Obsessed with reduction
© Getty
May 2022

Obsessed with reduction

By Björn Carstens
95 years ago, a young man from the United States made aviation history. In May 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh was the first pilot to cross the Atlantic in a solo non-stop flight. His success formula was to save weight. He even chose not to have a radio and parachute on board.

At exactly 10.24 pm, on the night of May 21, 1927, the wheels of the “Spirit of St. Louis” touched down on the airfield of Le Bourget in Paris. Hundreds of thousands of French spectators had flocked to the airfield to cheer the new hero in aviation history. The crowd ran across the fences, flooded the landing strip, and soon the whole world would celebrate the success of pioneering aviator Charles Augustus Lindbergh, a 25-year-old Air Mail pilot and aerobatic aviator from the United States.

  • Hundreds of thousands of French spectators celebrate Lindbergh’s arrival
    Hundreds of thousands of French spectators celebrate Lindbergh’s arrival © Getty
  • Euphoria abounds, onlookers are flooding the airfield
    Euphoria abounds, onlookers are flooding the airfield © Getty
  • The 223-hp 9-cylinder Wright radial engine took Lindbergh (pictured at right, wi ...
    The 223-hp 9-cylinder Wright radial engine took Lindbergh (pictured at right, with a hat) across the Big Pond © Harris&Ewing

American President Calvin Coolidge even sent a battleship across the Atlantic to take the celebrated national hero home, where the biggest ticker-tape parade that New York City had ever seen awaited him. “Lucky Lindy,” as Lindbergh was nicknamed, made it! Solo, non-stop across the Big Pond. From the Big Apple to the City of Love. But how did he make it? What was his success formula? To put it in a nutshell: It meant doing without any superfluous (in his view) bells and whistles! Even if that included a forward windshield.

„If one took no chances, one would not fly at all. Safety lies in the judgment of the chances one takes.“

Charles A. Lindbergh (*1902 in Detroit; †1974 in Hawaii)

Lindbergh’s lesson was as valuable back then as it is today: maximum weight reduction to minimize energy consumption. Plus, he turned his approach into a win-win situation across the board: unlike his rivals (including aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker), who were able to invest more money in development projects, Lindbergh had to rely on the technical means of aircraft engineering that were available in the nineteen-twenties for his solo flight. And those means were rather limited. However, his simple-design single-engine “Spirit of St. Louis” fulfilled Lindbergh’s maxim of “less is more” precisely: less aircraft weight for larger fuel tank volume, because he was clear about the fact that the leap across the Atlantic would require plenty of fuel.

  • 2,330 kilograms (5,137 lbs.)
    was the takeoff weight of the “Spirit of St. Louis;” around 1,360 liters (359 gallons) of fuel and the required oil accounted for more than half of the total weight.
  • 5,808.5 kilometers (3,609.2 miles)
    was the distance that Lindbergh covered from Roosevelt Field in New York to the Le Bourget airport in Paris.
  • 33.5 hours
    was the duration of Lindbergh’s solo flight that made him a national hero. A ticker-tape parade was held in his honor in New York City.
  • 66 people
    crossed the Atlantic before Lindbergh, albeit none of them did so on solo flights.
As a result of his transatlantic flight, Charles Lindbergh acquires international popularity of previously unknown dimensions
Competition sparks Lindbergh’s ambition

Let’s start by looking a few years back: Charles Lindbergh is interested in technology even as a young boy. That includes aviation although he personally “had never been close enough to a plane to touch it,” as he later recalls in his book “We.” Those are the early years of aviation in which historic pioneering feats practically take place on a monthly basis. Shortly before Lindbergh is born in 1901, German-American aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead purportedly achieves the first powered flight in human history, even before the commonly known Wright brothers, who take off for their epochal first motorized flight in 1903 – barely two years after Lindbergh’s birth. In 1916, a man named William Boeing launches the production of airplanes, and as early as in 1919, the British pairing of John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown complete the first non-stop transatlantic crossing between Newfoundland and Ireland in an aircraft.

That same year a Paris hotel owner named Raymond Orteig offers a prize of 25,000 dollars for the first non-stop flight between New York City and Paris, sparking Lindbergh’s ambition. He starts studying mechanical engineering but quits after barely two years in favor of taking up training as a pilot and mechanic. He buys a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and travels through the United States as an aerobatic aviator. Now serving in the military, he graduates from pilot training as best-in-class in 1924 and subsequently starts working as an Air Mail pilot.

By means of donations, a loan and all his savings he scrapes up enough money for commissioning Ryan Aeronautical, a smaller aircraft manufacturer based in San Diego, to build a single-engine airplane. Designing and building the “Spirit of St. Louis” takes only two months and by naming the aircraft after St. Louis Lindbergh expresses his gratitude to his investors who hail from the city on the Mississippi river. The aircraft consists of tubular steel and wood lined with fabric. Its technical equipment includes bearings from the subsequent Schaeffler brand FAG. There’s only one engine on board because Lindbergh feels that the risk of engine failure increases with multiple engines.

