What you are about to read in this form is what the reader sees in his/her mind’s eye as a first hand personal experience of the actual adventure story recited here. It is as if the story is actually that of the reader. In general, this story is about flying and an aviator’s life and in particular the planning and execution of the first nonstop airplane flight between the continents of America and Europe.
I was born on February 4, 1902 in the city of Detroit of Swedish, English, Irish, and Scottish ancestry. I was raised in virtual isolation among my family members and was never aware that my ancestors were prideful to the point of arrogance—rebels so to speak far apart from the rest of society. This would not serve me well as I grew older and into adulthood without innate understanding that greatness comes at the inevitable price of being misunderstood. I had a lonely childhood with few friends other than my pets.
Being with others was not something I enjoyed. I steered clear of most people hiding my insecurity in an attitude of aloofness. For the most part, I was a loner. I could have been but I was not a good student mostly because I had little interest in any of the usual courses. I was admitted to the University of Wisconsin where the only aspect of university life that held any interest for me was the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. It was here for the first time in my life I felt like I belonged to a group. It was here I discovered my first adult identity. But on February 2, 1922, two days short of my twentieth birthday, I was dropped from the university.
It was now time for me to take charge of my future. It was decision time. I knew I had been born a year and ten months before Orville and Wilber Wright made their historical first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. I had followed the progress and development of the aviation industry through the end of World War I and knew that aviation was the transportation of the future. I decided it would also be my future.
I wrote to several flying schools and decided to enroll at Nebraska Aircraft later known as Lincoln Standard Aircraft. During my second week at Lincoln I received my first flight in an airplane. Fifteen minutes in the air and I knew I had made the right decision. I spent most of April learning about airplanes, inside and out. I was then assigned to a flight instructor, a former Army instructor during World War I.
I soon became a full-fledged pilot ready for whatever the world had to offer. I realized I needed experience of which I had none and decided to “Barnstorm” as the quickest way to gain experience and earn a few dollars doing it. I did as an assistant to a barnstorm pilot who owned an airplane. When the barnstorming season ended in October, I found myself in Lewiston, Montana. I returned to Lincoln and vowed to buy my own airplane with my savings. I bought an Army surplus Curtiss JN4-D, a Jenny two-place, open tandem-cockpit biplane for $500 at Souther Field, Americus, Georgia on May 17, 1923 and barnstormed my way north. Some weeks I barely made expenses and on others I carried passengers all week long at five dollars each.
One evening while I was still barnstorming in southern Minnesota, a car drove up with several young men in it. One of them was a graduate of the Army flying school. He asked me why I did not enlist as a flying cadet. I was a bit annoyed at first then remembered a group of De Havillands with their 100 h.p. Liberty motors that had landed at Lincoln one day and how I had longed to fly one of them. I realized then that flying cadets had access to the most modern and powerful airplanes, not war surplus. I also believed every person should be able to take part in defending his/her country in case of war.
That night I wrote to the Chief of Air Service in Washington. The War Department told me to appear at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois on January 8, 1924. I passed the physical and mental examinations and began flight training at Brooks Field, San Antonio, Texas, on March 15, 1924. On March 14, 1925, there were nineteen out of the original class of 104 that graduated from the Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field and were commissioned second lieutenants in the Air Service Reserve Corps. As best as I can remember, I only saw one or two of my classmates ever again.
In late March, 1925, my train crossed into Missouri on its way to St. Louis. Since the air races in 1923, Lambert Field in St Louis had become the logical intersection for the nation’s air traffic. I moved into a boarding house near Lambert Field about ten miles to the northwest of the St. Louis business district. It was then I was offered the best aviation job in town—chief pilot for the airmail route between St. Louis and Chicago. But that was yet to come for the Postmaster General had not yet approved the route.
In October 1925, the government began awarding the Contract Air Mail routes. As promised, I became the company’s chief pilot receiving $200 a month. I settled into my new routine and for the first time since I entered aviation I had a permanent home.
Equally important was that I was the first to inaugurate domestic airmail routes in the United States. On April 15, 1926 a formal ceremony was held at Lambert Field to open the St. Louis to Chicago route. Major Lambert’s thirteen-year-old daughter strewed flowers on the wings of my airplane and said, “I christen you ‘St. Louis.’ May your wings never be clipped.”
I had predicted that after time and with the continued development of commercial aviation, my interest in flying the mail would abate. And so it did. It was during the fall of 1926 I began to think about the possibilities of the new Wright-Bellanca airplane, the most efficient airplane ever built. I said to myself “If only I had the Bellanca, I’d show St. Louis businessmen what modern aircraft could do. I could take them to New York in eight or nine hours.” And just possibly, I thought to myself, I could fly nonstop between New York and Paris. My dream was born.
