Flying with Spirit

Going aloft in a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis inspires awe for Lindbergh's epic feat
- by Lane Wallace

"It's a myth," I decide, as I wrestle the elongated control stick of the Experimental Aircraft Association's Ryan NYP "Spirit of St. Louis" replica in a vain effort to make the porpoising, yawing plane turn left, not right. "That story about how Lindbergh specifically told the designers to make the plane unstable so it would keep him awake? It's a myth. It's gotta be. No pilot in his right mind would ask for a plane that misbehaves like this!"

The Spirit of St. Louis is a remarkable plane in many ways. It was a sleek race car in an era of cumbersome, wire-braced lorries; a flying gas tank designed with but a single purpose in mind: to transport 450 gallons of fuel and a single pilot 3,610 miles from New York to Paris, nonstop. It was smaller and simpler than most of its competitors in the New York-to-Paris race, and it was by far the cheapest airplane attempting the arduous flight. Even the single-engine Bellanca WB–2 that Clarence Chamberlin was preparing for a New York to Paris flight in May of 1927 cost $25,000, and the lumbering Fokker Tri–Motor that Commander Richard Byrd was readying for his own attempt had a price tag of $100,000. The Spirit of St. Louis, by comparison, was built for only $10,580.

That such a small and simple airplane, equipped with only one engine and flown by a single pilot, managed to beat the bigger and better-funded teams in the race across the Atlantic is remarkable in and of itself. It's a reminder that flying is as much art as science, and that the determination, savvy, and skill of a single individual or group can matter more than technology or money in the outcome of any great endeavor.

"The bank steepens, and I find myself frantically pushing
 left rudder and stick to try to get it back under control..."

But it's only as I try to maneuver a faithful replica of the Spirit of St. Louis around a gentle Wisconsin sky that I begin to appreciate how truly astounding Lindbergh's achievement really was. For the Spirit of St. Louis is, without question, the worst handling airplane I've ever attempted to fly.

Few airplanes built in 1927 had amazing stability and control characteristics, but the Ryan is truly in an instability league of its own. "You don't fly this airplane precisely," EAA's pilot Sean Elliot says. "You kind of coax it around the sky and try to convince it to go where you want it to go." That is to say, flying the Spirit of St. Louis is rather like trying to corral a cantankerous two-year-old who has her own ideas about what she wants to be doing.

Elliott hands control of the airplane over to me soon after take off and, after some effort to establish control in straight and level flight, I decide to try a right-hand turn. I muscle the stick over to the right. Nothing happens. I push a little more rudder, and the plane suddenly yaws left. More rudder, more pounds of force on the stick, and the plane finally lurches ungracefully toward the right...and keeps going. The bank steepens, and I find myself frantically pushing left rudder and stick to try to get it back under control...which I accomplish for about three seconds before I find myself having to correct back to the right again as the plane rolls over into an increasingly steep left bank. I quickly become very skittish about turns in this plane. But even flying straight and level, the Spirit sometimes yaws off left or right all on its own, with no input from me. And if I release pressure on the control stick, the plane continues flying straight—for about one and a half seconds—before heading off in two or more directions. It yaws left, climbs abruptly, and then rolls over into a steep, descending bank. I can't see the horizon out front, of course, but even the limited view out my side windows—a small pie-shaped piece of land and sky framed by two wing struts and a section of flat, silver wing fabric—indicates a flight path that's getting very scary, very quickly.

In short order, I learn to turn my focus from artificial instruments to a more intuitive sense and feel of the plane. This is a machine a pilot needs to be a part of in order to control. Feel which way it's starting to lean. Sense the sideways pull of a control surface out of balance. Listen to the changing engine sounds that indicate shifts in attitude or altitude. And don't expect corrections to happen quickly or precisely.

