In flying, I tasted the wine of the gods.
Charles Lindbergh hooked his leg over the right side of the cockpit and prepared to throw himself from his plane. Only a day earlier he'd fretted that his life had stalled, and now, as if to prove the point, his army-salvage DH-4 had run out of gas somewhere on the mail run between St. Louis and Chicago. It was the night of September 16, 1926: Overhead, the clear midwestern sky glinted with stars; below him, a fog bank obliterated all trace of the ground. He balanced for a second, then launched himself over the side.
Landing "blind" in a fog was suicide, the leading cause of death among airmail pilots. But parachute jumps were almost as dicey. If a parachutist failed to jump out far enough, he'd be caught by the plane's control wires and stabilizers. The wings hissing past at 100 miles per hour could slice through a man like a knife through cheese. Since 'chutes were often defective, a jumper could hit the earth at tremendous speed. The tall and lanky flier called "Slim" by his pals would have been remembered as a "twisted and horribly distorted thing."
He did not drop immediately. One of the strangest sensations discovered by a jumper was that, for the first few seconds, he slid through the air like a bird. The 100 mph impetus given to him by the hurtling ship shot him forward with it, facedown, hands and feet extended, about 30 feet beneath the wing of the plane. It was not an unpleasant sensation. The cold wind whistled past one's face; instead of a breathless descent, you cut through the air like a projectile.
Then gravity took over and Lindbergh dropped, turning somersaults for two or three seconds before pulling the ripcord.
He'd been through this before. The idea of floating to earth beneatha huge canopy of silk was not particularly new. Leonardo da Vinci first sketched out the possibility in one of his many notebooks; the idea of a "Fall Breaker" came to him in a dream. The first successful experiment occurred in 1779, when Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier loaded a sheep into a basket hung beneath a large parasol. They pushed it off a high tower, and though the sheep lived, it voiced its objections the entire way down. More often than not, barnstormers used parachutes for "stunts," and Slim's entry into aviation in May 1922 was as a wing walker and parachutist to draw paying crowds. This was his third jump to save his life: he'd ditched once in 1925, as an army flight cadet, then once earlier this year near St. Louis, when his controls had jammed. Yet he didn't like to jump, and was more likely than most pilots to stick with his plane as it went down.
The 'chute boomed above him. He jerked up in the harness, then swayed back and forth as the shrouds rustled overhead. He pulled out his flashlight and pointed it past his feet. He saw an endless quilt of fog covering the farmland somewhere north of Peoria.
Until this point, the summer had been uneventful. Barely a year out of army flight school, Lindbergh had been named chief pilot when the Robertson Aircraft Corporation inaugurated its St. Louis-Chicago airmail run on April 25, 1926. It was quite an honor for the twenty-four-year-old former barnstormer, and the most responsibility he'd ever had. The "CAM-2" route, with its unpredictable weather, was considered one of the most dangerous runs in the country, but the skies during the summer of 1926 had been clear. He flew five round trips a week, following railroad tracks, rivers, and, at night, the soft glowing lights of farm towns. He lived at the edge of Lambert Field, in a room rented from an airport mechanic; he cooked two meals a day, and for the first time in his short career as a flier, felt he had found a permanent home.
But permanence made him uneasy. When his mother, in Detroit, sent his weekly package of candy, cheese, and nuts, she sometimes included magazines filled with the exploits of other fliers. The mid-1920s had suddenly turned into the glory days of long-distance flying: in 1924 six army aviators flew 27,553 miles around the globe, the first to do so in an airplane; the Italian flier Francesco de Pinedo flew from Rome to Tokyo by way of Australia. In May, Lindbergh had read how navy commander Richard Byrd had been the first to fly over the North Pole; Lindbergh had applied to take part in Byrd's expedition, but was turneddown. He dreamed of flying to Alaska or entering the next long-distance race, wherever that might be. It seemed that another age of exploration was taking shape, like that of Columbus and Magellen, only this time in the air. And he was getting left behind.
This night's run had started as inauspiciously as others in this long, boring summer. He left Lambert Field at 5:55 p.m. and noted a light ground haze, though the skies were practically clear. Night arrived twenty-five miles north of Peoria, and with it came the fog. It rolled over the countryside, wiping out all features. By Maywood, which was Chicago's airmail field, the fog reached an altitude of 900 feet; the field crew set searchlights out and burned two barrels of gas, but Slim was still unable to find clear ground. He circled back, and his engine stopped at 8:20 p.m. He thought he had more gas, and did not learn till later that when a mechanic had repaired a leak, he'd switched the normal 110-gallon tank for an 85-gallon replacement without telling anyone. Lindbergh switched to his reserve tank and released a parachute flare, but this, too, was swallowed by the fog. He climbed to 5,000 feet. At 8:40 p.m. the reserve tank died.
Lindbergh went over the side and pulled the ripcord; he swayed in his harness, watching the fog approach below. Though this was his first night jump, everything initially seemed "like pie." But as he sank into the clouds, things turned strange. All of a sudden, he heard the burbling engine of his abandoned plane. He'd neglected to cut the switches when he bailed out, thinking all the gas was depleted. Instead, the DH-4's nose dipped down and the last cupfuls of gas had evidently trickled into the motor. Lindbergh and his plane were spiraling to earth at the same level and at the same rate of speed.
Then he saw her, apparently coming for him out of the fog. The fabric wings, painted silver, caught light from the stars; the maroon fuselage looked black in the night, U.S. AIR MAIL painted in big white letters on the side. She flew as straight as if a phantom pilot sat at the controls. He grabbed the risers of his parachute, ready to swing the 'chute aside.
