At 7:52 on the rainy morning of May 20, 1927, a 25-year-old former U.S. Air Mail pilot with the nickname of Slim taxied his single-engine Ryan monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis, down the muddy runway at Roosevelt Airfield near Garden City on Long Island, New York. Taking off in relative obscurity, 33 hours, 30 minutes later Charles Augustus Lindbergh landed at Aéroport Le Bourget in Paris, France, having flown a distance of 3,610 miles (5,800 km) alone, becoming an instant international sensation. He gained new nicknames in the process including Lucky Lindy and the Lone Eagle and remains one of the United States’ best known aviators having completed the first solo transatlantic flight and the first non-stop flight between North America and mainland Europe at 10:22 PM on May 21, 1927.
At the time, Lindbergh was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve, and was awarded the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for the feat. He was also entitled to claim the Orteig Prize — a $25,000 award for the first successful nonstop transatlantic flight specifically between New York City and Paris (in either direction) — which had first been offered in 1919, Lindbergh’s achievement spurred interest in both commercial aviation and air mail, and Lindbergh himself devoted much time and effort to promoting such activity over the next few years.
Today’s featured stamp is one I have long regards as #1 in my collection. While I began collecting two or three years prior to the release of Scott #1710 , and already owned two fairly bulging Scott Modern Stamp Albums published in the mid-1930’s courtesy of my mother and her older brother, the 1977 U.S. stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight was the first that I formed a true identity with.. I’d was fascinated with Lindbergh prior to the stamp’s release, having seen the movie starring James Stewart as the lanky aviator and had already read Lindbergh’s book of the same name.
Once the USPS announced the Lindbergh stamp (which we probably read about in Linn’s Stamp News), my mother duly enrolled me in the Postal Commemorative Society. The first day cover bearing Scott #1710 was the first to arrive in our mailbox with the beautiful steel-engraved ArtCraft cachet and that distinctive “cursive” typewritten font known so well to U.S. stamp collectors. I recently I recently obtained an unaddressed version of the ArtCraft cover but I really wish I still had that original cover bearing my name and address.
I have featured Lindbergh on ASAD before, of course. A 1979 stamp on a maximum card portraying the Spirit of St. Louis illustrated the issuer profile for the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe (República Democrática de São Tomé e Príncipe) nearly one year ago. On Lindbergh’s birthday this past February, I put together an article which gave an account of his life and the design of his famous aircraft up until his May 21, 1927, early morning takeoff from Roosevelt Field on Long island, New York, Today’s article details the flight itself.
In the early morning hours of Friday, May 20, 1927, at Roosevelt Airfield on Long Island, New York, Charles Lindbergh prepared his single-engine purpose-built monoplane Spirit of St. Louis for flight. He had arrived from the Ryan Aircraft factory in San Diego a few days before, greeted by bad weather and the prospect that his planned transatlantic journey could be delayed for a number of days. A favorable weather report on May 19 predicted a break in the rain, Lindbergh decided to make his attempt the next day. He arrived at the airfield before dawn the next morning.
Lindbergh’s monoplane was loaded with 450 U.S. gallons (1,704 liters) of fuel that was strained repeatedly to avoid fuel line blockage. The fully loaded aircraft weighed 5,135 pounds (2,329 kg), and takeoff was hampered by a muddy, rain-soaked runway. Spirit of St. Louis was powered by a J-5C Wright Whirlwind radial engine which Lindbergh started about 7:40 that morning. The heavily-laden plane gained speed very slowly and bounced down the muddy field. It gradually became airborne at 7:52 AM and barely cleared the telephone wires at the field’s edge. The crowd of 500 thought they had witnessed a miracle.
