First in Flight

At 7:52 a.m. on May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island. When he landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris the next day, he’d completed the world’s first solo non-stop flight from New York to Paris.

Lindbergh’s reason for making the flight was money—specifically, the $25,000 prize offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig to the first pilot to fly non-stop either way between New York City and Paris. The rich prize drew in plenty of well-known, experienced, and well-financed pilots. Lindbergh, at 25, was none of these things. The first attempt to claim the prize—by World War I flying ace Rene Fonck—was a disaster. Fonck’s overloaded plane never even made it off the ground, and it crashed and burned at takeoff, killing two crew members. Less than a year later, two U.S. Naval aviators also died during a takeoff accident while testing a plane they planned to use in the flight. In May 1927, a French pilot and navigator departed from Paris, but they disappeared after crossing the coast of Ireland and were never heard from again.

Despite the dire outcomes of these earlier attempts, Lindbergh was determined. He was able to purchase his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, through a $15,000 bank loan made to two St. Louis businessmen, a $1,000 donation, and by contributing $2,000 of his own money. The plane was loaded down with 450 gallons of gasoline, and the takeoff was hampered by a muddy, slippery runway, but Lindbergh made it off the ground, and after fighting ice and fog and navigating for a time only by stars, he landed 33.5 hours later and was greeted by a crowd of about 150,000 spectators.

Lindbergh got his prize, and he became famous, receiving a ticker tape parade in New York City, the Legion d’honneur from the French government, and the Distinguished Flying Cross from President Calvin Coolidge. Applications for pilots’ licenses went through the roof, and it’s estimated that a quarter of the U.S. population personally turned out at some point to see Lindbergh and his plane. But, of course, fame has a downside. Lindbergh found it difficult to deal with all the attention he was getting, and he found it hard to date, although he did eventually meet and fall in love with Anne Morrow, a diplomat’s daughter. Their eldest son, Charles, Jr., was kidnapped from their home in 1932, and after a 10-week nationwide search and plenty of sensational headlines, his body was found not far from the family’s home. A month later, Congress passed the Lindbergh Law, which makes kidnapping a federal offense if the victim is taken across state lines or the mail system is used to demand a ransom. A German immigrant named Bruno Hauptmann was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime during a trial heavily covered by the press. He was electrocuted at Trenton State Prison in 1936. The Lindberghs, tired of being in the spotlight and fearing for the safety of their other children, moved to Kent, England, and later to a small island off the coast of France.

In what was probably not a coincidence, exactly five years after Lindbergh took off, aviatrix Amelia Earhart left Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, intent on flying to Paris and becoming the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic. She landed a little off her goal, in Ireland, but still gained her title. This was not, however, the first time Earhart had flown transatlantic: in 1928 she was a passenger on pilot Wilmer Stultz’s flight fro Newfoundland to Wales, which made her the first woman to fly (technically—be flown) across the Atlantic. Like Lindbergh, she gained considerable fame for this (and was, in fact, referred to as “Lady Lindy” by some).

Following her solo flight, Earhart continued to make a name for herself, becoming the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland, California and setting seven women’s speed and distance aviation records in only five years. By 1937, she was planning an around-the-world flight, the longest ever attempted, following an equatorial route. She took off on St. Patrick’s Day, but the flight had to be abandoned after the plane was damaged during a takeoff attempt. After the plane was repaired, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, departed Miami on June 1. They completed 22,000 miles of the journey, landing at their last known stop, Lae, New Guinea, on June 29. They departed on July 2, setting off for Howland Island. A Coast Guard cutter, Itaska, stationed at Howland Island maintained radio contact with Earhart until just before 8 a.m. that morning, at which point Itaska was able to hear her, but she couldn’t hear Itaska. Attempts to reach Erhart using radio and Morse code were unsuccessful, and she, the plane, and Noonan disappeared. Search efforts were carried out until July 19; immediately after the official search ended, Erhart’s husband, George Putnam, financed a private one, but no trace of her or the plane were found.

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