Today, we fly the Atlantic. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Dozens of people had flown
the Atlantic Ocean by 1927. Then Lindbergh made his
historic nonstop flight we forgot about all that
went before him. The first flight was made in May
1919 from New York to Plymouth, England. It was
done in a six-man, four-engine, Navy flying boat
which stopped in the Azores and Lisbon on the way.
That same month, Raymond Orteig of New York City
offered a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop
airplane flight from New York to Paris. Just one
month later, Alcock and Brown flew a two-engine
airplane nonstop from St. John's, Newfoundland to
In July 1919 a British dirigible flew from England
to New Jersey and back. Then, in 1922, two
Portuguese aviators, Cabral and Coutinho, flew a
single-engine British seaplane from Lisbon to Rio
de Janeiro. That's a longer flight than Lindbergh's
but there's a catch. They didn't just stop over on
the way; they actually changed airplanes on
a small Atlantic island.
More flights from New York to England followed in
1924. And in 1924 a Zeppelin dirigible flew from
Friedrichshaven to Lakehurst, New Jersey. Finally,
1927 saw seven transatlantic heavier-than-air
flights, of which Lindbergh's was the third.
So what was so special about Lindbergh's flight?
Well, it was the longest, nonstop,
heavier-than-air, transatlantic flight and it was
the first solo crossing. That's how he picked up
the nickname, The Lone Eagle. And his flight
finally fulfilled the difficult specific conditions
of the Orteig prize which had, by then, been
waiting more than eight years.
If you've ever flown to Europe, you know how much
longer it takes to get back. Prevailing west winds
oppose you on the return. No one managed a solo
heavier-than-air flight from East-to-West until
1932. Then a pilot named James Mollison got from
Ireland to New Brunswick. It was 1936 before
Beryl Markham finally
flew from England to the Canadian mainland. (She
told about that in a beautifully written book,
West by Night.)
Hers was the last step that had to be taken before
commercial transatlantic flights began in the late
1930's -- twenty years after the first
transatlantic crossing and thirty-five years after
the Wright brothers. Still, Lindbergh's flight is
what that riveted public aware-ness; and it's worth
mentioning his airplane. Lindbergh was a determined
airmail pilot who finally found a like-minded
designer at the tiny Ryan Airplane Company. Ryan
specially built the Spirit of St. Louis for
Lindbergh in just two months time.
They called him Lucky Lindy. But his luck
was the making of many people. It was finding the
right engineer at the right time. It was the luck
of having a great parade of risk-taking and courage
before him. But the word luck does not apply to the
courageous focused intensity Lindbergh brought to
the one flight we remember.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Angelucci, E., World Encyclopedia of Civil
Aircraft: From Leonardo da Vinci to the
Present. New York: Crown Publishers, 1982.
Markham, B., West with the Night. San
Francisco: North Point Press, 1983 (1st ed., 1942.)
This is a substantially revised version of Episode 37 .
For a full-size image click on
either thumbnail above
Images of transAtlantic flight in
the 1923 edition of The World Book of
(probably edited subsequently)
On the left: The NC-4 airplane which made the
first flight across the Atlantic.
On the right: A map of several Atlantic flights
prior through 1924.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.
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