Charles Lindbergh was a meticulous note-taker and wrote several accounts of his famous flight. He chronicle the very beginning by stating,
“The field was a little soft due to the rain during the night and the heavily loaded plane gathered speed very slowly. After passing the halfway mark, however, it was apparent that I would be able to clear the obstructions at the end. I passed over a tractor by about fifteen feet and a telephone line by about twenty, with a fair reserve of flying speed. I believe that the ship would have taken off from a hard field with at least five hundred pounds more weight. I turned slightly to the right to avoid some high trees on a hill directly ahead, but by the time I had gone a few hundred yards I had sufficient altitude to clear all obstructions and throttled the engine down to 1750 R.P.M. I took up a compass course at once and soon reached Long Island Sound where the Curtiss Oriole with its photographer, which had been escorting me, turned back.”
Now truly alone, Lindbergh made log entries throughout his journey to Paris. Just one hour after taking off from Roosevelt Field, he noted his altitude at 500 feet and that there wasn’t any wind velocity. The flight over Long Island Sound and Connecticut had been relatively uneventful other than some minor turbulence. He had been using railroad maps to navigate over the land during the early portion of the flight but while flying over Rhode Island he gave up trying to sort out all the towns, railroad lines and roads he saw below him and to just concentrate on the larger landmarks. At 9:05 AM, he saw Narragansett Bay in front of the little plane’s nose and was able to plot his exact position with Providence to the left, figuring he was about six miles from Massachusetts and a half hour from the Atlantic Ocean.
Just before 10:00 in the morning, Lindbergh had passed Boston with Cape Cod off to the right. He was flying at an altitude of just 150 feet with an airspeed of 107 miles per hour. He began to feel tired just an hour later and descended to within ten feet of the water in order to help keep his mind clear. Just before noon, Nova Scotia appeared ahead some 400 miles out from New York. Having flown over the Gulf of Maine, Spirit of St. Louis was only six miles, or two degrees, off course.
About an hour later, Lindbergh flew over a mountain range with the wind velocity increasing to 30 miles per hour. Clouds appeared, thickened and the plane soon approached a storm front. At 2:52 PM, he recorded an altitude of 600 feet and air speed of 96 miles per hour. His course had taken him away from the edge of the storm and the wind velocity dropped to 15 mph. After another hour, he flew over the eastern edge of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island and out over water once again. By this time, Lindbergh was struggling to stay awake. To describe this nine hour into the flight, he wrote:
“I nose the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ down to meet the sea. I level out at 20 feet above the water — above a rougher, greener, colder‐looking ocean, with whitecaps breaking off to a streak. The sun is sinking; its brilliance is already fading — night lies ahead.”
Just before 6:00 PM, Lindbergh was flying along the southern coast of Newfoundland at 300 feet and 92 mph. The wind velocity was 20 mph. At 7:52 PM, the log notes that stars had begun to appear in the sky as night fell. The sea below was completely obscured by fog. Lindbergh climbed from an altitude of 800 feet to 7,500 feet to stay above the quickly-rising cloud.
“Darkness set in about 8:15 and a thin, low fog formed over the sea through which the white bergs showed up with surprising clearness. This fog became thicker and increased in height until within two hours I was just skimming the top of storm clouds at about ten thousand feet. Even at this altitude there was a thick haze through which only the stars directly overhead could be seen. There was no moon and it was very dark. The tops of some of the storm clouds were several thousand feet above me and at one time, when I attempted to fly through one of the larger clouds, sleet started to collect on the plane and I was forced to turn around and get back into clear air immediately and then fly around any clouds which I could not get over.“
Around 11:00 PM, Lindbergh was continuing his fight to keep his eyelids open. To keep warm, he considered closing the plane’s windows but decided that he needed the cold, fresh air to help him stay awake. An hour later, the air warmed and there was no ice remaining on the plane while Lindbergh flew at an altitude of 10,000 feet some five hundred miles to the east of Newfoundland.
At 1:52 AM on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh reached the halfway point in his flight. Originally, he had planned to celebrate this eighteen-hour milestone but instead he only felt dread over the eighteen long hours remaining. Because he had travelled through several time zones, dawn came about an hour later. The daylight helped to revive Lindbergh for a short while before the intense drowsiness returned. He even fell asleep but only for a moment.
