A man seized by a memory of the boy who built model airplanes, the dreamy whiff of glue and banana oil lingering in imagination, casts an appraising eye over the well-made fuselage and wing. With more ambition and a bigger X-acto knife — also something sturdier than balsa wood — he just might have constructed the airplane he sees hanging from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
The former model builder studies the Spirit of St. Louis in its aging glory. The cotton fabric coated with aluminum-pigmented dope is still stretched tight over the wing and the rear fuselage. The lines of skeletal wood spars and ribs show through, as his did through tissue paper. Yes, it is a scaled-up version of the scaled-down planes he put together between school work and important things like baseball and the Saturday cowboy matinee.
How could an airplane like this, its design so rudimentary that a fanciful model builder can imagine his own hand in the work, have flown all the way from New York to Paris?
Those who look at the Spirit of St. Louis in the museum are seeing an artifact from a time when human beings were on more intimate terms with their technology. Their machines still seemed understandable as evolved extensions of ordinary human abilities.
It was a time when the written words from typewriters seemed closer to the cuneiform tablets of Mesopotamia than to today's electronic machines, and the telephone was simply conversation carried beyond the backyard fence, nothing remotely comparable to the voluminous bytes of modern telecommunications. Airplanes in those days were built and flown by people who knew the throb of their engines like their own heartbeats.
The Spirit of St. Louis, in any event, was sufficient to its task, where others had failed. Seventy-five years ago today, Charles A. Lindbergh, alone in a stiff wicker seat in the little plane's cramped cockpit, completed the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean to the European continent. The flight established a benchmark in human courage and aviation history.
A tall 25-year-old aviator known as Slim, Lindbergh had taken off the morning before from Roosevelt Field, outside New York City on Long Island. Through daylight and dark, fog and sleet and gathering clouds of fatigue, he flew 33 hours 30 minutes and covered 3,610 miles. After dark on May 21, 1927, he landed at Le Bourget Field to the wild cheers of the French crowd.
"Well, I made it," Lindbergh said from the cockpit, dazed from exhaustion and by the acclaim. He flashed the boyish smile that charmed the world. Slim, who had previously flown the mail between St. Louis and Chicago, was now Lucky Lindy or the Lone Eagle.
Only 24 years earlier, in 1903, the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright had coaxed a fragile plane into the air, ever so briefly.
They were bicycle mechanics from Ohio who saw in the principles of bicycles and kites the makings of a flying machine. Their plane, its two wings resembling a box kite with two propellers, rose over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, climbing unsteadily to 120 feet and staying airborne only 12 seconds.
It was a beginning, the first time a machine carrying a human had powered itself into the air.
Now, after years of barnstorming at country fairs, wing-walking antics and some serious business of aerial reconnaissance and combat in World War I, flying was about to become global.
In a blink of history's eye, flying machines would become bewilderingly complex, even supersonic, each capable of carrying hundreds of people across oceans in a few hours and around the world, but not without superhuman computers. On any given day now, some 25 wide-body airplanes with jet engines take off from New York and fly 250 to 375 passengers each direct to Paris, just a cocktail, dinner and long nap away.
"Lindbergh put the spotlight on aviation as never before," Dr. F. Robert van der Linden, a historian and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, said while showing a visitor the airplane that made the flight. "All of a sudden, you saw people pouring millions of dollars into aviation investments, and in the 1930's passenger service to Europe would start."
The historian Daniel Boorstin has written that Lindbergh "performed single-handed one of the heroic deeds of the century." For the rest of his life, through fanfare and tragedy and reverberating political controversy over pro-Nazi statements, Lindbergh knew the rewards and burdens of a hero. He died in 1974.
With becoming modesty and a good deal of accuracy, Lindbergh always shared credit for the achievement with his airplane. For a critical period, the two were inseparable. He recommended the design specifications and oversaw each step in the plane's assembly. He took it on all the test flights.
In fact, he was the only pilot the plane ever had, before and after its historic flight. Lindbergh referred to himself and the plane as "we." This was the succinct title of his first book, published in July after the flight. It reflected a deep bond between the two, the lost intimacy between humans and their machines.
In "Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis," published this month by the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with Harry N. Abrams Inc., Dr. van der Linden and Dr. Dominick A. Pisano, chairman of the aeronautics division at the Air and Space Museum, gave equal emphasis to the man and the plane.
"All of Lindbergh's strength and determination would have come to naught if his Spirit of St. Louis had failed, or his flight training had proven inadequate," they wrote. "Lindbergh and his aircraft were one."
The idea for the flight came to Lindbergh above the Illinois prairie, on one of his St. Louis-Chicago mail runs in 1926. Raymond Orteig, a French-born hotel owner in New York, had offered a $25,000 prize to the first aviator to cross the Atlantic in an airplane from Paris to New York or vice versa. In 1919, two British pilots had flown across from Newfoundland to Ireland, a difficult 1,900-mile trip, but not nearly as challenging as New York to Paris. The prize had yet to be won.
"Why shouldn't I fly from New York to Paris?" the young mail pilot mused. "I have more than four years of aviation behind me, and close to 2,000 hours in the air. I've barnstormed over half of the 48 states. I've flown my mail through the worst of nights." After securing the financial backing of some businessmen in St. Louis — hence the plane's name — Lindbergh ordered a Ryan Airlines plane with a nine-cylinder, 223-horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine for $10,560. Beginning in February 1927, he spent two months at the Ryan factory, a converted fish cannery in San Diego, supervising every detail of the modifications and assembly of the plane. He knew exactly what he needed and wanted.
