National Geographic: Adventures - Charles Lindbergh: The Lone Eagle (1999)

In 1927, an unknown air mail pilot
from rural Minnesota
enters a race against
the best aviators in the world.
He will fly from New York to Paris,
alone across the empty sea.
Charles Lindbergh is a dark horse
in a deadly competition.
He risks his life
on the longest flight ever flown
and he lands as
the most famous man on earth.
The story is an American legend:
Lindbergh's dream to prove
aviation's future.
A Lone Eagle, who inspires the world
to look to the skies.
Early in the 20th century,
the airplane is a deadly innovation.
Few people dare to fly, and those
who do often pay with their lives.
The heavens beckon, and then destroy.
The most lethal challenge is
to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
A feat so hazardous that, in 1919,
a New York millionaire
offers 25,000 dollars
to the first plane to fly non-stop
between New York and Paris.
No one dares. Planes are too slow,
too primitive and the ocean, too wide.
Three years pass.
Then, at a remote airfield
in Nebraska,
a twenty-year old from rural Minnesota
begins his apprenticeship
in the uncertain world of flight.
Charles Lindbergh
has dropped out of college
after just one year
to pursue his dream.
Lindbergh wants to be a pilot.
When a daredevil named Erold Bahl
brings his aerial act to town,
the young Lindbergh sees a way
to finally get off the ground.
Bahl admires
the newcomer's enthusiasm,
and decides to take him
on as a protg.
Lindbergh is self-reliant,
calm, and driven.
He is shy and modest, but determined.
Lindbergh knows aviation is his future.
He is electrified by the perils
and the freedom of flight.
"Trees become bushes; barns, toys;
cows turn into rabbits as we climb.
I lose all conscious connection
with the past.
I live only in the moment
in this strange space,
crowded with beauty,
pierced with danger."
In the air, Lindbergh shows no fear,
perfecting the most perilous
barnstorming stunts.
Then skydiving,
with a primitive silk parachute.
He makes hundreds of jumps.
With each leap, he risks his life,
and enriches his spirit.
"Of course there's danger;
but a certain amount of danger
is essential to the quality of life.
I don't believe in
taking foolish chances;
but nothing can be accomplished
without taking any chance at all.
What civilization was not founded
on adventure,
and how long could one
exist without it?
What justifies the risk of life?"
Lindbergh masters the single-engine
bi-planes of the day.
Over the next year,
he hops from town to town,
performing stunts
across the rural mid-West.
Then, Charles Lindbergh decides
to make a serious commitment
to his flying infatuation.
In 1924, he enlists in the US Army
flying school in San Antonio, Texas.
Lindbergh wants to hone his skills
as a pilot,
and the Air Corps owns some of
the fastest planes in the world.
Flying in formation
teaches him precision
and about the dangers of carelessness.
On a routine flight, Lindbergh
collides with another plane.
Both pilots narrowly escape
with their lives.
Lindbergh is back in the air
within the hour.
Nothing can keep him out of the skies.
Of the hundred and four men
who join the Air Corps with Lindbergh,
only nineteen pass.
Lindbergh, once a first-year
college failure,
now graduates at the top of his class.
When his one-year army tour is over,
Lieutenant Lindbergh goes to
one of the capitals
of the burgeoning aviation industry,
Lambert Field, St. Louis, Missouri.
St. Louis has ambitions
to be an aviation hub.
Lindbergh's experience
earns him the best,
but most dangerous job on the field:
chief pilot of the Air Mail
run to Chicago.
Air mail pilots live short lives.
Thirty one of forty are killed
in crashes
in the first five years of service.
The planes are World War One surplus.
Pilots call them "flaming coffins."
But Lindbergh ignores the terrifying
record of the air mail service.
He believes the skies must be tamed.
What a future aviation has;
yet how few people realize it!
Somehow they must be made to
understand the possibilities of flight.
It is 1926.
Seven years have passed
since the 25,000 dollar prize was
offered for a New York-Paris flight.
Not one aviator has stepped forward.
But Charles Lindbergh
has not yet heard of the challenge.