But the plane passed harmlessly about a hundred yards away.
Then she returned. Slim realized he was on the outside of the spiral, and each time the plane came back, she was a little farther away. The plane returned five times: he listened as the engine grew faint, then loud, until once again her slow, steady bulk reappeared at his level. She was like some poor lost pet that couldn't give him up and kept searching for him.
He sank deeper into the fog. It was cold in the cloudbank, and he felt the chill through his heavy flight suit. He reached again for his flashlight, but realized he had dropped it in the excitement when the plane first appeared. All sound was hushed; the ground rushed up, but he could not judge how far away it was. The DH-4 passed once more, but too far away this time for him to see. He held his feet together so he wouldn't straddle some farmer's wall or barbed-wire fence, and covered his face with his hands. Shrouded in white between heaven and earth, Lindbergh waited in silence to land.
Nine hundred fifty-five miles to the east, New York's typical hot and humid summer had proved anything but boring. Summers in the city were always murder, but this year an inexplicable unrest had developed that no one could quite explain. Social commentators dubbed it the "American nervousness," but something more basic was going on. Perhaps, they theorized, six years of Prohibition had taken their toll.
If people weren't dying for a drink, they were dying in unexpected ways. In June three policemen were murdered. The first officer was shot to death in a holdup; the second, during a traffic stop in Brooklyn. The third killing occured, amazingly, while a detective was booking a car thief at police headquarters in the Tombs. In mid-August Rodolfo Alfonso Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla, known to the world as Rudolph Valentino, checked into Polyclinic Hospital for severe stomach pains. Surgeons removed an inflamed appendix and closed two perforated gastric ulcers, and the thirty-one-year-old screen icon seemed on the mend. But then he developed peritonitis and slipped into a coma. Worried fans gathered on the sidewalk outside the hospital. On August 23, Valentino seemed to rally; his eyes fluttered and he gazed at the head of United Artists, seated by his bed. "Don't worry, chief, I'll be all right," Valentino promised. Then he died.
Maybe Mayor James J. Walker should have predicted what followed. The dapper, flamboyant face of Tammany Hall, the political machine that ran New York and its five boroughs, "Beau James" had an innate sense of the public mood. He could feel its pulse in his sleep, he said. New York loved its characters, and he was happy to meet the demand. Rather than spend his days behind a desk, Walker held court at the Central Park Casino, the supper club whose entrance fee was $22,000.It was there he wined and dined his mistress, Betty Compton, who'd appeared on Broadway with Fred Astaire. Before politics Walker had been a songwriter: his biggest hit, "Will You Love Me in December (As You Do in May)?" To him, politics and entertainment weren't a far remove.
But who could have known? Valentino's death released a worldwide flood of mourning, and New York determined its style. Some Hawaiian fans may have set the standard for the most melodramatic response when they threw themselves into a live volcano, but in Manhattan, gestures like that of Mrs. Angelina Celestinaa twenty-year-old mother of two who drank iodine, shot herself twice, then collapsed on her pile of Valentino photos and magazineswere more common. New Yorkers believed in overkill. The next day, a riot broke outthe first celebrity-inspired riot in the city's historywhen Valentino's body was laid out in an ornate silver-bronze coffin displayed behind the huge plate-glass windows of mortician Frank E. Campbell's funeral home. Thirty thousand mourners lined the street. When they pressed against the window glass, it shattered, and mounted police charged the mob in an attempt to drive them away. Instead, the mourners rubbed soap on the street so the horses would slip and fall.
Two days later, on August 27, the city gave a lavish ticker tape parade. Gertrude Ederle, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of an Amsterdam Avenue butcher, had just swum the English Channel, which made her the first woman ever to do so. A teenage Olympian, Ederle had trained for the feat for most of the decade, and on August 6 swam from Cap Gris-Nez in France to Kingsdown in England in 14.5 hours, beating the times of some of the men who preceded her. She debarked from the Cunard liner Berengaria and was met by Walker's official greeter, the equally dapper Grover Whalen, who then squired her on the one-mile route on Lower Broadway dubbed "the Canyon of Heroes." It was the city's biggest ticker tape parade up to that pointbigger than the one in June for Commander Byrd and copilot Floyd Bennett after they conquered the North Pole. It was even bigger than the one in 1910 for Teddy Roosevelt, when he returned from his African safari; bigger than in 1919, when General Pershing and the troops returned home from the Great War. A blizzard of shredded stock market tape rained down on the young woman's head. In nervy times like these, people wanted a hero.
So when a thirty-two-year-old Frenchman marched into Walker's office and announced his plan to win the Orteig Prize, it was entirely within the spirit of that strange summer. The audacious visitor was, in fact, one of the world's most famous fliers: M. le Capitaine René Fonck, the Allies' "Ace of Aces" in the Great War. With seventy-five official German kills to his credit, Fonck was the youngest-ever officer of the Legion of Honor, the "D'Artagnan of the Air." Known as the "Unpuncturable," sinceif he was to be believedonly one bullet had ever pierced his plane, Fonck portrayed himself as an instrument of ruthless precision, expending the least ammo necessary to make a kill. "I put my bullets into a target as if by hand," he bragged.
