Dear Straight Dope:
Since I was young, Charles Lindbergh has been one of my heroes. But one day I overheard that Lindbergh was not the first to cross the Atlantic--in fact there were numerous aviators who accomplished this feat before him. They were not not well known because no prize money involved. Please tell me that this is not so.
Bibliophage of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board replies:
Being surprised that Lindbergh wasn’t the first man to fly across the Atlantic is like being surprised that Armstrong wasn’t the first man in space. Of course it was Yuri Gagarin who was the first man in space, but Armstrong is rightly famous for being the first man on the moon. Likewise Lindbergh is rightly famous for being the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic — and for breaking the non-stop distance record in an airplane, and for winning the Orteig Prize, and for being the first to fly an airplane nonstop from the mainland of North America (sort of) to the mainland of Europe. But he was beaten in the race to cross the Atlantic by eight years and at least 84 different men. He wasn’t the first to win prize money for it, either.
Lindbergh isn’t famous for making the first transatlantic flight because he didn’t. That honor goes to Lieutenant Commander Albert Read of the U.S. Navy and the crew of the flying boat NC-4 in May 1919. The transatlantic portion of their flight was from Newfoundland to Portugal with a stop in the Azores, but the entire flight was from New York to England. Two other Navy Curtiss flying boats started from Newfoundland. Low on fuel, both NC-1 and NC-3 set down on the ocean in heavy fog. The crew of NC-1 was rescued by a passing ship, but the plane was lost. NC-3 managed to taxi hundreds of miles to safety in the Azores. (NC-2, in case you were wondering, didn’t make the flight because it was used for parts.)
But wait, you say — that wasn’t a nonstop flight like Lindbergh’s. But Lindbergh shouldn’t be famous for making the first non-stop transatlantic flight either. That honor goes to Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown of the Royal Air Force the very next month. They were among several teams in 1919 competing for the £10,000 prize offered by the British newspaper the Daily Mail. The rules required a flight in less than 72 hours across the Atlantic by an airplane or airship in either direction between the British Isles and the United States, Canada or Newfoundland. (Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada.) NC-4 was ineligible for the prize because its flight took considerably longer than 72 hours. (I don’t believe winning the prize required a nonstop flight, but I haven’t been able to find out for sure.) Alcock and Brown’s WWI Vickers-Vimy bomber made the prize-winning flight from Newfoundland to Ireland (just under 2,000 miles) in a little more than 16 hours.
Pshaw! you say — Newfoundland hardly counts because it sticks out into the Atlantic; Lindbergh flew all the way from New York. But Lindbergh shouldn’t be famous for making the first non-stop flight between New York and Europe either. That honor goes to Major George Herbert Scott of the RAF and the crew of the British dirigible R.34 a month after Alcock and Whitten-Brown’s flight. In July 1919 they flew from East Fortune, Scotland, to Mineola, Long Island, New York, a distance of almost 3,000 miles, in about four and a half days. Also on board were a stowaway (William Ballantyne), a stowaway cat (Whoopsie or Wopsie) and two homing pigeons. The R.34 made the return flight to Pulham, England, a few days later, marking the first round trip transatlantic flight.
Hold on, you say — Scotland and England aren’t on the mainland of Europe, while Lindbergh flew all the way to Paris. But Lindbergh shouldn’t be famous for making the first nonstop flight between the mainland of North America and the mainland of Europe either. Laying aside the fact (as Lindbergh did) that he took off from Long Island, which is, well, an island, there was an earlier nonstop flight from the mainland of Europe to the mainland of North America. As part of war reparations, the U.S. Navy ordered an airship from the Zeppelin company after WWI. The ship, called by its manufacturer LZ-126 (LZ for Luftschiff Zeppelin) and by the U.S. Navy ZR-3 (ZR for “Zeppelin Rigid”), was flown nonstop from Germany to New Jersey in October 1924 by Dr. Hugo Eckener and crew, a distance of about 4,000 miles. (Lindbergh’s flight, you will recall, was about 3,600 miles.) Despite previous public warnings that stowaways would be cast overboard into the Atlantic, two reporters were found hiding in the ship and expelled shortly before takeoff. Eckener, by the way, commanded the Hindenburg when it burned in 1937 but survived.
