As aircraft technology advanced, making larger payloads, higher altitudes and longer ranges possible, so too did the goals set for them, whether to cross the country and overcome mountains or connect continents. One of the most important of the 1920s was crossing the formidable barrier between North America and Europe that is the Atlantic Ocean.
The catalyst for his aerial triumph was the $25,000 prize offered in 1919 by Raymond Orteig, a French hotel operator living in New York, to the first person to fly between New York and Paris without stopping.
Although British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June of that year in a modified World War I Vickers Vimy bomber from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Clifden, County Galway , Ireland, the distance of 1,800 miles they covered was only half of what the Orteig prize was expecting.
It wasn’t until 1926 that aircraft design reached a level where pilots could contemplate such a feat, and a year later Charles Lindbergh became the first to do so successfully. But are there others who have tried? Who were they? And what happened to them?
Captain René Fonck, a French World War I flying ace, was the first to attempt such a 3,600-mile ocean crossing, in a specially designed Sikorsky S-35 trimotor with a crew of himself and three other people.
A mile-long, 150-foot-wide strip crossed horizontally by three dirt automobile roads had been cut into the grass at Long Island’s Roosevelt Field, and a dawn liftoff had been scheduled for the full moon provide some light at night over the Atlantic if it was not obscured by clouds.
At 06:00 on the morning of September 21, 1926, the engine was started and broke the silence. Countless car headlights provided artificial light as spectators gathered to witness the historic event.
But buffeted and tossed as the plane, heavily laden with 2,500 gallons of fuel, plowed through one of the junctions, it suffered damage to one of its wheels, as evidenced by the trail of dust now behind it. The drag only allowed it to reach a ground speed of 65mph – 15mph less than its required takeoff rate – and the S-35 plunged into a 20ft ravine at the end of the makeshift runway , rupturing its fuel tank and sending a plume of fire 50 feet high into the air.
Although stunned, Fonck and his navigator come out of the wreckage. The other two crew members were not so lucky.
Ironically, the failed attempt also sparked renewed resolve in others who made their own attempts the following spring after Roosevelt Field’s snow cover melted.
Nungesser and Coli
Like René Fonck, Captain Charles Nungesser and Captain François Coli, the next pair to attempt to connect continents with wings, were French heroes who would serve as pilot and navigator respectively, but on a westward crossing from Paris to New York. A French-designed Levasseur PL8 biplane, powered by a single 45 hp engine and named “White Bird”, was their chosen vehicle.
Mirroring the previous year’s event on the other side of the Atlantic, the current one involved a dawn take-off from the Le Bourget airfield in Paris on May 8, 1927, again in the presence of countless spectators.
Consuming most of the runway, it rose triumphantly skyward, the first rays of morning outlining its wing. As a hybrid design, it ditched its landing gear to reduce weight and drag in flight, intending to land on the water in New York Harbor with its hull floating in the shape of a semi boat. -flying.
Departing from the continent, it traced its aerial trajectory through the English Channel, the south of England and Ireland, before beginning its crossing of the Atlantic. Despite subsequent false sightings and misleading newspaper headlines, such as “French Leaflets Reach North America”, White Bird disappeared and was never seen again, presumably abandoned at sea for reasons never determined. Neither the wreckage nor the remains of the two crew members were ever found.
Hardly discouraged by the last event, the promises of crossing the Atlantic continue, in particular because of the caliber of the pilots who will now tackle it.
The first of these was Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Byrd, who had made the first successful flight over the North Pole the previous year. Because the financial reward was not an incentive for him, he saw the ocean crossing as an opportunity to further scientific research.
But before he could take off from Roosevelt Field in a high-wing Fokker trimotor nicknamed “America”, he had an accident with it when it rolled over after a test flight in New Jersey, resulting in damage to the plane. He himself had a broken arm.