By 5:00 in the morning, Lindbergh was continuously falling asleep with his eyes open only to awaken seconds, possibly minutes, later. He began to hallucinate. After flying for hours in or above the fog, the skies finally began to clear. At the 24-hour point in his journey, Lindbergh found that he did not feel as tired as before.
Just before 10:00 AM, Lindbergh spotted several small fishing boats:
“The first indication of my approach to the European Coast was a small fishing boat which I first noticed a few miles ahead and slightly to the south of my course. There were several of these fishing boats grouped within a few miles of each other.
“I flew over the first boat without seeing any signs of life. As I circled over the second, however, a man’s face appeared, looking out of the cabin window.“
“I have carried on short conversations with people on the ground by flying low with throttled engine, and shouting a question, and receiving the answer by some signal. When I saw this fisherman I decided to try to get him to point towards land. I had no sooner made the decision than the futility of the effort became apparent. In all likelihood he could not speak English, and even if he could he would undoubtedly be far too astounded to answer. However, I circled again and closing the throttle as the plane passed within a few feet of the boat I shouted, ‘Which way is Ireland?’ Of course the attempt was useless, and I continued on my course.”
Not long after spotting the first boats, at 11:00 AM New York time or 3:00 PM local time, Lindbergh spotted land to his left and veered towards it Referring to his charts, he identified the land to be the southern tip of Ireland:
“…a rugged and semi-mountainous coastline appeared to the northeast. I was flying less than two hundred feet from the water when I sighted it. The shore was fairly distinct and not over ten or fifteen miles away. A light haze coupled with numerous storm areas had prevented my seeing it from a long distance.
“The coastline came down from the north and curved towards the east. I had very little doubt that it was the southwestern end of Ireland, but in order to make sure I changed my course towards the nearest point of land.
“I located Cape Valencia and Dingle Bay, then resumed my compass course towards Paris.”
Spirit of St. Louis was 2.5 hours ahead of schedule and less than three miles off course.
Lindbergh flew over Ireland and then England at an altitude of about 1500 feet as he headed towards France.
The weather cleared and flying conditions became almost perfect. Wanting to reach the French coast in daylight, Lindbergh increased his air speed to 110 mph. The English coast appeared ahead just before 5:00 PM local time (1:00 PM New York time). The pilot was now wide awake.The coast of France and the City of Cherbourg passed beneath his wings as darkness fell a second time during his flight. He had only two hundred miles to go before his arrival at Paris:
“The sun went down shortly after passing Cherbourg and soon the beacons along the Paris-London airway became visible.
“I first saw the lights of Paris a little before 10 P.M., or 5 P.M., New York time, and a few minutes later I was circling the Eiffel Tower at an attitude of about four thousand feet.“
The airfield was not marked on his map and Lindbergh knew only that it was some seven miles northeast of the city; he initially mistook it for some large industrial complex because of the bright lights spreading out in all directions:
“The lights of Le Bourget were plainly visible, but appeared to be very close to Paris. I had understood that the field was farther from the city, so continued out to the northeast into the country for four or five miles to make sure that there was not another field farther out which might be Le Bourget. Then I returned and spiralled (sic) down closer to the lights. Presently I could make out long lines of hangars, and the roads appeared to be jammed with cars.“
He had been confused by the headlights of tens of thousands of spectators’ cars caught in “the largest traffic jam in Paris history” in their attempt to be present for Lindbergh’s landing.
“I flew low over the field once, then circled around into the wind and landed.”
Spirit of St. Louis touched down at the Aérodrome de Paris-Le Bourget at 10:22 PM Paris time on Saturday, May 21, 1927. The plane’s total flight time was 33 hours, 30 minutes, 29.8 seconds. Charles Lindbergh had not slept in 55 hours.
A crowd estimated at 150,000 suddenly stormed the field. The hysterical, ecstatic mob broke through the restraining ropes and stampeded toward Lindbergh, cheering and shouting. As he opened the door, he was dragged out of the cockpit and hoisted onto the shoulders of the police, who carried him through the surging crowd for “nearly half an hour”, cries of “Vive” ringing through the night. Some damage was done to the Spirit (especially to the fine linen, silver-painted fabric covering on the fuselage) by souvenir hunters before Lindbergh and his plane were able to reach the safety of a nearby hangar with the aid of French military fliers, soldiers, and police.