Years before, Raymond Orteig, a French-born American offered a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, form Paris to New York or New York to Paris. I said I was more interested in the flight than in the prize although I later said the prize was of interest too.
I was convinced that if I could acquire a Wright-Bellanca airplane it could be modified to carry the required amount of fuel and other necessities for such a flight. I thought the flight would be less difficult than the task of securing financial backers. I had hoped a group of St. Louis businessmen might back me, not only for the cash but also the cachet I would need in dealing with airplane manufacturers. You thought a Wright-Bellanca would cost at least $10,000. You decided to start with the business community in St. Louis.
I first met with Earl Thompson, an insurance executive who owned his own airplane. By the end of the evening, Thompson was interested in my project. Conversations with others produced the required backing. Now, I had to purchase the right airplane.
The Wright-Bellanca was still my first choice. On November 28, 1926 I arrived in New York City. The next day I went to the Wright Aeronautical Corporation factory in Paterson, New Jersey. I was surprised to learn Wright never intended to produce the aircraft and had it built to demonstrate their engine and were in the process of selling their rights to that plane to another company. I was advised to speak to the designer, Giuseppe Bellanca, himself which I did the next morning at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Because Bellanca was unaffiliated at the time with any aircraft manufacturer, he was forced to be vague and could not commit the Wright-Bellanca. I was forced to look elsewhere. I remembered a small company in San Diego, California named Ryan Aeronautical Company. On February 3, 1927, I wired Ryan and they replied “Can build plane similar M one but larger wings capable of making flight cost about six thousand without motor and instruments delivery about three months.” I wired back asking the plane’s specifications and of they could produce it any faster. On February 6th they informed me that the plane would have a gas capacity of 380 gallons and could cruise at one hundred miles per hour—enough to get me to Paris—and they could manufacture it within two months after receiving a fifty-percent deposit. I signed the order on February 25, 1927.
On March 27th I wrote to my mother, “The plane is nearing completion and will be ready for test during the first week in April.” I said the tests not only were successful but exceeded all my expectations. One of the financial backers had suggested to me that I name the airplane “The Spirit of St. Louis.” I agreed without hesitation.
It was now time to fly “The Spirit of St. Louis” home. On the morning of May tenth, I went to the Ryan factory to say thank you and goodbye. As I walked out of the factory, one of the workers said “Send us telegram when you reach Paris.”
The flight to St. Louis was uneventful and I landed at Lambert Field at 8:20 A.M. the next morning having flown fifteen hundred miles in fourteen hours and twenty-five minutes, a record for a nonstop fight that distance. I left Lambert Field a few minutes after 8:00 A.M. the next morning and landed in New York at Curtiss Field on Long Island. I crossed the entire country in less than twenty-two hours of flying time, another record. A small entourage took me to the nearby Garden City Hotel which would become my base until my departure for Paris.
Over dinner, I learned there were two other contestants on the field ready to vie for the coveted honor of being the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris. Commander Richard Byrd’s Fokker and the Bellanca were parked in their hangers. By then, my arrival in New York had plainly roused the two other camps into activity.
But there would be no take-offs for Paris the next day or for several after that as bad weather occluded the entire route across the Atlantic. I remember Commander Byrd paid a call and offered free use of his runway at nearby Roosevelt Field. I inspected the runway and found it provided a longer and better take-off run than I expected to find anywhere around New York. I took the Spirit of St. Louis up for six short flights over the next three days. Back on the ground I kept revising the list of every item that would accompany me.
The weather continued to keep me on the ground until Thursday, May nineteenth when I and several others drove into New York City where arrangements had been made for me to watch one of the season’s biggest Broadway hits from back stage. As I was driving east on Forty-second Street, it was Kenneth Lane, chief airplane engineer, asked of we should not call for the latest weather report. I did and discovered there had been a sudden change that created a possibility of a morning take-off.
Strangely, there was no sign of activity in the other hangers suggesting they were unaware of the new possibility. I said to myself “I’ll be ready at daybreak and decide then whether or not to start.” I returned to my hotel hoping to get a few hours sleep before dressing for a possible departure. But for one reason or another sleep was not to be and I decided to dress and go to the airfield. By 2:30 A.M. I was downstairs dressed for take-off and was driven to Curtiss Field. I arrived a little before 3:00 A.M. in a slow dripping rain and saw a crowd of more than five hundred onlookers.
