Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Project: Impossible — Lindbergh Wins the Orteig Prize

My 26th book will be Project: Impossible, an exploration of how people achieved goals any reasonable person would have thought impossible. Here’s a summary of some of the cases covered in the book.

Charles Lindbergh's Flight

What’s impossible about Lindbergh’s famous flight is not that he made it from New York to Paris. That was going to happen within a few weeks anyway. No, what’s impossible is that the underfunded and unknown Lindbergh jumped ahead of highly qualified and lavishly funded competitors.

The Orteig Prize

Crossing the Atlantic by air wasn’t new. The Curtiss NC-4 flying boat did it in 19 days back in 1919, hopping in 50-mile jumps between pre-positioned ships. The following month, British aviators Alcock and Brown flew nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland. A month after that, the British airship R-34, carrying a crew of 31, made the first lighter-than-air round-trip crossing.

In 1919, French-born New York hotelier Raymond Orteig decided to offer a $25,000 prize the first aviators to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, in either direction.

The first serious attempt at the prize came in 1926, when Frenchman René Fonck crashed on takeoff, killing two. Admiral Richard E. Byrd, famous polar explorer, announced his entry in late 1926. Clarence Chamberlin, practicing for the attempt, set a world endurance record by circling New York City for over 50 hours. From the other side of the Atlantic, Nungesser and Coli readied their Levasseur biplane L'Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird).

By early May 1927, the Chamberlain and Byrd groups were ensconced at adjoining airfields on Long Island, and Nungesser and Coli were getting ready in Paris.

Anyone who thought they’d come in and beat that field was surely a fool.

The Flying Fool

Charles Lindbergh had many nicknames, but the one he despised was given him by the New York Sun: “The Flying Fool.”

He responded, “I take no foolish risks and study out everything I do in the air. I don’t think I am a flying fool.” It is, however, not difficult to understand how the Sun — and others — could have reached that conclusion. Most entries were multi-engine aircraft; Lindbergh flew a single-engine. All the other entrants planned for a crew of at least two to handle the 30+ hour flight. Lindbergh was the only solo entry. Finally, all the other entrants did extensive test flying. Total test flying time for the Spirit of St. Louis amounted to a paltry five and a half hours!

Then there was his safety record. He had only been a pilot for four years, and was famous for only one thing — the most emergency parachute bailouts. In 1924, he collided in mid-air with another Army flying cadet. In his first job post-graduation, he bailed out a second time while serving as test pilot. As an airmail pilot on the St. Louis-Chicago route in 1926, Lindbergh bailed out of not one but two DH-4s when he became lost in storms and ran out of fuel.

The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh

It took ego to enter the race. “Why shouldn’t I fly from New York to Paris?” he wrote in his autobiography. He raised funds from the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, but had trouble finding a plane. Finally, a small San Diego company, Ryan, offered to build one for him. The Ryan NYP (New York to Paris) had no radio, no parachute, no gas gauges, and no navigation lights. Lindbergh even replaced the leather pilot’s seat with a wicker chair. It was built in record time, only two months.

Two days before Lindbergh was scheduled to leave San Diego for New York, Nungesser and Coli took off from Paris. All the other competitors stopped and waited to see if the Frenchmen would succeed — except for Lindbergh, who set off immediately for New York, setting a speed record en route.

When he reached New York, he learned for the first time that L'Oiseau Blanc had vanished. Charles Lindbergh was back in the race.

The Spirit of Long Island

A lawsuit delayed the Chamberlin group, and Byrd’s America crashed during a practice flight. All the teams were hampered by bad weather, which began to clear on May 19, a few days after Lindbergh finally arrived in New York. Unfortunately, paved runways weren’t yet common in aviation. The field was muddy — too muddy to allow a heavily-laden plane to take off.

But on the morning of May 20, 1927, at 7:52 AM, Charles Lindbergh loaded his plane with four sandwiches, two canteens of water, and 451 gallons of gasoline, and took off. The Spirit of St. Louis barely managed to clear the telephone wires at the end of the runway.

Thirty-three and a half hours later, Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis landed safely in Paris.

Managing the Impossible Project: The Role of Risk

The difference between a possible project and an impossible project is the constraints, the factors that restrict the options available to the leader and team. If the constraints are different, the options are different.

All the teams competing for the Orteig Prize consisted of talented, experienced aviators, engineers, and designers. What distinguishes Lindbergh is the nature and level of risk he was willing to assume.

The technical equation for risk is R = P x I; that is, the price of a risk is the probability of it happening times the impact if it does happen. If there’s a ten percent chance of a $1,000 negative event, the value of the risk is $100, meaning that if you can get rid of the risk for less than $100, it’s a good investment.

What if it costs more than $100 to get rid of the risk? Well, it may still be a good investment depending on other factors. What’s the value of getting into the history books? What’s the value of being acclaimed the world’s best pilot? The price of a risk and the value of a risk aren't necessarily the same thing.

Accepting an elevated level of risk doesn’t automatically make you a “flying fool.” Sometimes it’s exactly what allows you and your team to achieve the impossible.


  1. An interesting article thank you. We recently visited the memorial Nungesser and Coli at Etretat, Normandy – some pictures here http://www.normandythenandnow.com/last-flight-of-the-white-bird-at-etretat/
    It’s a stunning memorial at the place Nungesser and Coli last saw France.
    Also posted is an old image of the original memorial blown up by the Germans in WW2. Memorial styles certainly change!
    We are glad Nungesser and Coli and their bravery are not forgotten.

  2. Nungesser & Coli's fate remains one of the great mysteries of aviation. They do indeed deserve to be remembered.