Throughout the year,
Lindbergh carries the mail through
the Midwest's worst weather.
With little more than a compass and
courage, he gets the letters through.
Twice, in the dead of the night,
he is forced to parachute
from his crippled aircraft.
He dutifully runs his fuel tanks dry
to prevent letters
from being consumed by flames.
He breaks the nation's record for
death-defying leaps,
and earns a new nickname from
his fellow air mail pilots: "Lucky."
The crashes shake the public's opinion
of air mail's safety.
Charles Lindbergh makes it
his mission to change their minds.
"Whether the mail compartment
contains ten letters or ten thousand
is beside the point.
We have faith in the future.
Some day we know the sacks will fill."
Lindbergh can only dream of
aviation's future,
while another pilot flies to fame.
On May 9, 1926, US Navy
Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd
flies his three-engined Fokker
over the North Pole.
The achievement sums up Byrd himself:
part science, part adventure,
part self-promotion.
Richard Byrd is acclaimed
as America's king of the skies.
With the Arctic defeated, Byrd now
sets his sights on the Atlantic,
and the seven-year-old challenge
to reach Paris.
Byrd plans a mission for a crew of
four in one of the largest,
most expensive planes ever built.
But another pilot beats him
to the airfield.
On September 15, 1926,
French war ace Renee Fonck sets off
from New York for Paris.
But Fonck's huge, overloaded plane
does not even lift off the ground.
Two crewmen are killed in the wreck.
Fonck survives, his dream in ruins.
But Charles Lindbergh takes inspiration
from the tragic headlines.
It is the first time he has heard of
the New York-Paris prize.
Lindbergh decides to enter the race.
But his plan is different.
He will fly with just one engine.
And, he will do it alone.
It would be a thirty-six hour,
sleepless ordeal.
But first, he needs a decent plane.
Lindbergh approaches eight of
the wealthiest men in St. Louis.
Inspired by the young man's boldness,
they stake Lindbergh
with 15,000 dollars,
gambling that the publicity
will make St. Louis
the aviation hub of the Midwest.
Lindbergh offers his own life savings,
In February, 1927,
he makes his way toward
the only manufacturer that will build
a plane on his meager budget.
His destination is
San Diego, California,
and a company he has never heard of
Ryan Aircraft.
But no one has ever heard of
Charles Lindbergh, either.
On February 25th, 1927, Lindbergh
arrives at Ryan Aircraft in San Diego.
First impressions are discouraging:
a dilapidated hangar, with no runway,
and a staff of just a dozen.
Ryan's owner is barely a year
older than Lindbergh...
Benjamin Franklin Mahoney,
a former bond salesman
who bought the company
after taking a few flying lessons.
He shares Lindbergh's passion
for aviation
and his desire to win
the Transatlantic race.
Donald Hall is Ryan's only engineer.
He's also young, just twenty-seven.
Hall is astounded by Lindbergh's
vision of a solitary,
sleepless flight to Paris.
But a crew of one would mean
more room for gasoline.
He begins sketches at once for
a small aircraft, a flying fuel tank.
Lindbergh wires his sponsors
in St. Louis.
"Believe Ryan capable of building plane
with sufficient performance.
Delivery within sixty days.
Recommend closing deal.
Lindbergh has his team.
Now, it's time to get to work.
The aircraft will be an extension of
Charles Lindbergh himself.
"Every part of it can be designed
for a single purpose
every line fashioned to
the Paris flight.
I can inspect each detail before
it's covered with fabric and fairings.
I can build my own experience
into the plane's structure."
The young men who plan a leap
across the Atlantic
need to know precisely
how far it is to Paris.
Lindbergh has a primitive solution.
The bit of white grocery
string under my fingers
stretches taut along
the coast of North America,
bends down over a faded blue ocean,
and strikes the land mass of Europe.
It's 3600 statute miles.
It will be twenty-eight hours to
Ireland and thirty-six to Paris.
Lindbergh will use a simple compass to
guide him from New York to Newfoundland,
then across two thousand miles
of open sea,
with no hope of surviving
if anything goes wrong.