Lindbergh had done it! He had set off in near total obscurity from a muddy field on Long Island, New York, with no other goal but to cross the Atlantic Ocean. He arrived in Paris to unprecedented adulation. People were “behaving as though Lindbergh had walked on water, not flown over it”. It was as if everyone saw in him something that they sought in themselves — a spirit of adventure and achievement in life. Somehow he represented the symbol of hope in a weary world, for there was something unique about his integrity, courage, and indifference to honors.
The day after Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, the French Foreign Office flew the American flag, the first time it had saluted someone who wasn’t a head of state. From the balcony of the U.S. Embassy that morning, he responded briefly and modestly to the persistent calls of the massive crowd which had gathered. For hours after he retreated back inside, they shouted, clapped, and waved their hats and handkerchiefs.
In the days that followed, his fame as a hero grew to unbelievable proportions as he took Europe by storm. The President of France pinned the Legion of Honor upon the lapel of his borrowed suit and thousands of messages poured in upon him. Similar reactions followed a week later during brief visits to Evere Aerodrome in Brussels, Belgium, and Croydon Aerodrome in London, England. At the latter, Lindbergh was forced to take off again before the end of his landing roll to avoid injuring the crowd which had broken through police lines. The stabilizer on Spirit of St. Louis was damaged by the pressure of the crowd and repaired at Croydon.
The adulation would continue, and intensify, after Lucky Lindy returned to the shores of the United States in June 1927.
Scott #1710 was released by the United States Postal Service on May 20, 1977, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. Designed by Robert E. Cunningham, a noted aviation artist from Fort Worth, Texas. Cunningham had previously designed a stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Commercial Aviation (Scott #1684) that had started contract airmail flights on February 1, 1926. Lindbergh was one of the pioneer pilots who had flown the mail. According to The New York Times, the stamp portrays a “painting of the Spirit of St. Louis flying low over the Atlantic between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, with the setting sun behind its right wing, nine hours into its 3,600‐mile flight.” At the upper right, in blue, appears USA 13c, and below the aircraft, in one line of black type, appears 50th Anniversary Solo Transatlantic Flight. Esther Porter of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing modeled the Lindbergh stamp,
The 13-cent multicolored stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using the photogravure process on a seven-color Andreotti gravure press (601) as sheets of two hundred subjects, tagged, perforated 11, and distributed as panes of fifty. Mr. Zip, MAIL EARLY IN THE DAY, electric eye markings, and six plate number — one in each color used to print the sheet — are printed in the selvage. There were 208,820,000 copies of the stamp printed.
The first day of issue ceremonies were held at Eisenhower Park, adjacent to the site of Roosevelt Field in Garden City, New York, with the postmarks reading Roosevelt Field Station. A replica of the Spirit of St. Louis was flown over the park during the ceremonies. On the evening of May 20, Lindbergh’s widow — Anne Morrow Lindbergh — was presented with an album of the new stamps by U.S. Postmaster General Benjamin F. Bailar. The presentation occurred during the “Spirit of St. Louis” dinner held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City by the Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Fund. The fund was established to provide grants to young people in the fields of aeronautics, research, exploration and conservation, to which Lindbergh was especially devoted.
A number of first day covers were carried on a special flight across the Atlantic in Paris. Some of these can be found with the airmail stamp France later released to commemorate the flight (Scott #C49). Lindbergh himself actually carried two covers aboard Sprit of St. Louis during the New York to Paris flight in May 1927. One of these was sold at auction by Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries on March 23, 1977. It was flown for Gregory J. Brandeweide who, Lindbergh stated, “worked with me laying out the mail route.” The hammer price at the 1977 action was U.S. $35,000.
The second Lindbergh-flown cover was for Postmaster Conkling of Springfield, Missouri. Lindberg is recorded as stating before his takeoff, with specific reference to the Conkling cover that “I couldn’t say no to him.”