Day 607: The 3,660-Mile Race

originally published August 29, 2013

What’s the fun of owning a hotel if you can’t change history in some small but significant way?

When Raymond Orteig bought the Lafayette Hotel on 4th Street in New York, he was pleased when it became a hangout spot for airmen after World War I. Ray was an affable guy, and he fit in easily with the raucous flyers. In 1919, he snagged an invitation to a dinner honoring Eddie Rickenbacker, the most ass-whomping American flying ace of the Great War. Eddie (among others) devoted a lengthy chunk of speech-time to celebrating the passion of flying, which was notably shared between America and France.

This gave Raymond Orteig an idea. Eddie Rickenbacker specifically stated he looked forward to the day when the two nations were linked by air. So why not help that along? Throw some money up for grabs, and see who reaches for it. Orteig declared that the first pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris (or vice versa) would pocket a cool $25,000 (over $330,000 in today’s money).

The race was on.

If Eddie Rickenbacker whomped the most aerial ass for the US, René Fonck was the French equivalent. In fact, his 75 confirmed aerial victories might make him the best there ever was. He was the first to step up for the Orteig Prize. It was September 21, 1926. The conditions appeared right, and Fonck had a snazzy piece of equipment for the voyage: a Sikorsky S.35 worth about $100,000. It was a twin engine sesquiplane (that’s where one wing is longer than the other, which somehow doesn’t meant the plane only flies in circles – hooray for physics!), upgraded to three engines for the trip. With all the gas needed for the voyage, they were about 4000 pounds overweight.

No worries – Fonck climbed aboard the craft at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, joined by US Navy copilot Lawrence Curtin, radio operator Charles Clavier and mechanic Jacob Islamoff. In front of an excited crowd, the plane started taxiing down the airstrip when a landing gear collapsed. Instead of taking off, the Sikorsky S.35 rolled down an embankment and burst into flames, killing Clavier and Islamoff. So much for the triumphant French-American team.

Next came the swarthy Richard E. Byrd, who had (allegedly – believe me, this is a can of worms I’d rather keep up on the shelf) become the first to fly to the North Pole earlier that year. Byrd announced his intention to claim the prize, and on April 16, 1927, he flew a test flight of his new Fokker C-2 monoplane, which he appropriately called America. Again, not a success.

The America suffered a “nose-over crash”, which sounds like it should be casket-inducing, but in fact resulted in no fatalities. The co-pilot suffered a broken leg and collarbone, the engineer was treated for a blood clot and Byrd himself earned a broken wrist, but even the America lived to fly another day. It wasn’t the disaster it could have been, but it was a huge setback in the midst of a climate that appeared ready to make the jump over the ocean.

On April 26, the serious danger involved with this mission became even more evident, as Lt. Commander Noel Davis and Lt. Stanton Hall Wooster were killed when their plane failed to gain altitude during a test run in Virginia, one week before they were to make the New York to Paris attempt.

Then came the doomed flight of Charles Nungesser (pictured above) and François Coli, who took off from Paris on May 8, taking the trickier westward route across the sea. No one knows what happened to Nungesser and Coli – it’s believed they probably crashed into the ocean, cranking the death toll of the Orteig Prize up to eight (at least).

Clarence Chamberlin was next. Clarence had not seen any action in WWI, but he was a sharp pilot who was ready to etch his name into history. On April 12, four days before Richard Byrd’s unfortunate flight, Chamberlin and his crew set a new endurance record, keeping their Wright-Bellanca WB-2 in the air for 51 hours, 11 minutes and 25 seconds – more than enough time to make the trip over the Atlantic.

But the new co-pilot assigned to the team, Lloyd W. Bertaud, was feuding with Charles Levine (the plane’s owner) over his share of the prize money. Bertaud actually filed an injunction against Levine, and the plane never left the ground. Clarence Chamberlin was waiting for ridiculous legal paperwork to be taken care of, when another pilot took his shot at sweet, shiny victory.

Son of an American Congressman and grandson of a Swedish bank manager who had fled his homeland (as well as his wife and seven kids) after being accused of bribery and embezzlement, Charles Lindbergh felt he had what he needed to make the trip. His Spirit of St. Louis monoplane had recently set a new North American trans-continental speed record, and he felt it was up for the task. This in spite of the plane having lasted only 27 hours, 25 minutes in the air during test flights – notably less time than he’d be in the air over the Atlantic.

On May 20, 1927, as Clarence Chamberlin yearned for a new co-pilot and Richard Byrd struggled with backers who wouldn’t let him take off until Nungesser and Coli were found to be dead or alive, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, his nose pointed toward immortality.

Charles Lindbergh was taking a huge gamble with this flight, not only because others had died trying, and not only because his plane had yet to prove she was up to the task of staying aloft for so long. Lindbergh was travelling alone, which meant he’d need to remain awake and alert the whole time. He was chock full of fuel, but had packed no parachute, no sextant and no radio in order to keep the weight down. The guy probably couldn’t even bring a tiny package of peanuts.

33½ hours later, the Spirit of St. Louis touched down in Paris, netting Lindbergh the big prize. Two weeks later, Clarence Chamberlin – with plane owner Charles Levine rather than Bertaud beside him – made the second trans-Atlantic flight, aiming for Eisleben, Germany instead of France, covering a record distance of 3911 miles. On June 29, Richard Byrd got his second shot, but he couldn’t land in Paris due to fog so he wound up ditching the America in the ocean.

But the honor and glory was all heaped upon Lindbergh, a fame which arguably led his family to tragedy when his infant child was kidnapped and murdered five years later.

Inscribing your name into the iron walls of history comes with a heavy price sometimes.

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