As Lindbergh's work gets under way,
the competition heats up.
On March 2, in New York,
Richard Byrd announces that his plan
to reach Paris is almost complete.
Byrd has built a 100,000 dollar,
gigantic aircraft named "America,"
and will be ready by May.
Just two weeks later, in Virginia,
American Navy pilots Noel Davis
and Stanton Wooster
unveil their own contender:
a tri-motor called "American Legion."
But Lindbergh holds to his plan
to build a small aircraft.
He is certain that
the bigger the plane,
the bigger the chance of
a fatal accident.
Then, on March 26, a new challenger
emerges in Paris.
Ace Charles Nungesser and his
one-eyed navigator Francois Coli
are ready for a westbound
crossing in their plane,
the "White Bird."
The Ryan team works around the clock,
a race against the world's
most famous aviators
all for a twenty-five year old with
a dream, and determination.
Then comes a stunning blow.
In mid-April, American pilot
Clarence Chamberlin announces that
he has stayed aloft
for a record-smashing
fifty-one hours in skies
over New York.
His powerful plane Columbia
is now ready for Paris.
Four planes are ready to go,
waiting only for clear skies
over the Atlantic,
while Charles Lindbergh is
on the Pacific coast,
still waiting for his aircraft
to be built.
Suddenly, the odds begin to change.
A test flight of Byrd's America
on April 16 ends in a twisted wreck.
Byrd and two of his crewmen
are seriously injured
and the America needs weeks
of repairs.
Eight days later,
Clarence Chamberlin takes off
from the same New York runway.
He crash lands the Columbia.
Chamberlin walks away,
but his landing gear is destroyed.
Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster
are not as fortunate.
On April 26, both men are killed
when their overloaded plane
stalls and crashes in Virginia.
Lindbergh's prediction has come
tragically true.
Loaded down multi engine giants are
too unreliable for transatlantic flight.
Two Americans and four Frenchmen
have given their lives
in the race to link their nations.
April 28, 1927.
Two months after Charles Lindbergh
arrived in San Diego,
his dream plane is born
the Spirit of St. Louis.
Named in honor of his backers
in St. Louis,
the Spirit is just over
twenty-seven feet long,
with a forty-six foot wing span.
The plane is trucked to a local
airfield, for its maiden voyage.
For Lindbergh, Mahoney, and Hall,
the moment of truth has come.
The Spirit of St. Louis is all
Lindbergh dreamed it would be.
"I've never felt a plane
accelerate so fast before.
There's a huge reserve of power."
There are no front windows.
A gas tank blocks Lindbergh's
forward view.
Visibility and comfort have been
sacrificed for endurance.
Weighing just over a ton empty,
the Spirit is a tiny challenger to
Richard Byrd's eight-ton America.
The first test is a stunning success.
Every possible ounce of weight
has been eliminated.
Lindbergh will confront the Atlantic
without a radio,
without navigational instruments,
without a parachute.
He has thought through everything
and carries nothing.
He makes two dozen test flights,
and declares the Spirit ready.
The time has come to leave for
New York, and the starting line.
But he may be too late.
On May 8, French aviators Nungesser
and Coli take off from Paris.
The next day,
newspapers report the French aces
have been spotted over Nova Scotia.
So close to fulfilling his dream.
Lindbergh despairs he has lost the race.
But Nungesser and Coli
never arrive in New York.
Their aircraft mysteriously disappear.
It is never found.
Six Men have now been sacrificed.
But Lindbergh has been granted
one more chance.
May 10, 1927.
Lindbergh says goodbye to
Benjamin Franklin Mahoney,
Donald Hall,
and the Ryan factory workers.
They have built the Spirit,
it is now up to Charles Lindbergh
to fly to New York,
before any other pilot
attempts the Atlantic.
But first, he must stop in St. Louis
to meet his backers.
He flies all night, testing the Spirit,
and his own stamina.
He calculates fuel consumption
at 100 miles per hour,
his planned airspeed over the Atlantic.
And he practices holding his course
on a dead heading for St. Louis.
It is dry run, over land,
for his Atlantic journey.