"One must be in constant training," he once told his admirers, "always fit, always sure of oneself, always in perfect health. Muscles must be in good condition, nerves in perfect equilibrium, all the organs exercising naturally." Preparing for battle was like preparing for a prize fighthe did a series of sit-ups before entering the cockpit, did not carouse the night before battle, and was perceived as a show-off by fellow aviators. But he had a point. Aerial encounters often took place at altitudes of 20,000 to 25,000 feet, and such heights tested the healthiest of men. "Alcohol becomes an enemyeven wine. All abuses must be avoided. It is indispensable that one goes to a combat without fatigue, without any disquietude, either physical or mental."
"Constantly I watch myself," Fonck said.
He watched himself that day. He wore a dark, double-breasted suitnot the army uniform most photographs captured him in, the chest draped with the more than fifty palms, medals, and citations awarded by the grateful governments of Belgium, England, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. He spoke in quick bursts, "and it is doubtful if he could talk at all were his hands tied," a writer observed. He was a short man, about the same height as Walker, and the showboat mayor knew that short people tried harder. Fonck sported a short, stiff moustache like that of Chaplin's tramp and the confident, jaunty stride of a college quarterback. He smiled easily at Walker and remarked that he, too, had been a mayoran eight-day honorary term after the war in Saulcy-sur-Meurthe, his birthplace in the Vosges Mountains. Alas, said Fonck, the job had been too hard.
"I am surprised you didn't make a good mayor," Walker said, laughing. "A mayor is up in the air a good deal of the time."
Indeed, Fonck had prepared for this meeting as carefully as he'd once prepared for the dawn patrol. To succeed in a desperate endeavor, he wrote, one must condition both the mind and the machine. All that summer, he had lived alone in his room at the Hotel Roosevelt on Long Island, where he regularly took his meals. He spent his afternoons working at nearby Roosevelt Field. If he went out at all, it was to attend a movie, alone. He drank nothing but red wine with his meals; his one observable vice was his chain-smoking. The New Yorker, the Jazz Age's best source of local gossip, proclaimed him "the quietest celebrity ever to visit these shores."
His purpose was single-minded: the construction of a "beautifully proportioned ship," a "monstrous silver gull" designed to carry 13,840 pounds of fuel, cruise at 120 miles per hour, and climb more than 800 feet a minute. Only such a beast could traverse the Atlantic Ocean, he claimed. His Sikorsky S-35 was one of the biggest planes of its time, and it was designed solely for one purpose: to fly from New York to Paris without stopping, and win Raymond Orteig's $25,000 prize.
But let this be clear, Fonck declared. He was not doing it for the money. Or the glory. He was doing it for progress, to prove that "the science of aeronautics has progressed to the point where such a non-stop flight can be undertaken with virtual certainty of achievement." He was doing it for international relations. "[O]nce more, the American and French flags will be triumphant in a mutual venture for the glory of these two great liberty-loving republics."
It was a theme that would be repeated ad infinitum for the duration of the race, and Fonck created the mold. He was the first to portray the $25,000 quest as a great leap forward for scientific progress and peace, not an enormous boost for the winner's bank account. Those who knew Fonck besthis fellow pilots and partnershad their own opinions. But they held their tongues, at least initially.
In some ways, Fonck had done wonders before ever leaving the ground. No one else had seen that piloting skill, business acumen, and technical genius were the necessary components to succeed in what, tothat point, was considered impossible. There had been two previous transatlantic "hops," both in 1919, but neither flew nonstop over the same unforgiving span of ocean as required by the Orteig Prize. The first was made by a U.S. Navy seaplane in May of that year: four navy flying boats, or "Nancys," left Newfoundland, but only one made it to England, after sixteen days, multiple stops, and several repairs. The second hop occurred in June, when a war surplus Vickers Vimy bomber made the 1,800-mile trip from Newfoundland to Ireland in 16 hours and 2 minutes. The British pilots, Captain John "Jack" Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur "Teddy" Brown, were just one team out of many competing for a £10,000 prize by Lord Northcliffe, owner of both the Daily Mail and The Times. As Lord Northcliffe awarded them the check, he told the assembled newsmen that someday their papers would be published in the morning on Fleet Street and read that evening in Manhattan. The reporters laughed in disbelief and shook their heads.
But these flights were ancient history. The route from New York to Paris stretched approximately 3,600 miles, doubling the miles flown by Alcock and Brown. According to Fonck, the idea to make such a flight came to him in October 1925, when he attended the Pulitzer Trophy Air Races at Mitchel Field, an army air base running parallel to the civilian Roosevelt Field. Everyone seemed to be talking about Orteig's unattainable prize. Fonck had entertained the idea earlier, in France, but no one had taken him seriously; now he literally stumbled into a group considering the attempt right outside Manhattan. Igor Sikorsky, the Russian designer of large bombers, was designing a ship for a group called the Argonauts. When Fonck arrived, bedecked in ribbons and medals and suggesting they all join forces, the Americans swooned.
Fonck returned home on January 23, 1926, and for two months sought additional French backing for his shot at the prize. On March 24 he revealed his plans to the world. He would fly from Central Park in New York to rue du Bois-de-Boulogne in Paris in an American-made plane. The engines would be Frenchthree huge Gnome-Rhône Jupiter radial engines able to achieve 400 horsepower, which, he added, would be loaned to the Argonauts by the French government. French war minister Paul Painlevé, the first Frenchman to fly with Wilbur Wright, had promised the government's support, Fonck proclaimed. Though he hoped to take off as early as May, caution dictated that the date bepushed back to June or July. He anticipated that the flight would take about thirty-five hours.
