On this day in 1927, Colonel Charles Lindbergh is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He had just finished a historic nonstop transatlantic trip from New York to Paris. He was young, and he’d flown alone. He wasn’t supposed to accomplish something like that!
And yet he did.
Lindbergh was one of several pilots competing to win $25,000. A French-born American had offered the prize to the first pilot of any Allied country who could make a nonstop trip from New York to Paris. The competition was intense, but Lindbergh was determined to win.
At that point, the young pilot had been flying for about four years. He’d attended flying school in Nebraska, then spent a few years “barnstorming,” performing aerial stunts for entertainment. He was a member of the Air Service Reserve Corps, and he carried airmail for the U.S. Mail Service. He wasn’t exactly the sort of well-established pilot that was expected to try for the prize.
But what he lacked in experience, he made up for in determination.
“Why shouldn’t I fly from New York to Paris?” he asked himself. “I'm almost twenty-five. I have more than four years of aviation behind me, and close to two thousand hours in the air. I've barnstormed over half of the forty-eight states. I've flown my mail through the worst of nights. . . . I’m a Captain in the 110th Observation Squadron of Missouri’s National Guard. Why am I not qualified for such a flight?”
Lindbergh convinced a group of businessmen in St. Louis to support his cause financially. After several false starts, he found a small San Diego company that would build his single engine plane.
Lindbergh’s desire for a single engine plane was unusual. Most pilots in the competition were relying on big planes with multiple engines. They also planned to bring multiple crew members. By contrast, Lindbergh planned to fly alone. He wanted his plane to be as light and streamlined as possible so he could carry more gasoline—and be more efficient in using that gasoline. In fact, he was so determined to keep the plane light that he did not even bring a parachute or a radio.
The workers at Ryan Airlines labored day and night to complete Lindbergh’s plane. They even worked overtime voluntarily. One mechanic explained that “everyone was glad to do that as they all seemed to be inspired by the fellow the plane was being built for.”
Lindbergh finally left San Diego with his plane on May 10. Ten days later, he would take off from New York, headed to Paris.
One problem that confronted him almost immediately was fatigue. “My eyes feel dry and hard as stones,” he wrote in his memoirs. “The lids pull down with pounds of weight against their muscles. Keeping them open is like holding arms outstretched without support. . . . [S]oon I notice that the minute hand of the clock moves several divisions forward while I think only seconds pass. My mind clicks on and off . . . . Sleep is winning.”
Lindbergh decided that part of his problem was the unchanging scenery. He needed change to stimulate his senses and keep him awake. He looked for ways to create change. He could fly high, then fly low. He could fly left handed, then fly right handed. It was a long flight, and he had begun getting tired after only 4 hours. He knew he had to persevere.
Lindbergh finally landed in Paris after 33 hours, 30 minutes, and 30 seconds. He was greeted by a jubilant crowd. The previously unknown pilot had become an instant celebrity. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three short weeks later.