By Leo Wilson
On May 10, 1927, a young man left his Bankers Hill apartment and traveled to the nearby dirt airfield at Dutch Flats.
He then stepped into a newly built, fabric-covered, single-engine and single-seat airplane before taking off on a flight to St. Louis and New York City — then across the Atlantic Ocean in a harrowing 34-hour flight to Paris, France.
The pilot’s name was Charles Lindbergh, and much of the world was transfixed on whether he would survive and complete the flight. When Lindberg prevailed, he became the first person to fly nonstop from New York City to Paris.
The impetus for Lindbergh’s historic flight was hotel magnate Raymond Orteig’s offer to pay $25,000 to the first aviator to successfully undertake the uninterrupted intercontinental flight. This was a very large sum of money at the time. However, when Orteig originally made the offer in 1919, it did not attract any takers, as the trans-Atlantic flight was considered too dangerous. When Orteig renewed his offer in 1924, several experienced aviators decided to attempt the flight. Unfortunately, many died or were injured in preparing for the flight; two French aviators who attempted the mission disappeared and were never heard from again.
Initially, Lindbergh was not considered as a major contender to make the flight. He was only 25 years old and was employed as an airmail pilot. Lindbergh had, however, attended Army flight school, graduating near the top of his class. Although he was made a second lieutenant, he never became an active military pilot, taking the reserve corps route instead. Despite any perceived limitations, Lindbergh decided he would attempt the flight, and was able to obtain financial backers in the city of St. Louis; in return he named his airplane the “Spirit of St. Louis.”
Lindbergh turned to a small San Diego airline manufacturer, Ryan Aeronautical Company, to build the Spirit of St. Louis. The cost to build the airplane, including its engine, was about $10,550. Lindbergh played a major role in designing the airplane.
When Lindbergh arrived in San Diego, he found that Ryan Aeronautical Company was located in a dilapidated building with “no flying field, no hangar, no sound of engines warming up; and the unmistakable smell of dead fish from a near-by-cannery [mixed] with the banana odor of dope from drying wings.” However, Lindbergh immediately developed an excellent working relationship with the Ryan Aeronautical Company owner and his workers. Lindbergh enjoyed helping design the airplane from scratch, and the Ryan workers greatly respected Lindbergh. They worked around the clock to complete the plane as quickly as possible and the Spirit of St. Louis was completed in just 60 days.
Lindbergh made some unusual design requests, such as having the cockpit placed behind the gas tank. When questions arose about how this would impair his front vision, a Ryan employee, who had been a submariner, suggested a periscope. Lindbergh readily agreed. The close working partnership between Lindbergh and the Ryan Aeronautical Company likely contributed to the success of the flight.
While living in San Diego, Lindbergh initially stayed at the U.S. Grant Hotel. However, he subsequently ended up at the Palomar Apartments, located at Sixth Avenue and Maple Street — only a few blocks east of where aviator Waldo Waterman made his famous glider flight in 1909. The Palomar Apartments were built in 1913, designed by prominent San Diego architects Frank Mead and Richard Requa. The building is considered one of those architects’ premier works, and reflects Requa’s early use of Moorish-style architecture.
On May 7, 1927, three days prior to beginning his flight, Lindbergh wrote a letter on Palomar Apartments stationary stating he was delayed in taking off because of bad weather. Once the weather cleared, Lindbergh left Dutch Flats on May 10. Ten days later, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field in New York City for Paris. Another experienced pilot, Richard Byrd, commented that he thought Lindbergh had a 1-in-3 chance of making it to Paris. Others thought his flight was foolhardy and even suicidal.
The press was infatuated with Lindbergh and published a massive amount of information about him. As a result, millions of people worldwide were riveted in suspense for the duration of the 34-hour flight.
Today it may be difficult to realize how transfixed much of the world was on Lindbergh’s fate during his flight. During a boxing match at Yankee Stadium where 40,000 fans were present, the announcer reported — with no basis — Lindbergh was at sea and was well; the fans went wild, “refusing to be silenced.”
As Lindbergh’s biographer A. Scott Berg noted, “Everyone had a stake in Lindbergh. On May 20, 1927 — as night fell — modern man realized nobody had ever subjected himself to so extreme a test of human courage and capability as Lindbergh … Practically everybody who lived in America through Lindbergh’s flight would remember his or her precise feelings that first night.”
Finally, reports of sightings of the Spirit of St. Louis began coming in from ships offshore near Europe. Then — almost 34 hours after leaving New York City —Lindbergh landed the plane at Le Bourget airport in Paris.
To his shock, once on the ground he looked out his window and saw a jubilant crowd estimated at 150,000 people. They pulled him from his airplane and carried him on their shoulders; soldiers and police eventually were able to intervene and get him safely into an airport building.
Once inside, Lindbergh naively asked about passing through customs and immigration; French officials responded with laughter. Lindbergh was now a hero and would receive worldwide praise and accolades.
A few weeks later, he received a letter and photographs from his former neighbors in the Palomar Apartments in Bankers Hill, dated June 1, 2027.
“The Palomar family has felt a great deal of pride in all the wonderful things you have accomplished in the year since these pictures were taken and they join me in all good wishes for the future,” the letter stated.
Today a miniature replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, and a plaque commemorating Lindbergh, hang in the atrium of the Palomar Apartments. Full-size replicas of the Spirit of St. Louis exist in both the San Diego Air & Space Museum and at San Diego International Airport, also known as Lindbergh Field. The Medal of Honor awarded by President Calvin Coolidge to Lindbergh on March 21, 1927, also is on display at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
— Leo Wilson is administrator for Metro San Diego CDC and is a Bankers Hill resident.