After a half hour of flying the Ryan, my arms ache, my legs are tired, and my head is ringing from the constant RA-ta-ta-RA-ta-ta-RA-ta-ta of the noisy radial engine reverberating through the non-insulated, austere cockpit—and that's with a high-tech headset covering my ears. Lindbergh had only cotton balls stuffed in his ears under a thin, leather flying helmet. No wonder he didn't hear the crowds approaching his plane when he landed at Le Bourget Airfield in Paris. The man must have been temporarily deaf.

The flight to Paris would have been a grueling experience in any airplane. But to accomplish the flight in this plane would have required near-superhuman endurance—not only in staying awake, but in sustaining the energy and muscle strength required to maintain enough control to stay in the air at all, let alone on course, for 33 and a half hours. After even 30 minutes of flying a replica of Lindbergh's plane, my respect for the man begins to grow into something closer to awe.

"Not only did Ryan think it could build a plane capable of
flying that distance—it promised to do it in 60 days and for $10,000."

But why in the world would a pilot commission the building of a plane that was such a monstrously uncomfortable and awful flying machine? The short answer is because he thought he had no other choice. Looking back with the advantage of 75 years' worth of hindsight and engineering progress, it's difficult for us to fully appreciate the magnitude of the challenge that Lindbergh and the designers at Ryan Airlines faced—and therefore just how great an achievement the plane and the flight represented. But in 1927, aircraft technology and navigation techniques were only marginally good enough for a flight across the Atlantic to be possible. In addition, Lindbergh had a very limited budget and very little time in which to ready a plane for the attempt, because there were several other teams getting ready to set out on the same quest. If comfort and good flying qualities were sacrificed in the Spirit of St. Louis, it was because they were luxuries Lindbergh didn't think he could afford if he was going to have a plane that could not only reach Paris, but reach it first.

There were many, in fact, who didn't even believe an aircraft could make the flight. The first Transatlantic flight had taken place in 1919—the same year that restaurateur Raymond Orteig put up a $25,000 prize for the first plane to fly the longer and more arduous flight between New York and Paris, nonstop. Twenty-five thousand dollars was a fortune at that time but, eight years later, no one had managed to accomplish the feat. Aircraft and engine technology simply weren't advanced enough to support such a flight. By 1927, however, the Wright Aeronautical Corporation had developed the J–5C Whirlwind engine, which was much more fuel-efficient and reliable than earlier engines. Aircraft designs were also improving, with lighter, stronger structures that could carry the tremendous load of fuel a Transatlantic crossing would require without too high a cost in weight. So at the beginning of 1927, there were suddenly numerous teams preparing New York to Paris flights.

But technology was not the only obstacle that Lindbergh faced; funding was another problem. Lindbergh had managed to raise about $13,000 through connections he'd made while flying the mail for the Robertson Aircraft Company in St. Louis, to which he'd added about $2,000 of his own money, but that still didn't give him much to work with. The sudden, intense competition for the Orteig Prize meant that time was also critical. To even have a shot at the prize, Lindbergh either needed to find a ready-made plane or have one built in an extremely short period of time.

Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis.

Lindbergh couldn't have afforded a large, complex aircraft, but he actually thought that a basic, simple airplane had the best shot at success. He wanted a single engine plane, since that would reduce the number of engines that could fail, and he wanted to fly the plane by himself to save weight and complexity. He sent a telegram to the little-known Ryan Airlines Company in San Diego, California, asking if they could build a plane capable of a flight to Paris and, if so, how long it would take and what they would charge. The company responded immediately. Not only did Ryan think it could build a plane capable of flying that distance—it promised to do in 60 days and for $10,000. Lindbergh flew to San Diego, closed the deal, and on February 28, 1927, work on the Spirit of St. Louis officially began.

The plane was ostensibly a derivative of Ryan's M–2 mail plane, but it had to have so many modifications made to it in order to give it enough range for Lindbergh's flight that Ryan redesignated the plane the "Ryan NYP," for "New York-to-Paris." To support the extra weight of such a heavy fuel load, Ryan's chief engineer Donald Hall lengthened the M–2's wingspan by 10 feet and the fuselage by three-and-a-half feet. He also substituted the wider, stronger gear from Ryan's bigger "Brougham" design to help spread the load of the plane's weight through the forward wing strut and into the main wing spar.