Fonck's announcement stunned the flying world, and spurred a handful of French and American competitors. He was not, however, the first aviator to apply officially for the prize. In 1923 fellow French aces François Coli and Paul Tarascon had investigated a transatlantic flight, and in August 1925 the two formally applied. But their fund-raising hit roadblocks, and by 1926 Fonck was miles ahead. Lucien Bossoutrot, the world record holder for high-altitude flight, also announced his intent, though he never officially entered. In the United States, a lieutenant commander, Noel Davis of the U.S. Naval Reserve, and former barnstormer Clarence D. Chamberlin said that they had also sought funding.
Few paid them any mind. It was Fonck, Fonck, Fonck, from the moment he stepped off the liner in New York Harbor in early May. He visited Washington and asked Navy Secretary Curtis Wilbur for a list of naval aviators who might serve as his copilot. The applicant had "better be a good swimmer," he quipped. He planned to fly northeast from Long Island to Newfoundland, then east across the North Atlantic. The next land he'd see would be Cape Clear, in Ireland, followed by Cornwall, Cherbourg, and Paris. If he made it, he hoped to fly over Mount Everest in 1927. He reminded reporters again that he was not in it for the gloryhe was in it for mankind.
"Air transportation, bringing speed in communication between the nations of the world ... will be a paramount factor in establishing world peace," he declaimed.
All that summer, the plane took shape in her hangar at Roosevelt Field. Foreign workmen clung to her sides, speaking in Russian and French. Most were former military; many, expatriate Russians bearing titles that meant little after the Revolution. Each day, Fonck picked up the paper; each day, people he'd never met said they were going with him. They seemed to hope that if they spoke loudly enough, Fonck would be forced to listen, and to take them along.
Designed by Russian genius, built with American dollars, fueled by French élanFonck's silver gull was an international effort, the best the world could offer. They'd make it across with no problem. It was a sure thing.
At first the general public did not seem to care.
By 1926 Americans seemed oddly divided in their attitudes regarding airplanes. They could wax poetic about aviation's future in one breath, then state as common sense the "fact" that the technology would never touch their lives. The March 1926 Popular Science showed a flying car on its cover, its wings folded up to fit in the family garage. Yet for most Americans such dreams were not practicalnot like those other modern wonders, the telephone, the radio, or the Ford Model T. Flying was "wildcat stuff," the realm of death-defying stunts and war ace glamor. It was unnecessary and dangerous, even when evoked in the name of progress, as evidenced by the sobering loss of life in flying the cross-country mail. To the average American, flying seemed a daredevil dream played out by adventurers costumed in goggles, leather flying suits, and long, flowing scarves.
Despite their fabled inventiveness, Americans historically distrusted flight. In the United States, inventions had to be practical to catch fire. As early as 1784, a British visitor observed that "the people of America have a sayingthat God is Himself a mechanic ... and He is respected and admired more for the variety, ingenuity and utility of His handiwork than for the antiquity of His family." Yet this inventiveness had to be grounded in the everyday. "Those who cultivate the sciences amongst a democratic people are always afraid of losing their way in visionary speculation," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831. Even Thomas Jefferson, who did more to establish colonial science than anyone, distrusted aerial flights of fancy. In 1822, four years before his death, he discussed his reservations with a certain D. B. Lee, who had apparently proposed a "heavier-than-air machine." To fly "by macanacal [sic] means alone in a medium so rare and unassisting as air must have the aid of some principal not yet generally known," Jefferson predicted. He wished Lee success "with more good will than confidence."
Not everyone subscribed to such views. When Benjamin Franklin saw the Montgolfier brothers rise in a hot air balloon, he predicted that such experiments "may possibly give a new Turn to Human Affairs." War might be eliminated, he said, for where "is the Prince who can afford to so cover his Country with Troops for its Defense, as that Ten Thousand Men descending from the Clouds, might not in many Placesdo an infinite deal of Mischief, before a Force could be brought together to repel them?"
On the whole, however, the idea of a transatlantic flight remained an object of ridicule. An 1894 "Pass on the Trans-Atlantic Air Line Railway," by the Emigrant Publishing Company, pictured a steam locomotive crossing the ocean on a train track suspended from hot air balloons. New immigrants and smugglers were encouraged to ride, since they would bypass the "inquisitions and nuisances of the emigration commissioner and custom house officials." Passengers were asked not to spit tobacco out the windows "as ocean steamers may be passing below." As late as 1908, the Harvard astronomer William Pickering doubted whether "aeroplanes will ever cross the ocean, and despite the Wright success, they offer little menace to warfare. The public has greatly overestimated the possibilities of the aeroplane, imagining that in another generation they will be able to fly over to London in a day. This is manifestly impossible."
All this talk about making the world a smaller place did not hit home. Americans in the 1920s were not ready to become citizens of the world. The comfort of "withdrawing into one's private America" was rarely debated; the world was a dangerous place, filled with dictators, Bolsheviks, anarchists, and mad bombers. Most Americans believed that after they won the Great War for the Allies, the victorious troops brought home the Spanish influenzawhich killed 500,000 to 675,000 people in the United States and 50 to 100 million worldwide. This was a warning of the dangers of international involvement. It was safer to stay within their country's borders, a place they understood.
That spring and early summer, as Fonck's shining gull took shape, a curious lack of excitement hovered over the venture. Few stories appeared on the front pages; "briefs" about its progress were buried deep inside the scientific and transportation sections of The New York Times. A human factor was needed to make the story come alive.
