Spirit is the nonphysical part of a person or group that is the seat of emotions and character. It is the quality of courage, energy, determination and assertiveness. Spirit is the force that brings our bodies to life and the life-force that keeps us going.
When Charles Augustus Lindbergh touched down at Le Bourget Field on the night of May 21st in 1927, he was welcomed as a hero by an enormous crowd. At the age of twenty-five, Lindbergh had successfully completed the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight and the first ever nonstop flight between New York and Paris. And as such, he became a world sensation overnight.
Today we take flying across the planet for granted. But in the early days of aviation, flying such long distances stretched the imagination. And carried high risk of failure and fatal disaster.
In 1919, French businessman and New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered up $25,000 (~$350,000 in today's terms) and pushed the bounds of aviation. Just over fifteen years since the Wright Brother's historic flight, Orteig created a cash prize, awarded to the first aviator from any Allied country to cross the Atlantic, in a single flight, connecting Paris with New York City. The offer was very bold for its time and took over five years for technology to catch up. And while technology was advancing, the youthful Lindbergh was learning to fly.
In 1922, Lindbergh worked for an aircraft company in Nebraska that repaired World War I planes. The experience allowed Lindbergh to learn airplane mechanics and provided him his first opportunities to fly. Later he purchased his own vintage bi-plane and became a barnstormer. By 1924 Lindbergh joined the Army Air Service (precursor to the US Air Force) and moved to St. Louis where he became an officer in the Missouri National Guard. Simultaneously, Lindbergh worked for a local aircraft corporation flying airmail between St. Louis and Chicago. Although the distance between these two cities was only about 300 miles each way, the flying was often extremely hazardous. Airmail pilots were frequently faced with poor weather conditions, nighttime flying, and consistently had to fight off fatigue. Lindbergh became an experienced aviator in the process, and it was during these flights that he began to consider the possibility of flying across the Atlantic Ocean.
And the Orteig Prize gave all the more enticement...
Numerous other teams, some French, others American, attempted to accomplish the feat and attain the prize. Each of these teams had financial support and were planning to use larger, multi-engined airplanes with more than one crew member onboard to assist with the flying. Tragically, a high percentage of these pilots died from crashes—the last of which was the mysterious disappearance of the L'Oiseau Blanc, navigated by French World War I aviation heroes, Charles Nungesser and François Coli.
Undeterred by the risk, Lindbergh pressed on. But even though his heart was in it, by Fall of 1926 the odds of actually being able to attempt the transatlantic conquest seemed slim. First off, only having $2,000 to his name, Lindbergh did not have the money to build a plane. So where did the rest of the money come from? Well, as the story goes, he approached a group of high-powered businessmen at their club in St. Louis. And although many felt he was too young and inexperienced, with cap in hand, he confidently expressed he had what it took to successfully complete the flight and win the prize.
The first to contribute was Albert B. Lambert, an enthusiastic hot-air balloonist, student of Orville Wright, and St. Louis's first licensed pilot. Lambert owned an airfield northwest of St. Louis, which today operates as Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
The other contributors included banker Harold M. Bixby, head of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce; broker Harry H. Knight and his father, Harry F. Knight; Robertson Aircraft Corporation (RAC) owners Frank and William Robertson; Earl C. Thompson; J.D. Wooster Lambert; and E. Lansing Ray, director of the local newspaper, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The collective group became known as the "St. Louis backers".
Now financially empowered, Lindbergh approached "Ryan Airline Company" in San Diego and requested a customized plane be built in only two months time. Benjamin F. Mahoney, part owner of Ryan Airlines, and Donald A. Hall, chief engineer, accepted the challenge and delivered. And as agreed, the plane had a single engine, no radio, and was only intended to carry Lindbergh himself. All excess weight was discarded, which included the parachute. In Lindbergh's words, every ounce had to go toward fuel—so much so that Lindbergh requested an additional fuel storage tank be put between himself and the engine. The arrangement boosted the fuel capacity and also helped with the plane's center of gravity, but completely eliminated the ability of having a front windshield. In other words, when Lindbergh wanted to see where he was going, he had to yaw the plane and look out the side window.
As for the name of the plane, the formal name was Ryan NYP—Ryan representing the plane's creator, "Ryan Airline Company", and NYP representing "New York to Paris". It was Mr. Harold Bixby who later coined and offered up the name Spirit of Saint Louis to Lindbergh, which Lindbergh gladly accepted and embraced.
The name, Spirit of Saint Louis, was obviously a tribute to the amazing leap of faith from the St. Louis backers, but also an indicator of Lindbergh's determination. In addition, in the words of Bixby's nephew who stated years after his uncle's passing, Bixby had more in mind in the Spirit of Saint Louis name than just honoring their city. King Louis IX (born 1214) was canonized in 1297, nearly thirty years after his death. Considered by some as a model of the ideal Christian monarch, Louis IX became known as Saint-Louis. Hence, with the French connection in the plane's name, the French were thrilled.
Speaking for myself, I just love the Spirit of St. Louis story, the incredibly appropriate name, and how it surmises so much. It honors the optimism of the financial backers, brings recognition to the St. Louis community, highlights Lindbergh's courage, and also pays homage to the French people. And with each of these facets working together in concert, the unthinkable was achieved.
The Spirit of St. Louis carried much more than just Lindbergh across the Atlantic—it carried the dreams of many, some of whom had already paid the ultimate price. It expressed technological breakthroughs by showing what was once thought impossible, possible. And it embodied the adventurous spirit of a young pilot who dared to see past all the risks. Lindbergh was quoted as saying, "What kind of man would live where there is no danger? I don't believe in taking foolish chances. But nothing can be accomplished by not taking a chance at all."
So after reading all of these words about Charles Lindbergh you might be wondering, what on earth does this have to do with shoes? Well, when I hear the Spirit of St. Louis tale and learn about all those who contributed to its success, I cannot help but internally reflect on our BILLY Footwear company. We have so many people to thank who have supported us along our path thus far. And we are still just getting started. By partnering with select retailers, committed manufacturers, generous customers, and countless moral enthusiasts, we have taken the leap of faith in the spirit of bettering the world through footwear. And make no mistake, your supporting wings are carrying us along this heartwarming journey.
(Pictured above is Charles A. Lindbergh standing in front of his plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis.)
What a great inspirational story, I really enjoyed this one too.