When Charles A. Lindbergh and his Ryan monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, touched down at Le Bourget Field at 10 p.m. on May 21, 1927, both man and machine made history. This first non-stop New York-to-Paris flight was completed in 33 hours, 30 minutes in a plane designed, built and tested in San Diego. The flight was inspired by the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris. Lindbergh received the prize and the acclamation of nations around the world.
Officially known as the Ryan NYP (acronym for “New York-Paris”), the aircraft was designed by Donald Hall of Ryan Airlines based on the Ryan M-2 aircraft. Although designed for its successful New York-to-Paris flight, and built in San Diego, it was named after St. Louis because of financial backing from that city. Hall and the Ryan Airlines staff worked closely with Lindbergh to design and build the single-seat, single-engine monoplane in just 60 days, for a cost of just over $10,000. In the spring of 1927, several other pilots and aircrew were also preparing to make the transatlantic flight to compete for the Orteig Prize.
Lindbergh was convinced that a small airplane designed around the dependable wright whirlwind J-5C engine stood the best chance of completing the flight. However, the race to be first across the Atlantic required trade-offs. The wingspan of the Ryan M2 was increased by 10 feet to create a surface area large enough to lift 450 gallons (1,703 liters) of fuel, along with a pilot and equipment. The aircraft fuselage was made of fabric over a metal-tube frame and the wings were made of fabric over a wood frame. Lindbergh decided that the tail and control surfaces of the aircraft needed to remain relatively small to minimize drag and to reduce stress on the wing. This resulted in extremely unstable flight characteristics, with a tendency to curve, dip and bank at random times. Lindbergh was said to have asked for the plane to be made unstable so he wouldn’t fall asleep at the controls. The stiff wicker seat in the cockpit was also purposefully uncomfortable. Lindbergh also insisted that all extra weight be eliminated. For example, he carried no radio. Also, even though he was an airmail pilot, he refused to carry souvenir letters on the transatlantic journey, insisting that every extra ounce be devoted to fuel.
To increase fuel economy, the Spirit of St. Louis was one of the most streamlined aircraft of its era. Lindbergh insisted that the large main fuel tank be placed in the forward section of the fuselage, in front of the pilot. That way, in the event of a crash during takeoff, the pilot would be in a safer position behind the engine and fuel tanks. The aircraft had no front windshield and Lindbergh kept his bearings by looking out two side windows and using rudimentary navigation instruments. He also installed a small periscope to look out the front. This was mainly used as a precaution to avoid hitting ship masts while flying at low altitude over harbors and sea coasts. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight made him an instant celebrity and media star. He flew the Spirit of St. Louis to Belgium and England before President Coolidge sent a Navy cruiser, USS Memphis, to bring Lindbergh and his airplane back to the United States. Lindbergh then flew the Spirit of St. Louis on promotional and goodwill tours across the United States and Latin America.
On September 21, 1927, Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis back to Dutch Flat where over 60,000 San Diegans welcomed him at Balboa Stadium. The final flight of the Spirit of St. Louis was on April 30, 1928, when Lindbergh flew from St. Louis to Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., where he presented the historic airplane to the Smithsonian Institution.
The aircraft owned by the San Diego Air & Space Museum is a flying replica of the original Spirit of St. Louis. The Museum lost its first replica, the Spirit II, in the 1978 Museum fire. However, 34 craftsmen, including three of the builders of the original Spirit, set about building another. In eight months, the artisans spent 4,800 hours constructing the Spirit III, and on April 28, 1979 the plane flew over San Diego. Then, in 2003, the San Diego Regional Airport Authority wanted to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Lindbergh Field with a commemorative flight of Spirit III. On August 16, 2003, Spirit III took off from the Museum’s facility at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, flew over San Diego and San Diego Bay and landed at Lindbergh Field. Later that day it flew back to Gillespie Field. During the inspections necessary to return the aircraft to airworthy status for the onetime flight, mechanics found corrosion and damage that needed major repairs. Over the next three years Spirit III was totally disassembled and the wooden and metal structural components were fully repaired to like-new status. The aircraft was then re-skinned with new fabric and restored to show condition. Spirit III returned to its place of honor in the Museum’s Rotunda and was placed on display on November 4, 2006, to coincide with the International Air and Space Hall of Fame Celebration Gala.