Boeing Frontiers
June 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 02 
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Historical Perspective

The legacy of Lindbergh's flight


PHOTOS COURTESY OF MISSOURI HISTORICAL SOCIETYSeventy-five years ago a young St. Louis airmail pilot astounded the world by flying nonstop from New York to Paris—alone. When Charles Lindbergh completed that spectacular transatlantic flight in 1927, it marked the true beginning of the air transportation age. It also helped to launch St. Louis’s rich aviation history.

Despite widespread public doubt, a group of aviation-minded St. Louis businessmen who wanted to further aviation interests in their city funded Lindbergh’s flight.

A single nine-cylinder engine powered Lindbergh’s small monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Few believed Lindbergh would even make it from San Diego, where the Ryan Aeronautical Co. had built the plane, to the starting line in New York.

Lindbergh would prove the skeptics wrong, becoming the first person to fly solo nonstop from San Diego to St. Louis and then on to New York. By the time he arrived in New York, the newspapers were calling him the “Lone Eagle.”

Takeoff for Paris was on May 20, 1927. Lindbergh, who had gone without sleep the night before, arrived at Roosevelt Field, N.Y., before dawn. A large group of people, including many reporters, had gathered to see him off during a dreary rainy day. The decision to take off was Lindbergh’s alone.

“I guess I’ll go,” he said, even after considering the unfavorable conditions. It was 7:45 a.m.

Thirty-three hours later, Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris. A crowd of 150,000 met him, and from that moment on he was never alone again.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF MISSOURI HISTORICAL SOCIETYIt was because of Lindbergh and his St. Louis supporters that a major part of today’s Boeing took root in St. Louis.

In 1977, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the historic flight, the Spirit of St. Louis Award was established to honor those who had made significant contributions to the progress of flight. The first recipient was James S. McDonnell, founder and chairman of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, known fondly as “Mr. Mac.” In his acceptance speech, Mr. Mac explained how Lindbergh, his transatlantic flight and McDonnell Douglas were intertwined.

“If Lindbergh hadn’t come to St. Louis and received backing for his flight, there wouldn’t have been a Spirit of St. Louis,” he said. “Then, an enterprising group of St. Louisans, including some of Lindbergh’s backers, would not have bought the Mahoney-Ryan Aircraft Company and moved it to Lambert Field in 1928.

“When I combed the country in 1939 looking for a place to locate McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, the availability of the idle Mahoney-Ryan plant was a decisive factor.”

Mr. Mac subsequently acquired the vacant facility, establishing the first manufacturing areas for McDonnell Aircraft.

After 75 years, flying the Atlantic non-stop and alone in a single-engine airplane is still a challenging feat. Only a dozen people have done it since Lindbergh. The latest is the grandson of the famous aviator.

Eric Lindbergh, 37, took off in May this year from a small airport not far from the site of the former Roosevelt Field. Following his grandfather’s route, Eric arrived in Paris after a 17-hour flight. Once again, St. Louis backed a Lindbergh flight. A state-of-the-art mission control center for the 75th anniversary flight was set up at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium on the grounds of the St. Louis Science Center.

Besides honoring his grandfather’s legacy, Eric made the flight to raise awareness of rheumatoid arthritis, which, before surgery and drug treatment, had disabled him for 15 years.

He also promoted the X Prize foundation, an organization offering $10 million to the first private team to build and launch a manned reusable spacecraft. The award is modeled after the Ortieg Prize, presented to Charles Lindbergh in 1927, for becoming the first person to complete the flight from New York To Paris.

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