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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Charles Lindbergh and the Orteig Prize

Eighty-two years ago today, in the early morning hours of May 20, 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field in Garden City, Long Island, and headed east. Thirty-three and a half hours later, he touched down at Le Bourget airport in Paris, making Lindbergh the first aviator to successfully fly nonstop from New York to Paris and the winner of the $25,000 Orteig Prize.

The Orteig Prize was sponsored by hotelier Raymond Orteig who owned the Lafayette and Brevoort Hotels in Manhattan. Orteig, hoping to boost Franco-American relations, first offered the prize to complete a transatlantic flight in 1919. When no one had made an attempt in five years, Orteig extended the competition and by 1926 it had begun drawing serious competitors. However, the hazards of aviation meant that by the time Lindbergh began his historic flight, six of his fellow competitors had died.

Lindbergh's flight in the Spirit of St. Louis began on May 20 at 7:52 a.m. with his ground crew pushing the heavy plane down the muddy runway. The plane carried 450 gallons of fuel but Lindbergh had removed as much as possible from the plane, including his sextant--meaning that Lindbergh would have to fly by the stars (if they were visible) or dead reckoning. Lindbergh dodged bad weather across the Atlantic (sometimes flying as low as twelve feet above the waves) and reached Le Bourget at 10:22 p.m. on May 21st where he was mobbed by a crowd of eager well-wishers.

Upon his return (by steamship) to America, Lindbergh was feted in Washington, D.C., before heading to New York. On June 13th, the aviator was honored with a tickertape parade on Lower Broadway. Three days later, he collected the Orteig Prize at a breakfast at the Breevort Hotel with Orville Wright in attendance. (The Breevort Hotel was demolished in 1953 to be replaced by the Brevoort apartments.)

The successful flight spurred tremendous interest in aviation and Lindbergh became America's most visible spokesman for commerical flight.

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Much more about New York in the Roaring Twenties can be found in Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, available now.

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