On this day in 1927, American pilot Charles A. Lindbergh lands at Le Bourget Field in Paris, successfully completing the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight and the first ever nonstop flight between New York to Paris. Met at the airfield by thousands of well-wishers, the weary pilot was passed around like the Stanley Cup until rescued by two French aviators who whisked him away; Lindbergh’s life would never be the same.
Born in Detroit, Lindbergh was raised on a farm in Minnesota, the son of a lawyer and a congressman. Studying mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, he left school to pursue his interest in flight, and made his first solo in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lindbergh became a barnstormer, performing at fairs and other events, and soon enlisted in the US Army in 1924 to train as an Army Air Service Reserve pilot. He later worked as an airmail pilot, flying the route between St. Louis and Chicago.
Twice in the 1920’s, hotel owner Raymond Orteig was offering a prize of $25,000 to the first pilot making the journey from New York to Paris without any stops. Lindbergh took up this challenge and enlisted the sponsorship of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce. A budget of $15,000 was set, and Ryan Airlines Corporation of San Diego volunteered to build a single-engine aircraft to Lindbergh’s specifications. Extra fuel tanks were added, the wing span was increased, and to dramatically reduce weight, there would be no radio, gas gauge, night-flying lights, navigation equipment, or parachute; Lindbergh would actually sit in a light seat made of wicker.
Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, on May 20, 1927, at 7:52 a.m., flying Spirit of St Louis on little if any sleep. After only four hours, he felt tired and flew within 10 feet of the water to keep his mind clear. As night fell, the aircraft left the coast of Newfoundland and set off across the Atlantic. At about 2 a.m. on May 21, Lindbergh passed the halfway mark, and an hour later dawn came. Soon after, The Spirit of St. Louis entered a fog, and Lindbergh struggled to stay awake, holding his eyelids open with his fingers and hallucinating that ghosts were passing through the cockpit.
After 24 hours in the air, a more wakeful Lindbergh spotted fishing boats in the water; soon enough, he peered out at the coast of Ireland. Despite using only rudimentary navigation, he was two hours ahead of schedule and only three miles off course. He flew past England and by 3 p.m. EST he was over France, where night was falling. Lindbergh stuck a perfect landing at Le Bourguet Field near Paris at 10:24 p.m. local time, after 33.5 hours in the air.
Just 25 years of age, the remainder of Lindbergh’s life would be a game-keeper’s pie of joy, love, heartache, controversy and service; Lucky Lindy’s good fortune was not infallible. Through the murder of his son, to allegations of Nazi sympathies, and redemptive military service in the Pacific, Lindbergh largely remained reticent, a quiet if conflicted hero who lived out the balance of his years in Hawaii.
He died of cancer on August 26, 1974, in his remote Maui home, survived by his devoted wife Anne and five living children. On a final octave whiffing of scandal, reports surfaced in 2003 that he had three other children with a German woman with whom he reportedly had a long-term affair.