Despite Fonck's assurances, the transatlantic quest still seemed a flight of fancy. The North Atlantic is one of the harshest places on earth, an environment of bleak winds and monstrous winter waves. In 1872 the Scottish town of Wick watched huge breakers carry off rock and concrete barriers weighing more than 1,350 tons. The world's highest tides are found in Canada's Bay of Fundy, where the water rises 50 feet in the spring. More ships lie buried beneath those waves than inany other ocean, their hulls split open by mountains of water, or picked up like toys and capsized.
The North Atlantic is also one of Nature's great battlegrounds, where warm air masses heading north crash into the polar air mass flowing in the opposite direction. The front of this atmospheric war zone stretches three thousand miles, from Canada's Cape Chidley to Norway's North Cape, an inhospitable expanse longer than the trenches of the Great War. The Norsemen, more intimate with the Atlantic than other ancient seafarers, foresaw the end of the world in her waves. According to Norse myth, Ragnarök, the apocalypse, would start with the relentless Fimbulwinter, a time when "snow drives from all quarters, the frosts are so severe, the winds so keen and piercing, that there is no joy in the sun."
Flying over those waves would immediately bring an aviator in conflict with these winds. Sea currents flow clockwise in the North Atlantic, driven by prevailing westerlies. This is the realm of the North American Gyre: The Gulf Stream moves north along the coast, turns toward Europe, flows south toward the equator, and then west toward Florida. The north edge of that circle has some of the world's most consistently turbulent weather. An airman would encounter huge anvils of cumuli blocking his path, loaded with rain, snow, ice, lightning, and hail. The high winds in those clouds were known to push aircraft backward in flight, giving them a negative ground speed.
Flying over the clouds was not an option either. Since the atmosphere grows less dense with height, an aviator could get the bends. He would fall prey to the crushing fatigue of diminished oxygen supply. Temperature dropped by one degree Fahrenheit for every 300 feet in altitude: in an open cockpit, he would freeze.
Then there was fog. The most fogbound region of the Atlantic is off Newfoundland's Grand Banks, where the cold Labrador Current meets the warm, northbound Gulf Stream. The spring and summer fogs are typically thick and unyielding. Ships and planes enter and disappear. As warm surface currents move in one direction, the cold North Atlantic Deep Water mass rushes beneath it at a depth of two thousand to four thousand meters, an automated conveyor belt working on a global scale.
What was the point of flying? The dangers were real by water, but at least on a ship one could face them in luxury. A traveler made the six-dayNew York-Liverpool run in a floating hotel, replete with dance halls, casinos, eight-course menus, and fully stocked bars, an added plus in Prohibition-era America. Although the Titanic disaster was still recent, Cunard liners such as the Mauretania made steady profits. There was something reassuring about a ship, its officers and crew decked out in uniform, centuries of sea lore anchoring each action. Aviators, on the other hand, acted like big kids in a secret club. They spoke in strange tongues of slipstreams, Immelmanns, dead sticks, and aspect ratios. They wore jodphurs, as if ready to jump on a horse and gallop away.
Yet the dream of flying the Atlantic had persisted for nearly a hundred years. In 1836 the British balloonist Charles Green proposed floating across the ocean, but no financial backers took him seriously. Seven years later, America's premier nineteenth-century balloonist, John Wise, proposed riding the west winds to Europe, then around the world. If it rose high enough, he said, a balloon would hitch a ride on a giant river of airone of the earliest references to stratospheric "jet streams." Congress ignored his $15,000 petition.
From 1840 to 1900 not a decade passed without a proposed crossing, but all to no avail. The first transatlantic flight to be reported as fact was by balloon, but this turned out to be no more than a fraud. On April 13, 1844, The New York Daily Sun led with the headline "ASTOUNDING NEWS!!," then described the crossing of aeronaut Monck Mason and seven crewmen. Their trip from Britain to Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, was said to have taken seventy-five hours aboard the "steering Balloon" Victoria, and even the Sun's editors were fooled. Yet no Victoria existed, and no Monck Mason. The story was instead a convincing hoax written by the young and still unknown Edgar Allan Poe.
Tales of the fantastic attached themselves to the Atlantic like lampreys. First mentioned in Herodotus's Histories as the "sea of Atlas," the Atlantic was the home of Atlantis, nine rings of land surrounded by another nine of water. The ocean's average depth is two and a half miles: from these depths, bizarre life forms emerge. In 1938 fishermen caught the coelacanth, a plated prehistoric fish thought extinct for sixty million years. Storms off the Grand Banks have disgorged the legendary giant squid. There have been human mysteries, too. In December 1872 the 282-ton brigantine Mary Celeste was found sailing off the coast of Gibraltar, her crew of seven, captain, his wife, and daughter gone. They'd simply disappeared.
Tales of the first transatlantic voyage had a similar phantasmal ring. Between A.D. 512 and 530, St. Brendan of Clonfert sailed from Ardfert, in Ireland, with fourteen to sixty other pilgrims in search of the Garden of Eden. For seven years he encountered the world's wonders and horrors: Judas frozen on one side of his body, afire on the other; people with the heads of swine and the teeth of wolves; an enormous fish that encircled their boat by holding its tail in its mouth.