By 4:15 A.M. the rain had nearly stopped and weather reports from Massachusetts, Maine, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland all reported clearings. I ordered the Spirit of St. Louis pulled out of the hanger. The tail of the airplane was lifted onto the rear bed of a small truck and pulled to Roosevelt Field. I observed there was no indication of anybody else’s taking off that morning. The Spirit of St. Louis was positioned at the western end of the runway at Roosevelt Field, its nose pointing toward Paris.
I would have five thousand feet in which to leave the ground and gain enough altitude to clear telephone wires at the end of the field. Hundreds were drawn to Roosevelt Field that morning. People on their way to work joined the all-night revelers on their way home.
By 7:30 on the morning of May 20, 1927 each of the Spirit’s tanks was filled to its brim—451 gallons of gasoline, weighing some 2,750 pounds. At 7:40, I approached the plane and boarded. At 7:51 I buckled my safety belt, stuffed each ear with a wad of cotton, strapped on my wool-lined helmet, and pulled my goggles down over my eyes and eased the throttle wide open. I gave one final thought to myself. I had only five thousand feet to clear the telephone wires at the end of the runway.
At the halfway mark on the runway—the point at which I had to decide whether or not to abort the flight—the Spirit of St. Louis had not reached flying speed, but I felt I could still make it. With less than two thousand feet of runway before me, I managed to get the plane off the ground only to have it settle back onto the runway. With less than a thousand feet I attempted again and this time I was airborne. I cleared the telephone wires at the end of the runway by twenty feet. What I didn’t hear was the cheer of the crowd.
After two minutes in the air I had taken the Spirit of St. Louis to two hundred feet, a height safe enough from which to land if necessary. My air speed was one hundred miles per hour. Over the grand estates of Long Island I flew. Suddenly I noticed I was being pursued by another airplane filled with reporters and photographers. I resented their presence but they soon turned back and I had the sky all to myself.
The flight’s first great risk, that of the airplane being overloaded with fuel, was now behind me leaving me free to concentrate on the flight itself. For the duration of the flight, I would change tanks every hour to keep a weight balance in the aircraft.
Over the Atlantic Ocean, I faced my first real test of navigation—250 miles without a landmark, just water in every direction. I was headed for Nova Scotia. I had told myself before starting the flight that if Nova Scotia were too obscured by fog I would turn back to New York. But about noon Nova Scotia appeared and I was on my way to the next checkpoint.
It suddenly occurred to me it had been twenty-four hours since I had actually slept. I had removed my helmet and goggles, unzipped my flight suit to cool myself and took a drink of water from my canteen. I then began a discussion with myself insisting I must stay alert and match quality of plane and engine with quality of piloting and navigation.
The next checkpoint was Newfoundland, the last checkpoint before making the great leap of faith across the Atlantic. Now, with only eight hours behind me, my eyes were feeling “dry and hard as stones.” I was already forcing myself to keep them open, and then squeezing them closed as tightly as possible. I realized I would have to devise my own means of keeping awake—updating my log, sipping an occasional drink of water, checking fuel consumption, and my position as best I could.
I reached Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland at 7:15 P.M. (my time and 8:15 local time). I flew low over the small town of St. John’s so people there and soon the world would know I had made it that far. The Spirit of St. Louis cleared the wharves below and reached the wide open sea.
The second phase of my transatlantic journey began in complete darkness—a moonless black night above, a darker ocean below. For the next fifteen hours there would be a complete blackout on news from the Spirit of St. Louis. Except for the slim chance a ship at sea might spot me, I was completely detached from the world and very much alone in the cosmos. In that moment when I lost all contact with earth and climbed to ten thousand feet, I was also ascending in the public consciousness to Olympian heights. My success would reflect well on the entire human race, placing me in the unique position of overshadowing every other living human hero. Everybody had a stake in me. As night fell, modern man realized nobody had ever subjected himself to so extreme a test of human courage and capability as me. Not even Columbus sailed alone.
Entering the fourteenth hour, cruising at ten thousand feet, I flew through a range of clouds Himalayan in height. With no hope of rising above them, I became aware of how cold it was in the cockpit. I removed a leather mitten and put my arm out the window only to have it stung by cold needles. I aimed my flashlight toward a strut of the plane on which I saw ice.
I was already aware of the danger as it was already affecting the plane’s aerodynamics. I reasoned that icing conditions probably extended down to the ocean. I thought of changing course to fly around the storm but I had to consider how much gasoline that would cost. For the next few minutes, as the wind pulled the airplane every which way, I followed the clearest path that presented itself, heading south whenever that option existed. Soon the coating of ice thinned.
But then I observed that both compasses were malfunctioning. My only hope for getting across the watery abyss laid in the hairline needles of those compasses pointing the way. I could only deduce that I was entering a magnetic storm which I would have to ride out navigating by instinct.
