Wide World Photo
Ten years after Col. Charles A. Lindbergh's epic flight to Paris, he is photographed with his monoplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis."

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris after a flight of 33½ hours. Touching down at 10:24 pm, Paris time, Lindbergh had become the first person to successfully make a solo, nonstop flight from America to Europe.

Crowds of Parisians flocked to the field to see the hero of the hour, whose daring flight had captured the world's imagination. Edwin L. James, reporter for the New York Times, recorded the moment: “The movement of humanity swept over soldiers and policemen, and there was the wild sight of thousands of men and women rushing madly across the half a mile of the not-too-even ground. ... Soldiers and police tried for one small moment to stem the tide, then joined it, rushing as madly as anyone else toward the aviator and his plane.”

Lindbergh later wrote in his memoir of the flight, named after his trusted plane, "The Spirit of St. Louis," “I was completely unprepared for the welcome which awaited me on Le Brouget. I had no idea that my plane had been so accurately reported along its route..."

As Lindbergh brought his plane to a stop, the crowd rushed toward him, pulling him from the plane and hoisting him above their heads in celebration. He later wrote, “I found myself lying in a prostrate position, up on top of the crowd, in the center of an ocean of heads that extended as far out into the darkness as I could see.”

A few days later, when Lindbergh was in London being feted by King George V, the king candidly asked his famous guest about the lack of comforts on his flight. “Now tell me, Captain Lindbergh. There is one thing I long to know. How did you pee?” According to one story, perhaps apocryphal, Lindbergh didn't answer directly, but rather stated that he felt sorry for all those Frenchmen who hoisted him above their heads after the flight.

Others had made trans-Atlantic flights prior to Lindbergh, but they had all been conducted in stages and with two or more crew members. Lindbergh's flight was the culmination of the vision of Raymond Orteig, a French-born New York hotel owner who was fascinated by the emerging science of aviation. In 1919, he offered the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 reward for the first person to successfully make a solo, nonstop flight from New York to Paris.

Already an accomplished air mail and stunt pilot, Lindbergh couldn’t resist the challenge. He designed a single-seat, single-engine aircraft that he believed could succeed where others had failed. With the backing of businessmen in St. Louis, Lindbergh successfully engineered the plane and honored those who made it a reality by naming it the Spirit of St. Louis.

The flight made Lindbergh the world's first true media star. Lindbergh biographer A. Scott Berg wrote, “Feeling as though he were awakening from a dream, Lindbergh had no idea that the fantasy was just beginning. Unbeknownst to him, the modern wonders of communication had transformed the 25-year-old 'boy' into the most famous man on earth. ... Lindbergh captured the attention of people everywhere.”

For the rest of his life, Lindbergh would be hounded by reporters and photographers who knew that any paper that featured reports about “Lucky Lindy” would sell big, and soon the “Lindy Hop” became a major dance craze.

Lindbergh went on to live an amazing if frequently tragic and controversial life. After marrying the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Anne Morrow, Lindbergh became an explorer, inventor and environmentalist. Their first child, Charles Jr., was kidnapped and murdered, prompting the Lindberghs to move to Europe for a time. Invited by American diplomat Truman Smith to spy on the fledgling air force of Nazi Germany, Lindbergh became convinced that Germany would win any future conflict. When World War II broke out in Europe, Lindbergh was a staunch opponent of American intervention.

Lindbergh's 1927 flight captured the world's imagination in a way that nothing before ever had. It was a feat that would not be matched until the 1969 moon landing, and it encouraged the growth of the aviation industry. Lindbergh's ambition, hard work and an unconquerable courage inspired the planet and profoundly shaped his era.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the codeveloper of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]