Let’s have a moment of silence for one of the co-founders of modern flight: Wilbur Wright passed on to the great baggage claim in the sky exactly one hundred years ago this month. Poor Wilbur may have succumbed to typhus in 1912, but his invention, we will be reminded this month, lives on. May is also the month we commemorate paper airplanes (May 26 is National Paper Airplane Day!) and the beginning of the summer travel season (Memorial Day is the busiest flying weekend of the year so far). So come fly with Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings as he debunks some commonly held—but thoroughly untrue—beliefs about airplanes and aviation. He’ll make sure your historical facts are in the upright and locked position, and that your scientific understanding is securely stowed in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you.
Airplane Myth #1: Charles Lindbergh Piloted the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight.
In 1927, cartoonist Robert Ripley had the nerve to claim, in his Believe It or Not! newspaper feature, that recently crowned national hero Charles Lindbergh was not the first man to fly the Atlantic nonstop, but in fact the sixty-seventh. Ripley received, by his count, over 170,000 letters from readers outraged over the “mistake.” By the time the hubbub ended, the U.S. Post Office was even delivering Ripley complaints addressed only to “The World’s Biggest Liar.”
But Ripley was right: many, many other men had flown the Atlantic nonstop before Lindbergh. The first nonstop flight came in spring 1919, and was either a U.S. Navy seaplane flight between Newfoundland and Portugal or a Royal Air Force bomber flying between Newfoundland and Ireland (depending on whether you count Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores archipelago as part of Europe). Eighty-odd pilots and crew made the trip in planes and dirigibles over the following decade.
So what was so special about “Lucky Lindy”? He won the $25,000 Orteig Prize for crossing between North America and mainland Europe — previous plane flights had required stops in the British Isles or elsewhere. He also flew solo, which was not required to win the prize but certainly captured the public imagination. Without a copilot, Lindy had to stay awake for the full thirty-plus hours it took to cross the ocean, and he was so tired that he even began to hallucinate at one point. Yet he still made it all the way to Paris! I guess that’s why they called him “Lucky.”
The transatlantic flight made a celebrity out of Charles Lindbergh, but it also made Robert L. Ripley’s reputation. His fourth paperback collection of factoids became a runaway best-seller as a result of the Lindbergh kerfuffle, and William Randolph Hearst began paying Ripley $100,000 (over a million bucks in today’s money) every year to write Believe It or Not! for his papers. Also, unlike Lindbergh, Ripley didn’t turn out to be a borderline Nazi sympathizer/anti-Semite/racial purity eugenicist. Advantage: Ripley! Believe it or not.
Quick Quiz: In what city was Lindbergh based as an air mail pilot between 1925 and his amazing 1927 flight?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo of Charles Lindbergh is in the public domain.