Just then heavenly assistance arrived. Moonlight appeared. The last of the ice disappeared as I crossed the halfway mark in the flight. It was then I thought to myself, “Now I’ve burned the last bridge behind me.”
After seventeen hours in the air—almost forty since I last slept—I felt disembodied. I seemed to see without eyes, I became numb to both hunger and the cold. I had drunk less than a pint of water. I lost control of my eyelids. I said to myself, “It seems impossible to go on longer. All I want to do is sleep.” The Spirit of St. Louis was not a stable airplane—a plane that might restore its own equilibrium when disturbed by some outside force; and that deficiency proved to be its saving grace. That instability continued to jerk me into wakefulness.
During the next three hours of increasing daylight, fog appeared. Into one opening I flew within one hundred feet of the ocean. When the ceiling lowered to zero, I flew for two hours completely blind at an altitude of fifteen hundred feet. I found it difficult for my mind to function on any level but instinctive survival. I abandoned my log, choosing only to score the switching of gas tanks every hour and sometimes arriving late to do that.
Into the twenty-second hour, I realized that I was drifting into sleep. When the fog periodically dissipated, I took the plane close enough to the ocean for the spray off the whitecaps to slap my face. Other times I would let light rain splash into the cockpit. Then, without warning, came another intrusion. Hallucinating. About five o’clock in the morning nearly twenty-four hours into the ordeal, the cabin of the airplane filled with “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, and riding weightless with me in the plane.”
Over the next hour, the fog began to dissipate and I was able to fly below two hundred feet, often within ten feet of the waves. I felt reconnected to the planet, but I was not sure where I was. I continued to fight sleep and to follow my chart, but mental fatigue made simple computation an exhausting challenge. It was impossible to establish location because too many variables had entered into the equation—detours around the earlier thunderheads as well as the magnetic storm.
I knew only where I was was where I was meant to be. I reached inside my flying-suit for a handkerchief and was surprised to find a St. Christopher medal that had been given to me by someone I did not know just before taking off at Roosevelt Field. Within minutes I looked down and saw a dark object swimming through the water. It was a porpoise, the first sign of life I had seen since Newfoundland. The next hour brought a gull.
Drawing on all my reserves to remain awake, I looked down again and saw several small boats. There was no denying that there were fishermen below who must have shipped out from a nearby harbor. I approached one of the boats and saw a man’s head poke through a porthole. Within fifty feet of the water and circling the boat, I closed the throttle and leaned out the window, shouting, “Which Way Is Ireland!”
I circled the boat several times but got no response. I placed a map on my knees and discovered I had arrived at Dingle Bay on the southwestern coast of Ireland. After twenty-eight hours of perilous flight, I was less than three miles off course. Only the third act of my flight remained.
Under a pleasant sky and over St. George’s Channel—one of the lesser gulfs into which the Atlantic dissolves—I felt that the “great difficulties of the flight” were behind me. Then, without warning, the whole plane shook as the engine jerked against its mounting. After twenty—nine hours of the steady rhythm of the Wright Whirlwind, it coughed erratically. I quickly realized the problem was nothing more than the nose tank, the forwardmost of the five, running dry. I only needed to turn some valves before gasoline was once again nourishing the thirsty motor.
Just as the sun was setting, I crossed the English Channel to France. Looking down on Cherbourg, I took a moment to congratulate myself realizing that I was at last over “the country of my destination” and that I had made the first nonstop airplane flight between the continents of America and Europe. I had flown thirty-five hundred miles breaking the world’s distance record for a nonstop airplane flight.
A few bright lights flashed in the distance, air beacons marking the approach to Paris. To gain greater perspective, I climbed to four thousand feet. Ahead in the distance appeared a glow that brightened into something akin to the aurora borealis—the lights of Paris. I found Le Bourget airport and circled the field several times to survey the approach for landing the Spirit of St. Louis. The plane rolled to a stop right in the middle of Le Bourget. It was 10:42 P.M. Paris time—thirty-three and one-half hours since takeoff. Then looking out the window, you was thunderstruck.
The 150,000 people at the airfield stood everywhere—on tops of cars, on tops of the airport buildings, and mostly on the ground behind a fence. The fence did nothing to contain the thousands of people who surrounded me and the Spirit of St. Louis. I were escorted to the home of Ambassador Herrick, United States Ambassador to France, where I spent the next few days and nights. At 4:15 A.M. the next morning, after more than forty hours without sleep, I climbed into bed and went sound asleep. H. B. Chenoweth December 2004.