Schaeffler bearings for the aviation industry

Lindbergh in the old days, long-haul jets today: With its Aerospace division, Schaeffler has been an innovative partner of the aerospace industry for decades. The company will continue to support aircraft engine developments with state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies and processes going forward. The 40-year collaboration with Rolls-Royce, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of aircraft engines, demonstrates Schaeffler’s strong market position. The two partners recently agreed to cooperate for another twelve years, starting in 2024. Such a long commitment is unusual anywhere, not just in the aviation industry. The collaboration is focused on engine rolling bearing systems in the growth market segments of business aviation and widebody aircraft. In addition, the agreement between the two partners covers the supply of refurbished bearings. The longer lifecycle of the products reduces CO2 emissions and saves resources.

Read the full press release here.

Obsessed with reduction
The press called Lindbergh’s plane a “flying orange crate”© Speedpool
No radio, no sextant

On May 20th, 1927, at 7.52 am, Lindbergh takes off for his record attempt, albeit not without having done a “thorough purging job” beforehand, in other words, relentlessly sorting out things. Lindbergh was obsessed with weight reduction, author Dan Hampton, a retired Air Force pilot, will subsequently explain in his report titled “The Flight: Charles Lindbergh’s Daring and Immortal 1927 Transatlantic Crossing.” To take the maximum amount of fuel on board, he not only enlarges the wings but even sacrifices presumably lightweight devices and potential life savers like a parachute, a fuel gauge, a radio and a sextant for navigation. Instead, he flies only with his wristwatch, maps and a compass. Even so, he reaches Ireland only a few miles off the planned course.

Obsessed with reduction
Lindbergh’s flight route: New York – Newfoundland – Southern Ireland – Southern England – Paris© National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Neither does the “Spirit of St. Louis” have a forward windshield, because what for? An additional fuel tank installed in the cockpit obstructs his vision anyway. Only a small periscope he developed provides him with a forward view. Instead of in a plump, spring-mounted pilot’s seat, he spends nearly 34 hours sitting in a lightweight willow basked. He even leaves an additional set of clothes for the potential victory celebration at home and just a single bottle of water is planned to quench his thirst. He forgets to eat the few sandwiches he’s taken along due to the mental strain he’s under during his daring adventure because that is not without complications.

Obsessed with reduction
A cockpit reduced to the essentials: no radio, no fuel gauge and a seat like grandma’s rocking chair© Simthsonian Institure

According to Hampton’s account, Lindbergh at times is flying only a few meters above the waves of the Atlantic in order to circumvent heavy snow storms. His carburetor-heater that’s supposed to prevent engine icing in wet and cold conditions is permanently set to the “on” position. After 17 hours, he even falls asleep and only wakes up again by ocean spray entering through the side window. It’s actually hard to believe that he was even able to fall asleep, considering the somewhat jittery performance of his “Spirit of St. Louis” that’s difficult to control due to necessary modifications at the rear.

Technical data of the “Spirit of St. Louis”

Length: 8,56 meters (28 feet)
Wing span: 14.03 meters (46 feet)
Height: 3.04 meters (10 feet)
Wing area: 29.64 m² (319 sq. ft.)
Empty weight: 974 kg (2,147 lbs.)
Takeoff weight: 2,330 kg (5,137 lbs.)
Top speed: 220 km/h (137 mph)
Engine: 9-cylinder Wright J-5C Whirlwind radial engine, 223 hp (166 kW)

But there are more things that cause problems for Lindbergh such as hallucinations. After 22 hours of non-stop flying, he “sees mirages.” Lindbergh only starts seeing reality again when he starts seeing real land: the south-western coast of Ireland. Across Southern England and Normandy, he flies to Paris where, flooded with euphoria, he flies an extra circle around the well-lit Eiffel Tower. Lindbergh allegedly even considered flying on to Rome because there was still enough fuel in the tank but, fortunately, chose not to do so. Who knows if he would have received an equally enthusiastic welcome in Italy as he did in Paris?

What else you should know about Charles Lindbergh

Throughout his life Charles A. Lindbergh was a multi-faceted personality, a strident pioneer with the appeal of a pop star.

  • In 1930, Lindbergh’s sister-in-law succumbed to heart disease. Lindbergh was surprised that it wasn’t possible to save his relative by an artificial heart. He turned to Alexis Carrel, a laureate of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and experimental surgeon at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Together, they performed research to build a device enabling a kidney, a thyroid gland, an ovary or a heart to be kept alive in a laboratory for several weeks. Lindbergh’s pump was subsequently developed further by other scientists, which ultimately led to the development of the first heart-lung machine.
  • Lindbergh wrote several books about his flight including “The Spirit of St. Louis” published in 1953 for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.
  • As a spokesman of the America First Committee (AFC) – a movement aiming to prevent the United States from entering the Second World War – Lindbergh held a spectacular speech in 1941, after which he was called an anti-Semite. In his book “The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh,” Lindbergh’s biographer Rudolf Schröck subsequently documented that the “Angel of the Skies” was neither a Nazi sympathizer nor an anti-Semite. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh even flew 50 dangerous bomber missions. Schröck: “Does a friend of fascists act in this way?”
  • Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Spencer Morrow, had six children. On March 1, 1932, their son Charles III was kidnapped and subsequently murdered. German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of this crime and executed in 1936. Doubts about his guilt still exist. The killing of the Lindbergh baby in spite of the payment of ransom inspired Agatha Christie to write her novel “Murder on the Orient Express” that was published in 1934.
  • Charles Lindbergh died in seclusion on the island of Maui /Hawaii in 1974.