Fitting more than 400 gallons of fuel into the plane's structure also took some doing. The wings of the Ryan were outfitted with three fuel tanks carrying a total of 145 gallons of gas, but the bulk of the fuel was carried in a 200-gallon main tank and 80-gallon nose tank that were incorporated into the forward part of the fuselage where the M–2 typically carried its mail freight. Lindbergh specifically asked that the main fuel tank be located in front of him, even though it would restrict his forward visibility, because his experience with de Havilland DH–4 airplanes in the military had taught him that a rear-mounted gas tank could easily crush the pilot in the event of a crash.

If the cockpit of the plane was uncomfortably austere, it was because Lindbergh figured that even a gallon of extra gas could make the difference between success and failure. So everything from radios and instruments to safety equipment and drinking water had to earn its way onto the airplane. If an item wasn't absolutely necessary for safe completion of the flight, it was sacrificed to reduce drag or buy another small portion of fuel. At one point, Lindbergh even contemplated dropping his landing gear after take off to save weight. He also elected to fly without either radios or a sextant, relying instead on "dead reckoning"-navigation using only a compass and clock to estimate his position—because it would allow him to carry a little bit more fuel.

But the greatest price Lindbergh paid in his quest for maximum fuel and minimum drag was in the handling characteristics of the airplane. Despite the fact that the Spirit was significantly larger and heavier than the M–2 mail plane, its tail and control surfaces weren't made any bigger. In fact, the plane's ailerons were actually made 20 percent smaller than the M–2's to protect against overstressing the heavily loaded wings. Lindbergh decided against enlarging the tail surfaces of the plane because bigger tail surfaces would increase the plane's drag, and therefore decrease its range. Ryan's chief engineer worried that the small surfaces would make the plane unacceptably unstable, but Lindbergh decided that extra range was more important than good flying qualities.

"The instability of the plane made sleep an impossibility..."

Lindbergh flew the Ryan for the first time on April 28, 1927. The Ryan NYP had been built in a record-breaking 60 days, but time was running out. On April 26, pilots Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster were killed on a final test flight before launching a flight to Paris in their Keystone Pathfinder tri-motor, and the French pilots Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli were getting ready to leave Paris' Le Bourget airfield for New York. The Byrd and Chamberlin teams were almost ready to start from New York, as well.

After an abbreviated test flight program, Lindbergh left San Diego for New York on May 10. He'd planned to stop in St Louis for a couple of days to show off the plane for his sponsors, but he sensed that even a day's delay could make the difference between success and failure at that point. So after flying 17 hours through the night to get to St. Louis, he stopped there only one night before continuing on to New York. At Roosevelt Field on Long Island, Lindbergh had some final instruments and adjustments made to the plane and waited for the weather to clear enough to launch for Paris.

On the evening of May 19, the weather over the North Atlantic still looked lousy, but Lindbergh made one last call to the weather bureau before dinner and discovered that the forecast had changed. It would take a couple of days for the weather to really get good, but Lindbergh realized that leaving immediately might give him the edge he needed to beat Byrd and Chamberlin. He returned immediately to Roosevelt Field to get the airplane ready, getting virtually no sleep at all that night.

So it was a very tired Charles Lindbergh who climbed into the heavily laden Spirit of St. Louis and lumbered down the wet, soggy runway at Roosevelt field at 7:50 A.M. on the morning of May 20. Lindbergh had never tested the plane at its full fuel weight before, and now he had a muddy runway and slight tailwind with which to contend, as well. Even knowing the outcome, the footage of Lindbergh's take off still looks frightening, with the little plane straining to life its heavy load off the ground, lifting off once or twice only to hit the ground again before reluctantly and seemingly miraculously taking flight, clearing some wires at the end of the field by a mere 20 feet. But according to Lindbergh, he was actually carefully evaluating and testing the plane's performance throughout the takeoff and climb, and purposely cleared the wires by as small a margin as he deemed safe to strain the airplane as little as possible.

