Solo flight across sea still risky venture

WAY BACK WHEN

April 27, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

An anxious crowd standing in the rain on May 20, 1927 gave a sigh of relief as the tiny, mud-spattered aircraft bouncing down the rain-soaked runway at Roosevelt Field on Long Island finally lifted off, barely clearing telephone wires at the edge of the field.

It was 7:52 a.m., and the Spirit of St. Louis, with 450 gallons of fuel in her tanks and with Charles A. Lindbergh at the throttle, quickly disappeared into the storm clouds.

For Lindbergh, a 25-year-old airmail pilot and adventurer, the goal was to be the first aviator to successfully fly solo from New York to Paris and, in doing so, win the $25,000 Raymond Orteig prize for completing the journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Many doubted Lindbergh would make it.

In Baltimore, crowds gathered at Sun Square waiting for the latest bulletins charting the young aviator's progress.

As the hours passed and it became clear that Lindbergh was making progress, fear gave way to hope.

"So, if the engine holds out, he'll do it," said an editorial in The Evening Sun. "And until that is determined one way or the other, what is the use of talking of other things?"

"Lindbergh over English Channel, says unconfirmed report by radio," said a late-edition headline, as downtown began to fill with happy revelers.

At 4 p.m. on May 21, an announcer gingerly made his way to the ledge of the Sun Building, at Baltimore and Charles streets, and announced to the crowd: "Captain Lindbergh is hovering over Le Bourget Field near Paris, according to ... "

Briefly interrupted, he was handed another bulletin.

In an excited voice, he read, "Captain Lindbergh has landed at Le Bourget, completing his flight from New York to Paris. He is the first person to make such a nonstop flight."

It was official. Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle, had landed in Paris at 4:21 p.m. after flying 3,610 miles in 33 hours, 29 minutes.

Baltimore, like the rest of the country, went wild. "Big Sam," the City Hall clock, tolled on orders from Mayor William F. Broening. Factory whistles screamed, and motorists honked automobile horns.

An editorial in The Sun the next day seemed to sum up everyone's emotions.

"The loneliness of Lindbergh on that transatlantic swoop was the most dramatic quality of the flight. One man alone in a plane above the illimitable waste of water! One single human organism, pitting its skill and endurance against a thousand uncontrollable and well-nigh irresistible forces! Small wonder the prayers of the world went with him."

Now, three quarters of a century later, one of Lindbergh's grandsons is trying to re-create the historic flight. Erik R. Lindbergh is scheduled to take off Wednesday from Republic Airport in Farmingdale, Long Island. (Roosevelt Field, the site of Charles Lindbergh's departure, no longer exists.)

The younger Lindbergh, a 37-year-old commercial pilot and artist from Seattle, has been training for the flight for a year and a half.

On April 14, he departed San Diego, where the original Spirit of St. Louis was built, on the first leg of the trip aboard his state-of-the-art Lancair Columbia 300, named the New Spirit of St. Louis. After spending six days in St. Louis, he flew to Farmingdale on April 20.

Besides re-creating his grandfather's flight, Erik Lindbergh's mission is two-fold: to raise awareness of the Arthritis Foundation and to promote the X Prize Foundation of St. Louis, which encourages aviation development.

At 21, Erik Lindbergh was diagnosed with crippling rheumatoid arthritis, and it was only through the intervention of drug therapy that he was able to resume a normal life. He works with the Arthritis Foundation as a spokesman for youthful sufferers of the disease.

The X Prize Foundation is offering is a $10 million award to the first private group that builds, launches and safely returns to Earth a manned spacecraft, and repeats the feat two weeks later.

For next week's Lindbergh flight, "it ought to be wheels up at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, but of course that depends on weather conditions," said flight director Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the X Prize Foundation.

The new plane travels at 184 mph, compared to the Spirit of St. Louis , which flew at 108 mph. The flight should take between 18 and 20 hours.

Despite modern technology, navigational gear and advanced communication systems, a solo flight across the Atlantic is still a dangerous undertaking.

"It's analogous to climbing Mount Everest. It's a huge challenge and it is in a single-engine plane," Maryniak said yesterday from St. Louis.

Lindbergh will be flying at about 10,000 feet, and much depends on the winds and the weather.

"He will be flying slightly south of the Great Circle Route, which is the shortest distance between America and Europe. If you can take advantage of Mother Nature's winds, it's like surfing or free gasoline," he said.

For the moment, Lindbergh has been kept on a strict daily regimen of physical exercise and sleep, unlike that of his grandfather, who was sleepless for 24 hours before his flight.

A special seat in the cabin and controls will allow Erik Lindbergh to move during the flight. He will also take water and sandwiches. "And it is hoped that unlike his grandfather, he will eat them," said Maryniak.

Like his grandfather, Lindbergh will carry a St. Christopher's medal - but because weight is a critical factor, his medal is an image scanned into his laptop computer. There is also an image of a fly.

"In the movie Spirit of St. Louis, a fly buzzes around Jimmy Stewart who played Charles A. Lindbergh. That was pure fiction but we added one anyway," said Maryniak, with a hearty laugh.

To follow Lindbergh's flight, visit xprize.org or aeroplanner.com.

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