Friday, May 30, 2014


Gilbert Seldes (1893–1970)
From Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

Nearly a thousand people assembled at Roosevelt Field (Long Island, NY) to see Charles Lindbergh off on his historic flight to Paris. Underwood and Underwood. National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, image #SI-77-2701, via Wikimedia Commons.
In 1919 American businessman Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize, available for five years, to “the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris.” Few took up the challenge—and no one came close to achieving the goal—but in 1925 Orteig renewed his commitment for another five years. The various attempts made during the next two years resulted in planes that never even got off the ground, several crash landings, and six fatalities. On May 8, 1927, in perhaps the most famous failed expedition, French war heroes Charles Nungesser and Fran├žois Coli departed from Paris and were last sighted off the coast of Ireland—and were never seen again.

By this time two American aviation teams, each with a corporate sponsor, were widely regarded as the most likely candidates for success. The Columbia Aircraft Corporation selected a crew to pilot Miss Columbia, a plane designed by Giuseppe Mario Bellanca. The Bellanca craft would in fact make the second successful trip from New York to Europe, landing at Eisleben, Germany, on June 4–6, 1927; it was also the first transatlantic flight to carry a passenger. The other team, sponsored by the American Trans-Oceanic Company, was led by Arctic explorer Commander Richard Byrd, who piloted a Fokker Trimotor christened America. The crew made it all the way to Paris on July 1—but, unable to land because of the weather, ended up ditching the plane in the surf off the Normandy coast. (No one was hurt.)

The competitor considered by most observers to be a long shot—or to be no shot at all—was Charles A. Lindbergh. Even after Lindbergh’s flight was airborne, Lloyd’s of London refused to give odds on his success because they believed “the risk was too great.” Coincidentally, his path to fame had intersected with each of the other crews. The Bellanca plane—the only one of its kind—was actually his first choice of aircraft for making the transatlantic flight, but Lindbergh would not agree to the stipulation that Columbia Aircraft must be allowed to select his crew. And earlier, in late 1925, Lindbergh had applied to be a copilot for the mission led by Commander Byrd that became the first flight over the North Pole—but the crew had already been selected by the time his application was received.

When columnist Gilbert Sildes reported on the competition just days before Lindbergh’s triumphant flight (May 20–21), he understood that the young, lone aviator appealed to the American fondness for romantic adventurism yet acknowledged that the future of aviation (that is, of its commercial applications) relied far more on the success of the elaborately conceived corporate teams. Still, it was Lindbergh who won the prize—and nobody expected it.

See the previous Story of the Week selection, “The Flying Fool,” Waverly Root’s dispatch from France immediately after Lindbergh’s landing, portraying how “the diplomats, the airport authorities, the police, the journalists”—and, indeed, the public at large—were unprepared for his achievement.

Note: Harry Hawker, mentioned in passing, was an Australian aviator and stunt pilot who aborted an attempt at a transatlantic flight in 1919 and was rescued by a passing freighter. He died two years later while practicing during the London Aerial Derby.

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Nerves and a little nastiness have crept into the arrangements for the transatlantic flight; there have been quarrels between pilots and backers, an ignoble sharing of prize money before it has been won, disagreements about the route to be taken. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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