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(Susan Seubert)

The Spirit of St. Louis’ Amazing Journey

A daring flight shrank the world and created the first global celebrity

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In September 1926, a shy 24-year-old airmail pilot from Minnesota named Charles Lindbergh fought the boredom of his St. Louis-to-Chicago run by obsessing on a challenge issued seven years earlier by an American-based hotelier. The French-born Raymond Orteig had offered $25,000 to “the first aviator of any allied country” to fly between New York and Paris, in either direction, in a single flight.

Lindbergh was not the first to take the dare. Dozens had flown the Atlantic in stages, as early as 1919; and several had lost their lives in pursuit of the prize. By the spring of 1927, while others were outfitting $100,000 tri-motor planes with deluxe interiors, Lindbergh determined that the key to success would be simplicity: a single-engine monoplane with only one pilot. He found eight civic-minded businessmen in St. Louis to back his endeavor.

With their $15,000, Lindbergh hired Ryan Aeronautical Company in San Diego to build a plane 27 feet 8 inches in length and 9 feet 10 inches high. The skeleton of the wings, which spanned 46 feet, was made of spruce and piano wire, and steel tubes formed the fuselage; the epidermis was cotton fabric treated with silver-gray lacquer known as acetate “dope.” The aluminum cowling that covered the nine-cylinder Wright J-5C engine bore a jewel-like “engine-turned” finish and the name of the plane—Spirit of St. Louis.

Lindbergh furnished the plane with a wicker chair and little more emergency equipment than an inflatable raft, a knife and a flashlight. He determined his route at the local library first by placing string on a large globe and then dividing the 3,600-mile journey into 100-mile segments.

On May 10 he flew to Long Island, where he found two teams of aviators making their own final preparations. But bad weather doused all attempts for a week. On the rainy night of May 19, Lindbergh got a weather report in Manhattan that a high-pressure area was clearing patches over the Atlantic. He returned to Long Island, and after a night without sleep found himself the only pilot prepared to depart. At Roosevelt Field, near Garden City, the Spirit of St. Louis would have 5,000 feet in which to take flight. The 2,150-pound Spirit had never carried its full 3,000-pound load of fuel, but several heart-stopping bumps after it sloshed down the muddy runway, the contraption lifted off.

Lindbergh faced unfathomable dangers: darkness, fog, thunderheads, ice and mounting sleeplessness, which induced mirages, including ghosts in the fuselage. He periodically removed the Spirit’s plastic window and descended close enough to the water for the spray off the whitecaps to revive him. After 25 hours aloft, Lindbergh spotted a fishing boat. Lowering his plane, he leaned out the window and yelled, “Which way is Ireland?” Adrenalin fueled the rest of the journey—over England and the Channel and the Seine. Outside Paris, he identified the floodlit field on which he would set his plane down—33 1/2 hours after taking off. In that instant, a new age of celebrity commenced.

With recent advancements in radio, newsreels with sound, and transmission of photographs, the flight of the Spirit of St. Louis was the first event to be shared globally in real time. And the impossibly photogenic Lindbergh was the original modern-media superstar—as recognizable in India as in Indiana. Overnight, his plane became the most well-known conveyance since Noah’s Ark. After suspense had built for a day and a half, 150,000 people stormed the barriers at Le Bourget airfield. While Lindbergh eluded the crowd and found safety in a hangar, the mob ripped his aircraft for relics.

In one swoop he shrank the planet and stretched its limits for fame, becoming the most celebrated living person on earth. After tributes from virtually every country and an unprecedented reception in New York, he embarked on a three-month, 82-city tour of the United States, during which a quarter of the population paid homage to the pilot and his intrepid plane. He could not go unmolested in public for decades, during which time other figures would also come to be stalked as quarry. The chase through the streets of Paris that would result in the death of a princess in 1997 actually began 70 years earlier, the night Lindbergh landed.

Lindbergh considered the acclaim a curse. Fame provided all the resources he would ever need to support his family and interests—the advancement of aviation and rocketry, medical research, the noninterventionist America First movement that preceded Pearl Harbor, and worldwide conservation. But it exacted a toll. The frenzy that enveloped him resulted in the fatal kidnapping of his firstborn son and, later, a backlash accusing him of Nazi sympathies.

Upon concluding his tour of the Western Hemisphere, Lindbergh donated his plane to the Smithsonian. On May 13, 1928—after 174 flights, logging 489 hours and 28 minutes of flying time—the Spirit of St. Louis retired from a life of aviation and entered one of inspiration, a work of art as well as a wonder of science reminding us what mechanical precision and human determination can perform together. It is an icon forever of a new age, when both aviation and global fame were still shiny and new.

“The Spirit of St. Louis was as singular as Lindbergh himself,” says A. Scott Berg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Charles Lindbergh. “It fit like a glove—around both the body and aspirations of the pilot.” Berg’s biography Wilson was published in September.

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