Charles Levine, another who set his sights on Paris after a planned crossing, suffered damage to the Bellanca WB-2 high wing named “Miss Columbia” he had acquired for the flight. After its own test combat takeoff, piloted by Clarence Chamberlin, it lost one of its wheels and immediately relanded, but the wing, scraping the ground, took weeks to repair.
By mid-May, the Fokker trimotor and the Bellanca were approaching flight-worthy status and the promise was there again. But success would be achieved by the least likely of candidates, who had also filed for the Orteig Prize. His name was Charles A. Lindbergh.
Quiet, shy, and often called “the lone eagle,” Lindbergh had his own single-engine, high-wing Ryan NYP monoplane built, named “Spirit of St. Louis” to reflect the businessmen of that city who had financially supported the ‘company. . Stripped of all non-essential gear and even lacking a windshield to achieve forward vision, this flying fuel tank crossed the country from San Diego, where it took shape, to St. laid quietly on Long Island’s Curtiss Field on May 12, 1927, as the most promising suitors Fokker and Bellanca were being prepared for their flights. But eight days later, on May 20, the actual crossing would be undertaken and it involved neither.
After its almost symbolic deployment in the fog-shrouded dawn, Lindbergh’s silver Ryan monoplane was plunged into darkness, doubt and the gloom of consensus belief regarding the attempt, but the tiny orange glow piercing the sky at the horizon somehow reflected promise and hope — a target to aim for. Now, from the present point of view, France was just as tiny.
Loaded with 20 gallons of oil and 450 gallons of high-grade fuel specially shipped from California to New York for the event, the overloaded Ryan NYP plane was towed to nearby Roosevelt Field so it could use its longer track.
Storming the morning silence with its engine vibrating and biting through the air with its fuzzy propeller, the high-winged plane, as if blinded by its lack of eyes, took a precarious and laboriously slow take-off roll until sufficient ground speed to allow the rushing air to exert its aerodynamic effects on its flight surfaces, allowing its two spinning wheels to disconnect from the saturated North American ground at 07:54. The crossing had, in earnest, begun.
At 1:22 a.m. New York time on May 21, with 1,800 miles behind him, Lindbergh reached halfway. Although weather, navigation, engine reliability and range were all obstacles to still underdeveloped aircraft technology in the 1920s, its greatest enemy was sleep – and it fought a constant battle to transcend it, while battling instrument failure and ice buildup.
The coast of France at Cap de la Hague appeared in the distance “like a hand stretched out to meet me, shining in the light of the setting sun,” Lindbergh wrote in his account of the journey by the Spirit of St. Louis.
Paris, a three-dimensional jewel of lights, materialized in the distance, the plane tracing an invisible path over the Champs-Élysées to the triumphantly rising symbol of the city, the Eiffel Tower, which it encircled before to tilt to the northeast towards Le Bourget airport at 9:52 p.m. , Paris time.
Beginning a gradual downward spiral halfway toward the multitude of searchlights below, he realized they had been created by the countless number of cars trying to drive to the airfield to intercept his arrival.
Assured that they have marked the objective of the race, he begins his last aerial maneuver. Opening the throttle and climbing back to 1,000 feet, he covered a quarter of a mile downwind before banking and making a gliding approach over the rooftops of the airport hangar. His throttle backed up one last time, the high-winged single-engine Ryan NYP monoplane named “Spirit of St. Louis” burst into flames, bouncing a few times until its wheels settled firmly on the French soil of the city of Paris.
Turning around, the plane stopped rolling, the inertia indicating its arrival. It was May 21, 1927, at 10:22 p.m. local time, and it still carried 85 gallons of fuel, enough for another 1,040 miles of flight. Ahead were the thousands of enthusiastic visitors, swarming like a flurry of bees toward human confirmation of Charles A. Lindbergh’s feat. Behind him were 3,610 miles, 33.5 flight hours, the consumption of 365 gallons of fuel and five gallons of oil, and the hitherto untamed Atlantic Ocean – and a triumph of mind, body and soul