Yet Brendan's most enduring legend was that of the phantom isle. Rumored to lie west of the Canary Islands, San Borondón, the "Isle of the Blessed," appeared on numerous maps and served as one of the mysteries spurring Christopher Columbus to head west into the unknown. Though it hid behind a wall of mist, thousands swore they'd seen it. St. Brendan said he landed there in A.D. 512 and lingered fifteen days. When he returned to his flagship, he discovered that he'd entered some kind of time warp and had been missing for a year. The monk Barino claimed that when he visited this paradise, trees bore rich fruit and rivers ran with sweet water. Columbus searched for the island, without luck. In his ship's diary of August 9, 1492, he wrote of receiving "the assurance of many respectable Castilian inhabitants of the island of El Hierro ... that every year they saw land to the west." Witnesses said the island appeared at dawn and sunset, when they watched the sun set behind it. Sailors called it the "Insubstantial" and the "Inaccessible." The moment it was glimpsed, it would disappear in a fogbank or be swallowed by a storm.
Like most Atlantic phantoms, it seemed within reach until the very last momentwhen it slipped away.
A good meal changes everything. The French, who turned the act of eating into something sacred, said one must "rise above the table." At that moment, one's vision expanded. The walls melted away.
One spring night in 1919, a short, bald, and risible Frenchman rose above the table in ways he could not at first comprehend. Raymond Orteig co-owned two Manhattan fixtures: the hotels Brevoort and Lafayette. His partner, Elie Daution, ran the Brevoort, known even during Prohibition for its excellent wine cellar, while Orteig managed the Lafayette, located in Greenwich Village at University Place and Ninth Street. Considered an authentic bit of France transplanted to America,the Lafayette, originally the Hotel Martin, featured marble-topped tables, space for its elderly dominoes players, exquisite French cuisine, and a sidewalk café. The list of notables passing through its doors reads like a crash course in the city's history: Mark Twain, Lillian Russell, Jay Gould, Anna Held. During the Great War, the two hotels became headquarters for French officials visiting New York, many of them army officers and aviators. The excitement of his hotels lifted Orteig's spirit at the same time that it filled his rooms. But now he missed the young French and Allied airmen, and pined for their tales of individual combat in the skies above the no-man's-land.
Like many immigrants, Raymond Orteig was stuck between two worlds. Born in the shadow of the Pyrenees to a family of shepherds, he came to the United States at the age of twelve when his grandmother told him, "See what you can do." It was 1882, America's "Gilded Age," and Orteig arrived in Manhattan with thirteen francs sewn in his clothes. He landed a job as a bar porter that paid two dollars per week; by 1897 he was headwaiter at the old Hotel Martin's café, and five years later he had bought both the café and hotel and renamed it the Lafayette, in honor of his native land.
The Lafayette and Orteig would be society fixtures for the next forty years. Yet in 1919 the hotelier still did not feel accepted by his peers. The best hotels in America were found in New York City, and their owners belonged to the Tavern Club, "the most exclusive and powerful hotel men's club in the USA," they liked to say. The members hailed from Germanic and Anglo-Saxon stock, with names such as Quinn, Bowman, Baumann, Biggs, and Muschenheim. No French, Italian, or Latin hoteliers filled the early rolls. Such exclusion seems to have burrowed under Orteig's skin.
On May 21, 1919, the Aero Club of America hosted a banquet at the Lafayette for the top American air ace Eddie Rickenbacker. The night was filled with speeches and fine French cuisine. There was talk of the flying season in Newfoundland, where the four navy seaplanes had departed on their voyage five days earlier, and a host of rivals, including Alcock and Brown, prepared their planes in hopes of winning Lord Northcliffe's £10,000 prize. The long and lean Rickenbacker spoke of his nostalgia for the Franco-American friendship that had existed between the wartime fliers, a chivalric "brotherhood of the air." Longing filled his voice, a feeling Orteig recognized. There would be a day, the acepredicted, when airplanes would link the two nationsnot in war, but in peace, by means of regular commercial flights winging over the sea.
Orteig was inspired. He joined the Aero Club that night, then the next morning composed the note that started it all. "Gentlemen," he wrote, "As a stimulus for the courageous aviators, I desire to offer through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any allied country crossing the Atlantic, in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care."
He could not foresee the consequences. At first the check lay in limbo, and for five years there were no serious takers. No airplane engine then built could endure the stress of a nonstop flight across the sea. When the prize expired in May 1924, Orteig, egged on by a French newspaper, renewed it without a time limit. The sum was placed in the hands of seven trustees, and the law firm of Delafield, Thorne and Burleigh served as counsel. The Bryant Park Bank, at 220 West Forty-second Street, stored the money in its vault; the National Aeronautic Association, on H Street in Washington, D.C., finalized and administered the rules. They handled all queriesfrom whether landing gear could be dropped in flight to save weight to the means by which a pilot raised funds.
At the time of its renewal, Orteig's $25,000 prize was worth about $305,000 in 2010 dollars. He could not know that several people would die in its quest, or that gods would be made of the young fliers competing for his prize. He was not aware that his rashness could have been his ruin. Only later did he learn that, when he made the original offer, the $25,000 represented about one-eighth his personal fortune and most of his liquid funds. His enthusiasm placed him at financial risk had there been an emergency.
Not everyone remembered the "war to end all wars" as fondly as Orteig or Eddie Rickenbacker. The two nations whose hopes would be most tied up in Orteig's prize could not have fared more differently. In France, the Great War was a catastrophe. Nearly 1.7 million of her citizens died, or roughly 4.29 percent of the total population. The war decimated an entire generation and caused untold millions in property damage. Shielded by the Atlantic, the United States suffered a fraction of this117,465 deaths, or 0.13 percent of its population. In fact, in many ways the United States actually benefitted from the war. It stimulated the economy, increased employment and wages, and brought huge profits to industry. Before World War I, England had been the world's greatest creditor nation, providing global insurance and shipping nearly everywhere. But the costs of war would be so great that England consumed all her credit and became heavily indebted to the United States to survive. Within four short years, the financial center of the world shifted from London to New York. The United States emerged from the war as both the greatest economic power on earth and the world's main creditor.