Fourteen hours and twenty-five minutes
after lifting off from California,
Charles Lindbergh lands the Spirit of
St. Louis in the city of her name.
He has broken the world speed record
on his flight.
"No man has ever traveled so fast
from the Pacific coast before."
Lindbergh's sponsors want to show off
their investment,
but the great race to Paris will not
wait for a Missouri parade.
They urge him on to New York.
Seven and a half hours later,
Lindbergh reaches New York.
"Manhattan Island lies below me
millions of people,
each one surrounded by a little aura
of his problems and his thoughts,
hardly conscious of
earth's expanse beyond.
What a contrast to the western spaces
I have crossed.
I feel cooped up just looking at it"
At 4:31 PM, on May 12, 1927,
the tiny Spirit of St. Louis touches
down at Curtiss Field, Long Island.
Charles Lindbergh has crossed
the North American continent
more quickly than any man in history.
Suddenly, the race to Paris
has a new contender.
A young daredevil
from the American heartland,
with the fastest plane in the sky.
In the Spring of 1927, three aircraft
and their impatient pilots
are lined up in the race to be
the first to Paris.
Charles Lindbergh's
Spirit of St. Louis,
Richard Byrd's rebuilt America,
and Clarence Chamberlin's
repaired Columbia.
All three are ready to go, but bad
weather keeps them on the ground.
The fliers maintain a link of
friendship and respect.
The national hero Byrd is courteous
to Chamberlin
and the young outsider Lindbergh.
Each understands that the best man
and the best machine will win.
And that any, or all of them
may die trying.
Charles Lindbergh gives the press
the story they've been waiting for.
The underdog,
the farm boy,
the Flyin' Fool.
Lindbergh is besieged.
On one day alone,
of the gallant young American pilot.
Publicity is good for the cause of
aviation, so Lindbergh complies.
"The journalistic atmosphere
has reached fever heat.
The moment I step outside the hangar
I'm surrounded.
The attention of the entire country
is centered on the flight and me.
We've helped focus everybody's eyes
on aviation and its future."
His mother arrives in New York
to see her son off.
Cameras turn as the two
pose stiffly together,
a moment they both know may be
their final goodbye.
Commander Byrd admires Lindbergh,
and praises his undeniable courage.
But he is certain that a single engine,
and a single flier,
cannot possibly endure
a 3,600 mile flight.
Seven days pass and the weather
holds the frustrated pilots down.
"The sky is overcast.
Rain is falling.
It may be another week or two
before I can take off.
I feel depressed at the thought".
May 19, 1927.
Bored and restless, Lindbergh accepts
an invitation to a Broadway musical.
Before reaching the show,
he receives a forecast of
clearing skies over the Atlantic.
He races back to his hotel, hoping to
catch a few hour's sleep before dawn.
But Lindbergh is far too excited
to rest.
At 2:30 AM, already awake
for twenty hours,
he begins preparing for
the 36-hour flight ahead.
At dawn, the Spirit of St. Louis
is towed out to the runway.
Five hundred soaked spectators gather,
eager to be witnesses to history,
or tragedy.
"My plane lurches backward
through a depression in the ground.
It looks awkward and clumsy.
It appears completely incapable of
flight-shrouded, lashed and dripping.
It's more like a funeral procession
than the beginning of
a flight to Paris."
Fully fueled, the plane weighs
two and a half tons.
Lindbergh has never attempted
a takeoff at this maximum load.
The commotion has awakened
Commander Byrd.
Byrd himself would not dare attempt
a takeoff in this wretched weather.
But the pilot nicknamed "Lucky"
is willing to take the gamble.
A reporter asks Lindbergh
if he has brought enough supplies to
live on for nearly two days in the air.
He has packed just five sandwiches
and a gallon of water.
He answers with a grim joke.
"If I get to Paris
I won't need anymore,
and if I don't get to Paris
I won't need anymore either."
Loaded with explosive fuel, on a
the Spirit lumbers into position.
It is a vital moment in the history of
human technology, and human courage.
A tiny silver plane, straining
and roaring a lone pilot
who has passed the point
of aborting his flight.