While not the only transatlantic flights between 1919 and 1927, these are some of the significant firsts Lindbergh didn’t achieve that some may assume he did (first transatlantic, first nonstop transatlantic, first nonstop U.S.-Europe, and first nonstop U.S.-mainland-Europe). I’m not trying to take anything away from Lindbergh here; his accomplishment was truly remarkable. He was the first person to cross the Atlantic alone by air, whether in an airplane or airship. He was the first person to fly nonstop from the U.S. to Europe in an airplane (as distinct from an airship). He broke the record for longest straight-line distance flown nonstop in an airplane, and what’s more, he did it alone. And of course he won the $25,000 prize offered by Raymond Orteig for the first flight in an airplane (solo or not) from New York to France.
What isn’t so well known is that he wasn’t strictly eligible for the Orteig Prize because he started a week or two less than 60 days after registering with the prize committee. He and his backers felt it was more important to win the race than the prize. After his successful flight, the trustees waived the requirement at Raymond Orteig’s suggestion and awarded him the money. It’s understandable that he didn’t wait. Within six weeks, two other teams (Chamberlin and Levine in the Columbia and Byrd, Acosta, Noville, and Balchen in the America) crossed the Atlantic from New York and would have won the Orteig Prize if Lindbergh hadn’t.
Lindbergh is more famous than all the people mentioned above plus many other aviation pioneers who deserve to be remembered, such as Blériot (who crossed the English Channel in 1909) or Calbraith Rodgers (who crossed the U.S. in 1911) or Kelly and Macready (who crossed the U.S. nonstop in 1923). Why? It’s hard to say exactly. It may have something to do with the fact that in 1927 people were ready to get excited about the possibilities of civil aviation. People also like to root for the underdog, particularly when the underdog is young, handsome, daring, and modest, as Lindbergh was. He was decidedly the dark horse in the race for the Orteig Prize. He and his backers spent just over $10,000 on the attempt while some of the other teams spent about $100,000 — four times the prize money. Lindbergh himself was virtually unknown while many of the other teams were led by famous explorers like Byrd or famous WWI aces like Fonck. The fact that he did it alone no doubt contributed to his fame, if only because he didn’t have to share the spotlight with anyone. Many thought a solo flight of that distance was impossible. (Lindbergh himself felt going solo was an advantage because he could carry more fuel.) Another daring aspect of his flight was the fact that he flew a great-circle route while the other teams stuck closer to the shipping lanes in case they needed rescuing. Before Lindbergh left, Lloyd’s of London was quoting odds of 10 to 1 against any team winning the prize that year, and felt the odds against Lindbergh himself doing it were too high to be worth quoting at all until he was spotted off the Irish coast.
The fame Lindbergh earned from his flight surprised him more than anyone. The level of adulation is hard for us to imagine today. In New York, about four million people (including out-of-towners) lined the parade route, equivalent to about 60% of the city’s population. An estimated 25% of the entire U.S. population came out to see him on his 82-stop tour of the country after his return, with hundreds of thousands on hand in most cities. Within a few months, there was more film footage of him in existence than of any other human being, ever. Sort of puts Beatlemania in perspective, doesn’t it?
I’ve come across various estimates of exactly how many men crossed the Atlantic before Lindbergh, ranging from the high 60s to the low 90s. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive list anywhere — and I’ve been looking on and off for years. I decided to compile my own list and came up with 84 men: 18 by airplane and 66 by airship. There may be others I don’t know of.
1-6 (May 1919): Lieutenant Commander Albert Read of the U.S. Navy and his crew (Breese, Hinton, Rhoads, Rodd, and Stone) of the NC-4 flew from Newfoundland to Portugal via the Azores.
7-8 (June 1919): Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown of the RAF flew in a Vickers-Vimy bomber nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland.
9-42 (July 1919): Maj. George Scott of the RAF and his crew plus several British VIPs (Angus, Browdie, Burgess, Cooke, Cross, Durrant, Edwards, Evenden, Forteath, Gent, Graham, Gray, Greenland, Harris, Luck, Maitland, Mayes, Mort, Northeast, Parker, Powell, Pritchard, Ripley, Robinson, Scull, Shotter, Smith, Thirlwall, Turner, and Watson), two U.S. observers (Lieutenant Commander Lansdowne of the Navy and Lieutenant Commander Hensley of the Army) and one stowaway (William Ballantyne) flew in the British dirigible R.34 nonstop from Scotland to New York and/or from New York to Scotland. Ballantyne, Edwards, and Lansdowne made only the westward passage while Angus, Hensley, and Turner made only the eastward. All others made the round trip.