There was a European backlash against America's sudden rise on the world stageand nowhere more so than in France, the center of ruin. The conflict had not been the time-honored clash of man versus man, but an unholy nightmare of man versus the Machine: the Machine, which knew no honor, and had transformed the battlefield into a scorched wasteland. New and soulless ways of killing had come into being. The machine gun fired up to 600 bullets a minute, the equivalent of 250 rifle-bearing men; massive 8.4-inch cannons known as "Big Berthas" were able to fire projectiles 76 or more miles. There were flamethrowers and U-boats; tanks capable of carrying a crew of 8 while firing 208 shells and 13,000 bullets. There was green chlorine gas, first used in the Battle of Ypres, which swept through the trenches and soon exhausted each soldier's five-minute supply of oxygen in his gas mask.
Men were not replaceable, but should a metal juggernaut be destroyed in battle, another could soon roll forth from the assembly line. And no other nation had more avidly or efficiently embraced mass production in the new century than the United States of America. In model year 1909/1910, Henry Ford rolled 18,664 Model Ts from his Detroit plants; by 1920/1921, that number swelled to 1.25 million. No other nation erected skyscrapers with such alacrity: the forty-one-story Singer Building, built in 1908; the fifty-story Metropolitan Tower; the sixty-story Woolworth Building in 1913. They were the new cathedrals.
Such veneration of the assembly line and large-scale industrialization led many French observers to see America as the personification of The Machine. "This devouring civilization," philosopher Georges Duhamel christened postwar America. "As yet, no nation has thrown itself into the excesses of industrial civilization more deliberately" than theUnited States, he claimed. Across the ocean from France lay the dark continent of technology, driven by the ironclad logic of mass production. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, with his famous observation of America's genius for invention, could not have predicted what the young nation would accomplish in so short a time.
Americans themselves seemed slow to notice, but by the 1920s some native critics began describing the new gods, which seemed to spring from a machine aesthetic. They were, as Lewis Mumford wrote, "Clean, devoid of archaic ornaments, polished, efficient, carefully adapted to every human need." Success, said social critic Waldo Frank, was "an exercise of power visible to the world. If some one else can't see it, it is not success." The Machine was the symbol of that success and a form of self-adulation, the "creature of [one's] need." Like the family car, "its body of surfaces must shine, as if it were the body of the beloved."
One machine sailed above all others: the airplane.
On the surface, this seemed strange. The airplane, like the tank and U-boat, had been used as a killing machine in the war. Yet some human element remained. The combat "dogfights" of the English, French, German, and American pilots became romanticized. The popular press lionized pilots of all nations, feeding a frenzy that mutated quickly from the "cult of the aviator" to the "cult of the ace." In a war seen as an apocalyptic confrontation of men and machines, the immediate recognition of the individual flier lifted him above the mud-soaked trench soldier. Aces such as Manfred von Richthofen, René Fonck, Georges Guynemer, Eddie Rickenbacker, Billy Bishop, Charles Nungesser, and Frank Luke were front-page fodder. French tabloids kept daily records of the aces' "kills." A German newspaper published the letter that ace Kurt Wissemann sent to his mother in which he claimed to have shot down the top French ace Georges Guynemer. National Geographic published a long article on the fliers and their combat styles. While mentioning their skill and ruthlessness, the writers especially dwelt upon their chivalry, comparing them to warriors of a pre-machine age. They became something greater than soldiers; they became "knights of the air."
With the war, we see a change in the public's perception of all fliers, and not just aces. No longer was the aviator an oddball or a dangerously obsessed inventor, a rich man playing with an expensive toy. As early as 1914, in a series of quickly mimicked adventure books christened The Aeroplane Boys, the flier was set apart, a protohuman of extraordinaryskill and nerve. Aviators must be athletes, something Fonck had voiced: "[T]heir very lives," observed one character, "may depend upon instantaneous action and speedy thought that springs from intuition." A 1916 ad for the Wright Flying School proclaimed, "Red-blooded, sturdy manhood has become imbued with the spirit of flight. The world has its eye on the flying manand woman ... A Fall or Winter vacation at a flying school will increase the red corpuscles and make you over into a new beinga superman in physique as well as fact."
Suddenly, more than ever, the act of flying was portrayed as something unique in human history. There was a sense of freedom, a mystical bond between man and machine. "The stars at night," observed one character in the 1913 The Flying Machine Boys, "seem clearer, larger, brighter, than when seen through the heavy atmosphere which surrounds the lower levels of the air."
As the flier's image changed, so did his importance to his nation. In the immediate postwar years, breaking world records and, increasingly, the idea of flying the Atlantic would become the badge of a country's greatnessor at least its potential. The European powers were exhausteddrained of capital, of an entire generation of men. America was content to stay within her shores. The most comforting view was of the future, not of the past or present. Progress in aviation was the yardstick of modernity; the rush to conquer the unconquerable signaled what a nation could someday be.
