While transatlantic commercial air travel is a routine, low-risk affair today, requiring less than eight hours’ flying time from New York to Paris, Charles Lindbergh was the first to perform the feat. That achievement is all the more remarkable, considering that the flight required 33 ½ hours in a single-engine aircraft, without today’s high-tech navigation aids and without the help of either a co-pilot or a navigator!
In the process, Lindbergh flew nearly 3,600 statue miles and won the $25,000 Orteig Prize, the quest for which had already claimed the lives of six aviators in earlier attempts. To put Lindbergh’s achievement into its proper perspective, the flight of the Spirit of St. Louis conclusively proved the viability of transatlantic air travel and literally opened up the vital transatlantic air routes we take for granted today. As summed up by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where the Spirit resides today, the significance of Lindbergh’s epic flight is rivaled only by the Apollo moon landing of July 1969.
Lindbergh’s aircraft, the now-iconic silver Ryan NYP (short for New York to Paris), was a heavily modified variant of an existing Ryan design, with a much-larger fuel capacity. To accommodate the heavy fuel load required for the Atlantic crossing, forward visibility was sacrificed. To gain forward visibility, Lindbergh used a periscope mounted to his left. Otherwise, he was forced to bank the Spirit and use the side windows.
The Spirit was designed by Donald A. Hall and manufactured by Ryan Airlines under Lindbergh’s personal supervision in just 60 days! Costing an immense $10,000, equal to the cost of a contemporary Rolls-Royce Phantom II automobile, the Spirit of St. Louis was named in honor of Lindbergh’s hometown sponsors. It was retired within one year of construction and made 174 flights in all, including the record transatlantic flight, logging 489 hours and 28 minutes of flying time in all. In addition to winning the Orteig Prize for his groundbreaking achievement, Lindbergh was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Flying Cross by former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
Following the historic flight, the Spirit of St. Louis was flown to Brussels, Belgium, then to Croydon south of London, England, and then to Gosport on England’s south coast. The Spirit was then dismantled, packed into two shipping crates, and returned with Lindbergh to the United States aboard the USS Memphis. Once back stateside, the Spirit was unpacked, reassembled and carefully inspected at Anacostia, Washington in preparation for a triumphant flying tour.
Wright Aeronautical Company employees Kenneth Lane and Kenneth Boedecker, who were two of a group of four that had checked and fine-tuned the Spirit and its 223 hp Wright J5-C “Whirlwind” engine before its epic flight, supervised the reassembly of the aircraft. From Anacostia, Lindbergh flew the Spirit to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, then on to St. Louis, Michigan’s Selfridge Field, and Ottawa, Canada.
On July 4, 1927, Lindbergh flew back from Ottawa to Teeterboro, New Jersey, where he met Lane for additional preparatory work on the Spirit in advance of the main U.S. leg of the tour, which included visits to all U.S. states and 80 individual cities. At this point in time, Lindbergh handed Lane the survival equipment that was aboard the Spirit on the New York-Paris flight, which was now deemed unnecessary, in order to keep it safe from the anticipated throngs of souvenir hunters.
Lane also removed several parts from the Spirit’s record flight that were worn and deemed unfit for the rigors of the extensive tour Lindbergh was about to undertake. Among them were “bungee”-type shock absorber cords strained by the Spirit’s heavy fuel load, spark plugs needing replacement, and a rocker arm from the Wright engine. The survival kit and the removed parts remained with Kenneth Lane until the 1970s, when Mr. Lane and Lindbergh historian Everett Cassageneres donated the survival kit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Other Spirit of St. Louis items donated to museums included a spark plug, a “bungee” shock cord and a fairing strip to the Minnesota Historical Society’s Charles A. Lindbergh Historic site, as well as a number of artifacts that went to the San Diego Aerospace Museum, which are believed to have been destroyed by fire.
Among the items retained from the Spirit and available to collectors today include two AC Type N spark plugs for the Wright J5-C “Whirlwind” engine, a rocker arm (serial number 7331), and three shock-absorber “bungee” cords from either the main landing gear or the tail skid. These items were later mounted within a custom oak case with an engraved plaque and today, the items within this case are the only known original pieces of the Spirit of St. Louis used on the record-setting New York-Paris flight to ever come to market. These parts were used on the famous transatlantic flight and removed from the Spirit of St. Louis by engineer Kenneth Lane, prior to Charles Lindbergh’s extensive goodwill tour.
As advised by the UK’s Paul Fraser Collectibles firm, Lindbergh-related items tend to retain their values quite well, as evidenced by a number of high-profile sales in recent years. Among them, a landing certificate at Le Bourget, received after Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and dated to 22 May 1927, sold for $32,500 in 1993. In 1999, a collection of Lindbergh rarities sold for $178,000, including hammer fee. Included were a five-line typewritten endorsement signed by Lindbergh, some other pieces of mail carried on the Spirit of St Louis, and an autographed note on American Embassy stationery. An “Air Mail” cover, accompanied by a typewritten letter signed by Lindbergh, has also sold for over $126,000, including commissions. In November 2002, a group lot of items, including an American Flag with a typed note signed by Lindbergh, sold for $57,500. The same year, a one-page letter from the historic flight sold for $75,000. In November 2006, another lot sold for $60,000 and included a small American Flag carried by Lindbergh on the Spirit of St Louis during the 1927 transatlantic flight, accompanied by a typed note autographed by the famed aviator.
However, these original parts from the Spirit of St. Louis are the first and likely the only aircraft parts of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight to ever appear for public sale. As such, the items within this oak case are incredibly desirable and fascinating historical artifacts from one of the greatest achievements, aviation-related or otherwise, of the 20th Century. At the time this post was originally written and published, the artifacts were being offered by the UK’s Paul Fraser Collectibles.