In a technical paper written two months after the Paris landing, Donald A. Hall, Ryan's chief engineer, said Lindbergh had given the following basic specifications: "That the airplane should be a monoplane type, powered with a single Wright J-5-0 engine, have a good power reserve on take-off when carrying more than 400 gallons of gasoline and must have the pilot located in rear of all tanks for safety in a forced landing."
Nothing about the components exceeded the envelope of flight experience.
The engine, built by the Wright Aeronautical Corporation in Paterson, N.J., was the best of its day in terms of power-to-weight ratio. It was air-cooled, eliminating the weight of radiators, plumbing and pumps and also the worry of more parts that might malfunction.
A lightweight, air-cooled engine, Dr. Pisano and Dr. van der Linden said, "was the most significant technological breakthrough that would ensure the eventual conquest of the Atlantic Ocean by air."
Having only a single engine was part of Lindbergh's minimalist approach. In 1926, a French pilot took off with a crew of three in a plane powered by three Wright engines. Overloaded, it crashed on the way up. Several other attempts in trimotor planes had failed.
Why carry four people, Lindbergh thought, when at most two would do? Better yet, fly alone, with as little gear as possible. Why have three engines? This only tripled the chances of an engine failure that would end the flight. Lindbergh decided to take his chances with one.
Five fuel tanks of soft steel were fitted into the plane: a small tank in the nose, the largest tank just behind it, and three others in the wing. Altogether, they held 450 gallons of gasoline, weighing 2,750 pounds, enough to travel some 4,200 miles at a cruising speed of around 100 miles per hour.
The added weight required major modifications to Ryan's standard M-2 airplane. It had to be "laid out anew," Mr. Hall said.
The airplane had to have a greater wingspan, longer fuselage and a wider landing gear than the M-2. The fabric-covered wing was lengthened 10 feet, to 46, and bolted to the fuselage by two steel struts. To maintain the shape of the longer wing, the spruce wing ribs were placed closer together, 11 inches apart instead of 14. They were trussed with piano wire. The wing's leading edge was trimmed in plywood.
The fuselage design followed standard lines with a sturdy framework of steel tubing enclosed by hand-hammered aluminum for the cowling and cotton fabric the rest of the way back. But owing to the greater wingspan and fuel-tank placement, the fuselage was lengthened by more than 2 feet, to 27 feet 8 inches.
By fitting the main tank at the plane's center of gravity, Mr. Hall had to move the cockpit farther back, where the pilot could not see directly ahead. He could only look out the celluloid windows on each side or through a small periscope, added as an afterthought. The instrument panel had fewer dials and knobs than today's economy cars. An altimeter, an airspeed indicator, a tachometer, pressure gauges and a clock and two compasses, that was about all.
Lindbergh decided against a radio, which meant he would be out of touch with the world for most of the flight, something unthinkable today. But he reasoned that radio would be useless over much of the route and its elimination translated into 90 extra gallons of gas.
In testing the plane, Lindbergh and the engineers realized that it would be slightly unstable in flight. The pilot would never be able to relax his grip on the control stick for more than a moment, or the plane would drift off course and descend.
When the engineers said they could fix it, Lindbergh told them to leave it alone — the extra attention required to fly a slightly unstable plane should keep him awake and alert. He was right. Several times over the Atlantic, the plane's sudden lurch brought the dozing pilot's hand back to the stick.
Barry Schiff, an aviation writer who recently flew a Spirit replica, found it just as unstable as the original. It "required constant attention to keep the aircraft on an even keel," he wrote in the current issue of AOPA Pilot, a trade magazine.
"The nose hunted left and right, and porpoised like a whale," Mr. Schiff continued. "The Spirit is a high-workload airplane that never allows you to relax."
Actually, the moment of greatest risk on the flight came at takeoff on Long Island. The Spirit, fully tanked to the very margin of flyability, barely cleared telephone lines and trees at the end of the runway.
In daylight, Lindbergh flew low, often less than 100 feet above land or water, where pilots at the time supposed, incorrectly, there was a cushion of air making flight easier and smoother. At night, he steered the plane up to 5,000, sometimes 10,000 feet, high enough to pull out of a plunge if he should doze off.
Only once did the engine stop, and that was the pilot's fault. Lindbergh had neglected his hourly routine of replenishing the nose tank with gas from the larger tanks in carefully distributed amounts so as not to upset the plane's weight balance. As soon as the tank was refilled, the engine kicked back to life, and forward to Paris.
After they made history, Lindbergh and the Spirit, dismantled and crated, returned to the United States on a cruiser sent to Europe by President Calvin Coolidge. There were parades and a tour of the country in the Spirit, which touched down at least once in each of the 48 states. Then came a tour of several Latin American countries.
A year later, Lindbergh flew the Spirit one last time, from St. Louis to Washington, where the plane was retired to display at the Smithsonian Institution.
It was later moved to the Smithsonian's new Air and Space Museum, where it hangs in a spacious gallery of aerospace celebrities, including the Wright Flyer, the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, John Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule and the Apollo 11 spacecraft that took the first men to the moon.
People are always asking, Dr. van der Linden said, if this is the real Lindbergh plane. It is. The only visible difference is that the plane's shiny aluminum cowling has yellowed with age. In order to preserve the original markings, including the painted flags of nations visited on the tours, the museum's staff applied a coat of clear varnish, which has now developed a golden hue.
In 1976, the Spirit was thoroughly examined, the propeller and engine were cleaned and treated to prevent corrosion. The engine was found to be still well oiled. Some rust was removed and a few tears in the fabric were mended, that was all.
"It's a terrific airplane," Dr. van der Linden said, turning away from the Spirit of St. Louis. "Not that we would ever fly it, but I think we could."
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