43-46 (August 1924): Lieutenants Lowell Smith, Leslie Arnold, Erik Nelson, and John Harding of the U.S. Army flew in two army Douglas World Cruisers, the Chicago and the New Orleans, from England to Labrador via Iceland and Greenland. This was part of an “around-the-world” flight that these four completed in September 1924. In April and May 1924 they had also been, together with Lieutenant Leigh P. Wade and Staff Sergeant Henry H. Ogden in the Boston, the first to cross the Pacific by air (with stops in the Aleutians).
47-78 (October 1924): Dr. Hugo Eckener and a German crew of 27 (Auer, Belser, Christ, Fischer, Fleming, Freund, Grofzinger, Kiefer, Knorr, Ladwig, Lang, Lehmann, Leichtle, Martin, Marx, Pabst, Praff, Pruss, Sammt, Scherz, von Schiller, Schwendt, Siegle, Specy, Tassler, Tielmann, and Wittemann) plus 4 U.S. military observers (Captain Steele, Commander Klein, and Lieutenant Commander Kraus of the Navy and Major Kennedy of the Army) in the dirigible LZ-126 a/k/a ZR-3 (later christened U.S.S. Los Angeles) flew nonstop from Germany to New Jersey.
79-81 (January 1926): Major Ramón Franco of the Spanish Army and Captain Ruiz de Alda of the Spanish Navy and their mechanic Pablo Rada flew from Spain to Brazil with several stops in the Dornier Wal flying boat Plus Ultra. Within ten years, Ramón Franco’s fame would be eclipsed by that of his brother Francisco, the Spanish dictator.
82-84 (March 1927): Captain Sarmento de Beires and Captain Jorge de Castilho of the Portuguese Army and mechanic Manuel Gouveia flew from Portugal to Brazil with several stops in the Dornier Wal flying boat Argos.
85 (May 1927): Captain Charles A. Lindbergh of the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve flew nonstop alone from New York to Paris in the Ryan monoplane Spirit of St. Louis.
Several other flights crossed a considerable portion of the Atlantic that you might include to inflate the number. In 1910, Walter Wellman and crew set out in an airship from Cape Cod and flew 1,000 miles over the Atlantic, almost reaching Bermuda before being forced down and rescued. NC-1 and NC-3, already mentioned, came within a couple hundred miles of reaching the Azores. Also in 1919, Hawker and Grieve flew out from Newfoundland toward Ireland but made it only about halfway and had to be rescued. In 1922, Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral of the Portuguese Navy flew most of the way from Portugal to Brazil with several stops in three different flying boats. However, they fell several hundred miles short of completing the longest leg of the trip, from the Rocks of St. Peter and St. Paul to the Island of Fernando de Noronha, and were rescued twice. In 1924, Antonio Locatelli and his crew of three made it safely from Italy to Iceland, but went down 120 miles short of Greenland and had to be rescued.
A few weeks before Lindberg’s flight, two French aviators, Charles Nungesser and Fran§ois Coli, set out from Paris to New York in L’Oiseau Blanc, a Levasseur biplane, in an effort to win the Orteig Prize. They never arrived. Planes reported in the air between Newfoundland and Maine may or may not have been L’Oiseau Blanc. Several supposed crash sites have been found (including one in Maine that was found and then lost again), but none has been identified with any certainty as being theirs. A 1984 French government report (which I have not read) apparently concludes that Nungesser and Coli probably reached North America. But I’m not convinced enough to add them to the list yet.
It’s not a transatlantic flight, so I didn’t include it in the tabulation above, but there was at least one other successful flight between Europe and North America. It didn’t cross the Atlantic but the Arctic. The Italian-Norwegian airship Norge with Umberto Nobile and crew crossed from Italy to Spitsbergen (Svalbard). From there, Nobile, Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth and 13 others crossed the Arctic Ocean to Alaska. I like king crab as much as anybody, but that’s going a little too far.
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