How the Spirit of St. Louis Won The Orteig Prize

Many aviation enthusiasts already know the story of how Charles Lindberg was the first aviator to fly nonstop from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis. However, several people don’t know that the inspiration behind the journey was a prize of $25,000 ($246,000 today) offered by Raymond Orteig. Before we get into how Charles Lindberg and the Spirit of St.Louis made the epic journey, lets first take a look at Raymond Orteig and his reasons for anteing up the prize money.

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Charles Lindbergh lands his famous plane Spirit of St. Louis. Photo: Getty Images

Orteig was born in the southern French Pyrenees mountain village of Louvie-Juzon. He helped look after his father’s sheep before immigrating to the United States at the age of 12. Here, he lived with his uncle in New York City. He soon got a job as a bar porter and worked his way up to be the maitre’d at the Martin Hotel on Ninth Street.

The hotel owner, another Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Martin, decided to move uptown in 1902. However, Orteig was in a financial position to buy the hotel. As soon as he took possession, he immediately renamed the hotel the Marquis de Lafayette. This name was given in tribute to the American Revolutionary War hero.

Now known as the Hotel Lafayette, it became a popular gathering place for World War I aviators allowing Orteig to befriend French officers who were stationed in America to help train pilots. This led to the Frenchman’s fascination with aviation that he kept with him throughout his life.

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America’s greatest air ace, Eddie Rickenbacker inspired Ortirg to offer the prize. Photo: Air Force District of Washington,

In 1919, at a dinner organized by the Aero Club of America to honor American flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker many of the speeches were tilted towards Franco-American relations. During his speech, the American WWI hero said that he looked forward to the day when you could fly from New York to Paris. Inspired by Rickenbacker’s words, Orteig decided to offer a prize of $25,000 for the first airman from an Allied country to fly non stop between New York and Paris. The offer was made to the president of the American Aero Club and was valid for five years.

After half a decade, no one had claimed the prize, and rather than withdrawing the offer, it was reissued. This time, rather than using the Aero Club, Ortieg put the $25,000 under the control of a seven-member board of trustees at the Bryant Bank.

How Charles Lindberg came into the picture

Born in Detroit, Michigan, and growing up on a farm in Minnesota, Lindberg spent much of his early life living in Washington, D.C., where his father was a U.S. Congressman.
After quitting college in 1922, Lindberg learned to fly and earned a living as a barnstormer performing aerobatic stunts and selling tickets for flights while traveling around the country.

In 1924 the now highly experienced pilot decided to join the United States Army Air Service. This proved to be disappointing for Lindberg as the military had no use for active-duty pilots. Back in civilian life, Lindberg took a job as an airmail pilot flying between his home in St. Louis and Chicago.

The Spirit of St. Louis

While earlier pilots like Alcock and Brown had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean, planes of the day were not equipped to carry enough fuel to travel from New York to Paris in a single crossing. Inspired by the $25,000 prize put up by New York hotelier Raymond Ortieg, Lindberg persuaded some prominent people in St. Louis back his attempt to claim the prize.

Not to be confused with Ryanair, Ryan Airlines of San Diego offered to retrofit one of its Ryan M-2 aircraft for Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing. The new plane had a longer fuselage and wingspan with additional struts to help manage the weight of the fuel.

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Charles Lindberg got wealthy people in St. Louis to back his New York to Pairs flight. Photo: Library of Congress via Wikipedia

Strong unit

Powering the plane was a Wright Aeronautical nine-cylinder J5-C Whirlwind engine capable of producing 220 HP at 1800 rpm, a relatively low speed that contributed to the engine’s reliability.

Named the Spirit of St.Louis to honor his financial backers, Lindberg had extra fuel tanks added to the plane’s wings and nose. There was also a fuel and oil tank placed in the fuselage in front of the cockpit that obscured the young aviators’ forward view. However, this was on no consequence to Lindberg as he was used to flying in the rear seats of planes with mail bags piled in front.

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The front windshield was removed so that an extra fuel tank could be added. Photo: Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia

As a safety precaution, a Ryan employee who had served in the submarine service constructed a periscope to allow for forward vision. Now aged just 25-years-old, Lindberg and the Spirit of St. Louis took off from a muddy Roosevelt Field in Long Island on May 20, 1927.

One of the major concerns was being able to remain awake for what was expected to be a 33.5-hour flight. To help aid him in this quest, Lindberg left a side window open. This move meant that the wind and rain would help keep him alert.

The Spirit of St. Louis arrives in Paris

Charles Lindberg and the Spirit of St. Louis landed safely at Le Bourget airfield near Paris on May 21, 1927. To greet the young American was a crowd of 150,000 people who had gathered to witness the historic event. So happy were the celebrations that one newspaper wrote that people were behaving as though Lindberg had walked on water rather than flying over it.

Coincidentally, Raymond Ortieg was vacationing with his wife in the Pyrenees when he received a message from his son Raymond Jr. The letter said that Charles Lidberg had departed New York for Paris. Ortieg canceled all plans and traveled to Paris, arriving just before the Spirit of St. Louis touched down. The following day, the hotelier and the airman met at the American Embassy. This meeting was precisely eight years to the day that Ortieg had first offered the prize.

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The Spirit of St. Louis is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Photo: Cliff via Flickr

Lindberg was the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. Additionally, he was the first person ever to do the trip solo. Therefore, he was immediately catapulted to that of a worldwide celebrity. When Lindberg returned to America, he was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. An estimated four million people attended the grand event.

Bestowed by accolades and awards from the American and French governments, Lindberg took the Spirit of St. Louis on a tour of the United States and Mexico. Following the goodwill tours, Lingberg donated the Spirit of St. Louis to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where it remains today.

What are your thoughts about the Spirit of St. Louis? Let us know what you think of its history in the comment section.

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