A brave pilot’s faith in his aircraft and in the future of aviation By: Patrick Coyle
AS YOU undo your seatbelt, peer out of your window, and glimpse a ship on the surface of the sea far below, it is difficult to remember that reliable inter-continental air travel is a surprisingly recent phenomenon.
Almost within our lifetime, the idea of safely and regularly flying across oceans was a pipe dream. Pilots who proposed flying long distances over the sea were regarded at best as courageous pioneers, and at worst as reckless chancers.
But there were a few pilots whom history would remember as having a passion for distance flying, and a confidence in the future of air travel. Charles Augustus Lindbergh was one such man.
In 1927, exactly ninety years ago, at the age of 25, Charles Lindbergh was already an experienced pilot with 2 000 flying hours. He had attained the rank of Captain and wore his Army Air Service wings. He had barnstormed his way around America. Now he was Chief Pilot of the Robertson Aircraft Corporation’s Airmail Service between St Louis and Chicago.
This was not a wealthy outfit. TIt operated old de Havilland biplanes that they had bought from Army surplus and adapted for Airmail service by converting the front cockpit into a mail compartment and piloting from the rear cockpit. The pilots believed that the mail must get through whatever the weather. Lindbergh’s ‘plane ran out of fuel on one occasion when fog had prevented him from landing, forcing him to bail out. To his horror, as he was parachuting down he heard the engine start up again (owing presumably to the fuselage tilting and allowing some remnants of fuel to drain forward into the carburettor). The pilotless aircraft circled towards him several times, just missing him while he tried to tug onthe parachute’s rigging to avoid it.
Fortunately, the engine soon stopped. After he had come down in a cornfield a farmer helped him locate the crashed aeroplane, and Lindbergh’s first duty was to retrieve the sacks of mail, which were luckily undamaged, and put them on to a train for Chicago. During the long hours of airmail flying Lindbergh often day-dreamed about the future of air travel.
Back in 1919 hotelier Raymond Orteig had offered a $25 000 prize (more than $342 000 today) for the first man to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. In that year Alcock and Brown had heroically flown their Vickers Vimy from Newfoundland to Ireland where they had crashed on landing, but, of course, this feat was not eligible for the prize. The legendary French WW1 air ace, Col Rene Paul Fonck, had tried for the prize in his Sikorsky S-35, but had crashed on take-off, with the deaths of two of his crew of four. Now Lindbergh dreamt of winning the prize himself.
Lindbergh was typically concerned with technical details of the ideal plane and engine for the task. He liked the Bellanca with its new Wright Whirlwind engine.
While he was looking around for sponsors and aircraft manufacturers willing to adapt an aircraft to his wishes, he came up against an unexpected obstacle. He believed that a single-engined aircraft would be the best. But aeronautical engineers and bank managers alike thought he was mad, preferring flying boats and aircraft with three engines like the Fokker Trimotor.
Lindbergh argued that three engines had three times as much chance of failing as one. They would need more fuel, with the added weight, and anyway you could not fly home on only two engines. Lindbergh had the utmost confidence that the new ‘J5’ Wright radial engine was reliable enough to run for the requisite 36 hours non-stop without failing. True, all the competitors that he had heard about were using multi-engined aircraft. But then, like the Sikorsky, they started crashing.
After the Fonck crash, the Fokker Trimotor that Commander Richard Byrd was preparing for his attempt crashed on landing, injuring all four crew members. Meanwhile, Lindbergh was trying to find businessmen in St Louis who would donate money for him to buy a suitable aircraft.
Soon he had collected $15 000, which was enough for him to buy a Wright-Bellanca plane from the Columbia Aircraft Corporation. Lindbergh travelled by train to New York to close the deal.
However, with the cheque lying on his desk the Chairman said to Lindbergh: ‘We will sell you our plane, but of course we reserve the right to select the crew that flies it… ‘ Lindbergh was dumbfounded. He was the one who was going to fly this plane to Paris, no-one else. He picked up his cheque, furious about his wasted trip, walked out, and returned to St Louis…………………….. For the FULL ARTICLE please subscribe to our digital edition.