On this day in history, May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh departs for first solo nonstop flight across Atlantic


Aviator Charles Lindbergh began his historic solo transatlantic flight on this day in history, May 20, 1927. 

Departing from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, just before 8 a.m. on May 20, Lindbergh would spend the next 33-and-a-half hours in the air before landing safely at Le Bourget Airdrome, Paris, at 10:22 p.m. local time on May 21, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s website.

A sizable crowd in France was waiting for Lindbergh’s arrival. 

“The crowd surged on the Spirit of St. Louis, and Lindbergh, weary from his 33 1/2-hour, 3,600-mile journey, was cheered and lifted above their heads,” noted the History Channel website.

While Lindbergh was the first person to make a solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic, the first transatlantic flight occurred in May 1919, that site also said.

Inspired by the 1919 aeronautic feat, a Frenchman and hotel owner named Raymond Orteig created the “Orteig Prize,” offering $25,000 to the first person to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a nonstop solo flight. 

Lindbergh, along with other legendary aviators of the time, took Orteig up on his offer, notes the History Channel. 

Lindbergh received backing for his historic flight from nine investors from St. Louis, said the Smithsonian, and as a token of appreciation he named his airplane the Spirit of St. Louis.

The journey across the Atlantic was physically and mentally taxing.

Lindbergh did not sleep for the entire duration of the flight, and he estimated that he went more than two full days without sleeping, said the History Channel website. 

“Lindbergh went so far as to buzz the surface of the ocean in the hope that the chilly sea spray would help keep him awake, but 24 hours into the journey, he became delirious from lack of rest,” said the site.

Additionally, Lindbergh kept the windows to his plane open for the entire trip, according to the Smithsonian website. 

The Spirit of St. Louis can be seen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. 

While keeping the windows open increased drag, Lindbergh hoped that the cold air would force him to stay awake for the duration of the flight.

During the flight, Lindbergh began hallucinating, seeing “fog islands” in the sea and describing “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane,” said the History Channel. 

These apparitions, Lindbergh said, “spoke to him and offered words of wisdom for his journey.” 

Lindbergh became an instant celebrity and national hero upon his safe arrival in France. He was nicknamed “Lucky Lindy” and the “Lone Eagle,” notes CharlesLindbergh.com. 

President Calvin Coolidge arranged for his transport back to the United States (by boat, not by plane) and he received a ticker-tape parade in New York City and the Congressional Medal of Honor, said the History Channel website. 

In the citation for his Medal of Honor, Lindbergh was commended “For displaying heroic courage and skill as a navigator, at the risk of his life, by his nonstop flight in his airplane, the ‘Spirit of St. Louis,’ from New York City to Paris, France, 20-21 May 1927, by which Capt. Lindbergh not only achieved the greatest individual triumph of any American citizen but demonstrated that travel across the ocean by aircraft was possible.”

Today, the Spirit of St. Louis can be seen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. 

Born in Detroit in 1902, Lindbergh began flying professionally at the age of 20 as a “barnstormer” — essentially a daredevil, said CharlesLindbergh.com. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1924, aiming to become an Army Air Service Reserve pilot.

At the time, the U.S. Air Force was not yet a separate branch of the military. 

Following his graduation from training in 1925, Lindbergh became a mail pilot. 

“The life of an aviator seemed to me ideal. It involved skill. It brought adventure. It made use of the latest developments of science. Mechanical engineers were fettered to factories and drafting boards while pilots have the freedom of wind with the expanse of sky. There were times in an airplane when it seemed I had escaped mortality to look down on earth like a God,” he said in 1927.

In 2023, a nonstop flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport lasts about seven hours and 30 minutes, said Air France’s website. 

The return flight is just a hair longer, coming in at just about eight hours.