He will take off, or he will crash.
Lindbergh clears wires at the end of
the runway by just twenty feet.
And Lindbergh is gone.
As the Spirit of St. Louis disappears
into the clouds,
Commander Richard Byrd
estimates soberly that
the odds against Lindbergh's survival
are three to one.
As his thirty-six hour odyssey begins,
Lindbergh sets his course.
over the New England coast.
He alternates fuel tanks every hour
to balance his load,
and keeps a careful log of speed,
altitude, and course.
The Spirit's engine is the most
powerful ever built for flight:
It must perform perfectly for almost
two days nonstop,
fourteen million explosions in
its nine cylinders.
As he leaves Massachusetts behind,
Lindbergh heads over open ocean
for the first time in his life.
to Nova Scotia,
a preview of the 2,000 mile ordeal
across the Atlantic ocean.
He flies low, and faces the sea.
"I come down to meet the ocean,
asking its favor
the right to pass for thousands of
miles across its realm.
The earth released me on Long Island;
now I need approval from the sea."
The skies clear.
But in the sun, Lindbergh begins
to suffer the tortures of fatigue.
He already regrets staying awake
all night before departure.
New York is just five hours
behind him.
As he soars over Nova Scotia,
the journey has barely begun.
Navigating by a simple compass heading,
he is only six miles off
his planned course.
But as each hour passes,
the drone of the engine,
and the monotony of the waves,
dull his consciousness.
Urging surrender, demanding sleep.
Twelve hours after takeoff,
still a day away from a seemingly
impossible touchdown,
he is over Newfoundland.
One quick wingover,
and the vast Atlantic awaits.
"North America and its islands
are behind.
Ireland is two thousand miles ahead."
Now, Lindbergh has only his compass
and his courage to guide him.
Caught between sky and sea,
no traveler in history
has ever been so alone.
The first night of his journey begins.
"I've given up a continent and taken on
an ocean in its place, irrevocably."
Over the North Atlantic,
not far from where the Titanic sank
just fifteen years before,
Lindbergh spots icebergs.
He dreams of landing and sleeping.
If he drifts off,
even for a few seconds,
he will tumble into the waves and die.
"Sleep is winning."
At this moment,
at Yankee Stadium in New York City,
a heavyweight boxing match.
The announcer asks the audience
for a moment of silence for Lindbergh.
All 40,000 join as one.
Over the Atlantic, Lindbergh
flies into dense clouds.
He climbs above them
for better visibility.
But at ten thousand feet,
the air is colder.
He has made a dangerous mistake.
"I pull the flashlight from my pocket
and throw its beam onto a strut.
His only hope is to dive for warmer air
and pray the ice clears
before the Spirit falls from the sky.
After ten perilous minutes,
he triumphs.
A nation flies with him,
sleepless and anxious.
The New York Times receives 10,000
telephone calls, asking for updates.
But there is no news to print.
Lindbergh flies alone, without a radio,
over the desolate ocean.
Nineteen hours out, he estimates that
he is halfway to Paris.
But his body is numb,
beyond hunger and thirst.
"My greatest goal now is to stay alive
and pointed eastward
until I reach the sunrise."
He abandons his log book,
too weary to care.
In New York,
the newspapers can only repeat
stale bulletins from Newfoundland.
No one on earth knows where Lindbergh
is, or the agony he endures.
"This is the hour I've been dreading.
I know it's the beginning
of my greatest test.
This early hour of the second morning
the third since I've slept".
Just before dawn, Lindbergh believes
he is visited by ghosts.
"These phantoms speak with
human voices
vapor like shapes, without substance.
The feeling of flesh is gone.
Am I now more man or spirit?"
On the verge of defeat and death,
he finds the fortitude to fly on.
"I'm gaining strength,
I'm crawling upward.
I've finally broken the spell of sleep.
The sight of death has drawn out
the last reserves of strength."
His ghosts, and his fears,
dissolve in the sunrise.
Suddenly he sees something
moving below.
The world has come alive again.
Then a seagull.
A certain sign that land must be near.