No nation took this idea more to heart than Orteig's homeland. "Air-mindedness" became a profession of faith in the nation's future; it served as a kind of litmus test for the Gallic soul. The French invented human flight in 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers went aloft in a hot air balloon; eleven years later the nation was the first to use flight in warfare, one more manifestation of its strong tradition of allying technology with the military. Aviation resonated with the public in a special way. By the mid-nineteenth century, the balloon as an icon of science and freedom fired the nation's imagination; by the turn of the century, the airplane had taken its place.
The French were ahead of their time in aviation and aeronautics, more so even than the Americans. By 1912 French engineers had already envisioned rocket- and ramjet-powered propulsion systems, producingdesigns for aircraft and engines that would not appear for another forty years. The language of flyingwords such as fuselage, aileron, nacelle, hangar, and chandellewas French. Even the basic identity itself: aviation and aviator. France could boast of the dirigible flights of Brazilian expatriate Alberto Santos-Dumont, the glider trials of Ferdinand Ferber, and Blériot's crossing of the English Channel. French enthusiasts worked continuously on "product improvement," refining their theories of aerodynamics and aircraft design. During the Great War, every Allied nation either flew some French aircraft or a plane that incorporated French parts and design.
More than in any other nation, aviation had become part of the French national identity. Even before the war, citizens read and heard that they were the "winged nation," the people best suited for locomotion through the air. Flying required dash, valor, imagination, subtlety, a sense of adventure, and élanall French qualities. In 1914 a prominent novelist claimed that, as heirs to classical antiquity, the French must avenge Icarus's fall. If France was the world's "most refined and intellectual nation," and flight was the apex of civilization, this meant that every Frenchman had aviation in his blood.
So why, people wondered, were the French not the first to go aloft in a motorized plane? How had the Wright brothers beaten them on December 17, 1903? No one asked this more than the French themselves. Perhaps by making the first nonstop, 3,600-mile flight across the Atlantica flight that many still thought impossibleFrance would prove to the world, and to herself, that she was still the premier "winged nation."
For all this, a visitor to the United States in 1918 could not have known that fifteen years earlier, two American bicycle shop owners had invented the airplane. At the outbreak of the war, the United States possessed a mere 2.5 percent of the world's military aircraft. Before 1914 Europeans had built ten wind tunnels for testing and design, while the United States had built only twoone of those of European design. In 1917 Theodore Roosevelt complained that the United States did not have "a single machine competent to fight the war machines of our enemies," a statement of prophetic poignancy since, in 1918, his youngest son, Quentin, would be shot down in a dogfight over German lines. By Armistice Day, the U.S. Army and Navy had nearly fourteen thousand American-made planes in service, but most were obsolete trainers that would soon be offered for sale.
After the war, aircraft production flagged. The military auctioned its surplus, selling the ubiquitous Curtiss JN-4, or "Jenny," models for $1,500 or less. Unflown Curtiss "Speed Scouts," still packed in their crates with new Gnome engines, went for $2,000. Such easy availability created a new class of aviator, the nomadic and death-defying "barnstormers."
Some commercial interest did take shape, though usually as contracts for the airmail. But companies often operated on a shoestring. Government airmail flights began in May 1918; the following April, the U.S. Post Office Department called for ten specialized planes, each able to carry 1,500 to 3,000 pounds of mail. In 1920 the government announced plans for transcontinental service and called for bids on a number of routes; five years later it planned for night delivery. By 1926 a line of beacons stretched from New York City to Salt Lake City, Utah.
The military also began to realize the importance of aviation in any future warfare. In 1921 Billy Mitchell's all-American-built bombers sank the captured German warship Ostfriesland. In 1924 army aviators flew around the world via the coasts and short island hops using Douglas biplanes. In 1925 army aviator Jimmy Doolittle won the prestigious Schneider Trophy in a Curtiss racer, the first time an American pilot, flying an American plane, had won the important international cup since 1909.
A curious tunnel vision had developed in both French and American aviators. While the French could not forget that the United States had invented powered flight, Americans, especially military fliers, resented what they saw as France's "air ascendancy." After the war French aces held more world records than any other group of fliers on earth. The one-eyed François Coli completed the first circle of the Mediterranean in twenty-four hours. Coli and his one-legged partner, Paul Tarascon, flew successfully from Paris to Casablanca in record time. In the summer of 1925, French aces Maurice Drouhin and Jules Landry set the world record for nonstop flight at 2,734 miles. Some of the world's greatest airplane manufacturers were French: Blériot, Farman, Hanriot, Levasseur, and Nieuport-Delage. In 1926 the French government set aside 860,000 francs for bonuses to French aviators who set and retained world records. The funds were awarded only if their aircraft were entirely of French manufacture and design; premiums were even greater for seaplane records, since, in this sphere, the nation had fallen behind.No other Western nation offered such incentives. France was already the world leader in flight: with such public support, she could remain ahead for decades.
And now René Fonck, the French ace of aces, arrived on the scene, confidently claiming he would be the first to cross the ocean and claim Orteig's prize. Almost as soon as Fonck stepped off the liner, the hotelier hosted a dinner for him at the Lafayette Hotel.
Fonck's words that night echoed the lofty sentiments that had led Orteig to sponsor his prize seven years earlier. "I am not out for the money," the famous ace declared. "I want to see the bonds between France and America, forged by Lafayette, strengthened ... I will give the money, when I win it, to the men who built the plane."
Not if he won, but when. Orteig was charmed. As an afterthought, Fonck added that the plane would not have floats or pontoons for landing in water.
"It is either fly or sink," he said.
Copyright © 2012 by Joe Jackson