Lindbergh was off. Now the 25-year old airmail pilot faced the arduous task of actually flying and navigating across the Atlantic with no communication with the world outside his plane and little information about what weather or other hazards might lie ahead.

Sitting in the hard, wicker seat of the EAA's replica, my head pounding from the constant assault of noise and vibration from the short-stack engine and exhaust system, I try to imagine how Lindbergh must have felt, flying this squirrelly plane through the night in rain, ice, and storms. The breeze coming through the two open windows beside me is gentle on this June Wisconsin afternoon; the conditions benign. Lindbergh was not so lucky. He flew through several bad storms as he made his way across the Atlantic, deviating around towering thunderheads by faint moon and starlight, flying through clouds by rudimentary pitch and bank instruments in an era where that was still an unheard-of thing to do and in an airplane whose instability and need for seat-of-the-pants technique made it completely unsuited for instrument flying. To try to stay out of clouds and icing conditions, Lindbergh was forced to constantly change altitudes, climbing high enough at times to find himself shivering with cold, and descending low enough at others to find himself only 10 or 20 feet above the huge, angry swells of a storm-tossed sea.

After Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, excited crowds mobbed the
Spirit of St. Louis everywhere it landed, including this stop in Croydon, England.

He had no landmarks, no sure way to know if he was even vaguely on course. He made guesses as to what the wind might be and how he should compensate, but fatigue made exact compass and course deviation calculations too difficult for him to compute throughout the night. The instability of the plane made sleep an impossibility—I can attest to that. But Lindbergh's exhaustion made his mind foggy, except at those times when the plane deviated so severely from level flight or faced a flight hazard so dangerous that he had to force clarity on his mind if he wanted to stay alive. And the aircraft in which he was fighting these battles was a physically exhausting and punishing machine to control and fly. Yet when daylight dawned and he crossed the coast of Ireland, Lindbergh was only three miles from where he should have been had he followed a GPS-precise route across the ocean.

"So I ask him, as I listen for his voice through the sounds of the plane, how he ever managed to do it."

When Lindbergh finally touched down at Le Bourget field in Paris, the multitudes that met him were as inspired by the thought of a single, little-known airmail pilot beating the bigger and better-funded planes and teams as they were by the successful proof he offered that the Atlantic could be conquered by air. Lindbergh's hasty departure from New York actually meant that—technically—he was ineligible for the Orteig Prize, because the prize rules stipulated that the flight had to take place no sooner than 60 days after the acceptance of a pilot's application. Lindbergh departed eight days before fulfilling the 60-day waiting period—a move his backers supported despite the fact that they knew it would make him ineligible for the prize. But Lindbergh's arrival in Paris sparked such a worldwide frenzy of cheering adulation and acclaim that Raymond Orteig waived the technicality and awarded Lindbergh the prize money anyway.

Lindbergh's flight was, by any measure, a truly remarkable feat. Even sitting in the cockpit of the EAA's replica of the Ryan NYP above the green Wisconsin farmland, I can't really grasp the full difficulty of the challenges he faced. But I have enough of a taste of them to conclude that Lindbergh deserved every bit of admiration and hero worship he ever received.

This is not the plane he flew, of course. His hands never touched this particular control stick; the wicker seat is only a replica of the one he used. But trying to get the feel of this remarkable, if cantankerous, plane with all its racket, discomfort, vibration and noise, I sense a little of the man here. For while time and space are different, the sounds and sensations that surround me are the same ones he would have known. So I ask him, as I listen for his voice through the sounds of the plane, how he ever managed to do it. In my mind's eye, I see a flash of his boyish grin; a shrug of his lanky shoulders; a wordless response because there aren't words enough to explain. But I remember what a mountain-climber friend of mine once told me about difficult climbs. "Whether or not you reach the peak," he said, "really comes down to how badly you want the mountain."

As I climb out of the Ryan's cramped cockpit with a pounding head, aching arms, and deafened ears, all I can think is that Lindbergh must have wanted the mountain very badly, indeed.