Charles Lindberg lands in Paris - heralds new era of air travel

Week IV

If Capt J Alcock and Lieut AW Brown were shy public speakers almost to the point of being self-deprecating about their extraordinary achievement of flying the Atlantic in, what we would consider to be, a primitive machine, the next to fly the Atlantic was the polar opposite.

On May 20 1927, eight years after the Alcock and Brown flight, a young 25 years-old pilot went from obscurity as a US air mail pilot to instantaneous world fame. He flew non-stop from Long Island to Paris in a special plane which he helped design with the Ryan Aeronautical Co of San Diego, which he christened the inspirationally named: The Spirit of St Louis. Advising Paris that he was on his way, a hundred-thousand Parisians greeted his arrival at Le Bourget with cheers. He had flown 3,600 miles in 33 and a half hours. His youth, his late teen-age years spent as a flying circus dare-devil, his natural skills as a pilot, and blessed with all the charisma of a Hollywood star, brought Lindberg extraordinary honours and world-wide acclaim.

Back in the States, President Calvin Coolidge presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honour. He went on a countrywide tour where he was honoured with speeches, celebrations and parades. The use of airmail exploded overnight. The public began to view aeroplanes as a viable means of travel.

Lindberg became adviser to the emerging Pan American Airways, and Transcontinental Air Transport. He was commissioned to survey appropriate landing sites in Europe, which would have enormous impact on Ireland’s mid west with his recommendations that Foynes on the Shannon estuary was ideal for sea-plane traffic, while the large marsh-land site at Rineanna was equally ideal for the new aircraft then being designed. Lindberg always generously acknowledged that Alcock and Brown had shown the way for intercontinental travel.

Wopsie and Kiddo.

For a time people believed that an engine driven rigid airship, filled with hydrogen gas, with its crew in a gondola, fastened onto its belly, was the future of long distance travel. These gigantic balloons first made their appearance in World War I, were mainly used for observation; but after the war they were developed to such an extent that some actually crossed the Atlantic. Incredible as it may seem, barely a month after Alcock and Brown’s achievement, the British airship R34, commanded by Major George Scott, made the first double crossing of the Atlantic. Because of US navy observers on board, William Ballantyne, one of the crew members scheduled to stay behind to save weight, stowed away with the crew’s mascot, a small tabby kitten called ‘Wopsie’.

Remarkably the airship left Britain July 2 1919, and arrived at Long Island 108 hours later. It caused a sensation. But as no landing party had any experience of handling a large airship, Major E M Pritchard jumped by parachute to organise its tying up. Pritchard became the first person to reach American soil by air from Europe. The return journey took place seven days later, and was at the mercy of storm winds. It ended up in Yorkshire. The crew luckily managed to land unhurt.

Nine years before the R34, American Walter Wellman set out for Europe on his airship, from Atlantic City on October 15 1910, with a crew of six and a cat called ‘Kiddo’ (I am not quite sure why so many cats got to fly in these early balloons ). Again its engine was no match for the wind, and caused wild panic on the ground and at sea as Wellman’s airship swooped and dived. Yet it achieved a record breaking time in the air of 72 hours. The crew and cat eventually managed to lower their lifeboat safely into the sea. Their airship simply blew away.

End of an era

The Zeppelin built Hindenburg was considered at the time to be the ultimate in safety. In 1936 it sensationally passed low over the Olympic stadium at Berlin, copper fastening Germany’s superiority in this engineering masterpiece. Designed and built for commercial transatlantic passengers, air freight and mail service, the Hindenburg offered a three-day crossing to New Jersey in luxury and extreme comfort. More than 800ft in length she cruised at a leisurely 78mph.

That year, 1936, it made 17 round trips to America and Brazil. People were beginning to wonder if airship travel was the future. Then tragedy struck. The Hindenburg approached Lakehurst, NJ, with 36 passengers and 61 crew on board, 36 of whom were burnt alive when it suddenly burst into flames as it attempted to dock. The others fell from the sky as the great bulk of the ship collapsed and decended in flames. The disaster was subject to widespread newsreel, newspaper and photographic, coverage and famously, the dramatic radio reportage by Herbert Morrison (worth a Google ) who watched the whole debacle, before he broke down.

The event shattered public confidence in the giant passenger-carrying airships, and marked the abrupt end of the airship era. The future was now firmly with aeroplanes, and the north Atlantic route was considered to be the most profitable and popular. Shannon Airport would play a decisive role in this decision.

Next week: Charles Lindberg and his wife Anne Morrow Lindberg arrive in Ireland.

NOTES: Sources include Wikipedia, Barron Hilton: Pioneers Flight Gallery, the R33 Class Airship, the LZ Hindenburg, The First Transatlantic Crossing - Telegraph.

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