Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pop History Moment: Lindbergh's Historic Flight

It was the Orteig Prize he was chasing when Charles Lindbergh announced his intention to fly from Long Island to Paris in his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis - even though six aviators had already perished in pursuit of the French hotelier Raymond Orteig's $25,000, and Lindbergh was both far younger and far less experienced* than those who had tried and failed before him.

PhotobucketCarrying 450 gallons of gasoline (which weighed a whopping 2,385 pounds) Lindbergh took off from New York City's Roosevelt Field at 7:52 AM on this day in 1927 - having already broken a transcontinental speed record to get there the week before. His flight nearly ended before it had properly begun; he only managed to clear the telephone wires at the end of the runway by about 20 feet.

Once underway, over the next 33.5 hours Lindbergh encountered the usual problems which bedeviled early aviation: unable to maintain a constant altitude he alternated skimming the tops of clouds and the tops of waves, dealt with ice forming on his wings, flew blind through fog or else navigated by stars, as well as coped with fatigue, loneliness, and bodily functions.

Upon his arrival at Le Bourget Field near Paris the following day a crowd of 150,000 swept the newly-minted hero onto their shoulders, some of them grabbing at the plane for souvenirs; only the quick thinking of troops stationed there for crowd control managed to rescue the now-famous aviator and his redoubtable plane. Still, the crowd bore him on their collective shoulders for more than half an hour as they sang and danced in the best French style.

The legendary flight of Charles Lindbergh is recounted in the 1957 film The Spirit of St. Louis, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jimmy Stewart; Lindbergh wrote two accounts of the flight himself - WE, published in July 1927, and The Spirit of St. Louis, published in 1953, and winner of the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

*Prior to his record-breaking flight, Lindbergh was principally known as an Air Mail pilot.
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