Soon, a tiny dot
that can only be a mirage.
Fishing boats.
Where is he?
Where are they from?
Within half an hour,
another apparition.
He refuses to believe his eyes.
He looks at the chart,
and at the mass below.
It is Ireland.
He is just three miles off
his plotted course,
and over two hours earlier
than he expected.
When he is spotted over Dingle Bay,
the world rejoices.
For Charles Lindbergh
has not been flying alone.
Only the British Isles remain,
then the Channel.
Then, France.
Lindbergh will be the first man in
history to be in New York one day,
and Paris the next.
"Yesterday I walked on Roosevelt field,
today I'll walk on Le Bourget."
Five hours after reaching Ireland,
at 9:52 PM
Lindbergh is finally over Paris.
But at this moment of triumph,
strange lights below disorient him.
He circles lower.
He finally locates Le Bourget Airfield,
obscured by bright lights.
Below him, a public hysteria unlike
any in history is about to erupt.
One hundred and fifty thousand people
have come to witness his arrival.
The lights are their automobiles.
At 10:24 PM, after thirty-three
and a half hours in the air,
the Spirit of St. Louis returns
Charles Lindbergh to the earth.
But his feet do not even touch
French soil.
The mob surges forward, carrying the
exhausted Lindbergh like a rag doll.
They claw at the Spirit of St. Louis,
tearing off pieces of history.
A group of French aviators
finally rescue Lindbergh,
and carry him off to a waiting car.
He is taken to the American embassy,
where he sleeps for nine hours.
And awakens the most famous man
of the century.
Lindbergh's shy grace
wins the heart of Paris.
The crowds hail not only the pilot,
but the dawn of a new age of unity
between Europe and America.
Paris is in a Lindbergh frenzy
for a week.
Then he flies on
to Brussels and London
and is greeted with
explosive hero worship.
But Lindbergh is more than a hero.
He is a 20th Century phenomenon,
the first international superstar.
After two weeks of European adoration,
President Calvin Coolidge orders
Lindbergh home.
A Navy cruiser brings the nation's
most popular hero
and his now, famous plane
back to American soil.
When he arrives in Washington,
An innocent twenty-five-year-old
from the mid-West has become
a living legend.
His next stop is New York,
where four million people
line the streets
for the largest ticker-tape parade
in the city's history.
The public's rapture exhausts
the quiet Lindbergh.
But he seizes the opportunity
to promote aviation's future.
And now, people will listen.
For the summer of 1927,
he crisscrosses America in the Spirit
of St. Louis,
on a crusade to convince the public
to take to the skies.
throng to hear his message,
new converts to the aviation
Lindbergh heralds the dawn
of a new era.
By 1928, the air mail service
triples its load
and the passenger business
carries four times
as many people than before
Lindbergh's Paris flight.
His dream is fulfilled.
Those who once soared above Lindbergh
now fade in his shadow.
On June 29, Richard Byrd and his crew
of three finally take off for France
in their 100,000 dollar plane.
Byrd force-lands off
the Normandy coast.
Few take notice of his clumsy flight.
The contest to unite the continents
has already been won,
by the graceful Lone Eagle.
Charles Lindbergh spends the rest of
his life in the air,
promoting the cause of aviation.
At the age of 27, Lindbergh marries.
With his wife, author Anne Morrow,
he maps new flight routes
across the Atlantic and Pacific.
The young couple opens the skies
for air travelers of today.
Lindbergh would also endure
agonizing personal tragedy.
The kidnapping and murder of
the Lindbergh's baby son in 1932.
And outrage following his speeches
opposing war with Nazi Germany.
But Charles Lindbergh's legacy
is not controversy.
It is courage.
The daring of a twenty-five-year old
air mail pilot
who believed he could
change the world, and did.
"When the Spirit of St. Louis
flew to Paris,
aviation was shouldering its way
from the stage of invention
to the stage of usefulness.
I believed that aviation had
a brilliant future.
Technically, we have accomplished
our objectives, passed beyond them.
We actually live today
in our dreams of yesterday
and living those dreams,
we dream again."