few metres above the ground. It was hazy at first but it soon cleared. He met a few cloudbursts towards the north of Nova Scotia. After Nova Scotia he flew northeast to the province of Newfoundland and over its capital, St John’s. He then headed out across the Atlantic towards the blackness of the approaching night.

Part 3

As the ice built up on the wings there was only one thing he could do. He turned the plane round and flew back out of the cloud. From now on he would have to fly around the tall clouds, not through them. At about 10 p.m. the moon showed above the horizon and by 1 a.m. daylight appeared. He had been in darkness for only a few hours because he was flying eastward, towards the sunrise. But where exactly was he? There were no landmarks below, just sea, and in any case the fog still blocked this from view.

As daylight came the temperature started to rise and he could now fly through the clouds. He forced himself to stare at the instrument panel at all times when he was in the clouds. He was getting more and more tired.  But one lapse of concentration could be fatal. Gaps eventually appeared in the fog and he saw the water below. He descended to 30 metres above the sea. The tops of the waves were white with foam as the wind blew from the northwest. But the fog closed in again and he had to climb higher. He knew he should be approaching the southwest of Ireland by now, but there was no sign of any land.

Finally, the fog cleared. He tried to work out the strength and direction of the wind by looking at the way the foam was being blown across the surface of the sea. This helped him work out how far the wind might have blown him off course. But he could not be sure. He kept flying east, on and on across the sea. He saw a few porpoises in the water, but nothing else. Nothing that is until he saw some fishing boats. Surely he must now be near land. He circled round a boat and shouted at a fisherman: ‘Where is Ireland?’ But the fishermen couldn’t hear or was just too stunned to even point. Charles continued in the same direction. And then, through the window on his left, he saw a coastline. It ran south and then turned to the east. As he flew closer and checked his chart he identified Dingle Bay, which is on the southwest of Ireland. He was right on course. His tiredness seemed to disappear and his excitement grew. He would soon be there.

He flew over England, across the Channel and reached the French coast over Cherbourg. Not long afterwards the lights of Paris came into view. It was now 5 p.m. by his clock, but it was 10 p.m. in France. He reached the city and circled over the Eiffel Tower. He looked for the airfield at nearby Le Bourget where he had to land. It was well-lit and surrounded by thousands of people. He could see that all the roads were jammed with cars. He circled over the field once and then landed. As the people rushed towards his plane he sat back and breathed out a sigh of relief. He had done it. He had flown non-stop from New York to Paris and had won the Orteig Prize

Part 4

As the crowds gathered round he was bustled to safety and his plane was taken to a hangar. During the next few days he attended many banquets and ceremonies and he was greeted by large crowds wherever he went. He also found time to visit the mother of the missing pilot, Charles Nungesser. He then flew to Belgium and afterwards to England. From there he sailed to Washington in America on a US warship. In America he was given a hero’s welcome. In New York, 13 June was declared Lindbergh Day and he was given a tickertape welcome as thousands jammed the streets to get a glimpse as he was driven by.

During the coming year he flew to many cities in America. He was keen to show people the potential of aeroplanes. In 1929 he married Anne Morrow. They made many pioneering flights together. They went on to have six children although sadly their first child was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, something which became known as “the crime of the century”.

During the 1930s he became interested in rocketry and collaborated with the rocket pioneer, Robert H. Goddard. He also used his technical skills to devise a pump which could be used to help people with heart problems. It was never used in practice, but it led many years later to the first heart-lung machine. At the request of the American military he made several visits to Germany to find out about the development of their air force. During one visit the commander of the Luftwaffe presented him with a medal. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews got worse he was criticized for not returning the medal. Some people thought he was wrong to keep a medal given to him by people who were now being so cruel.

Charles opposed American involvement in World War II, but after the attack on Pearl Harbour by Japan he changed his mind. He applied to rejoin the air force but he was refused. He then worked for private companies as an advisor and a test pilot. Charles was then sent to the Pacific to advise the US army and navy. Although he was a civilian, and not part of the armed forces, he got permission to go into battle against the enemy. He flew around fifty combat missions against the Japanese in the Pacific. After the war he was a consultant for the US Air Force and Pan American World Airways.

In the 1960s he got involved with various conservation issues. These included the preservation of endangered species such as whales and the protection of primitive tribes in Africa and the Philippines. In December 1968 he met with the Apollo 8 astronauts the day before they took off to orbit the moon. He died in 1974 and was buried on a Hawaiian island. He had led a full and varied life and accomplished much, but he will always be remembered as the shy loner who flew solo in a tiny plane from New York to Paris.


A particularly helpful source was:

Lindbergh, C.A. (1971) The Spirit of St. Louis (New York: Ballantine Books).