The Orteig Prize was a reward offered to the first Allied aviator(s) to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris or vice versa. Several famous aviators made unsuccessful attempts at the New York-Paris flight before the relatively unknown American Charles Lindbergh won the prize in 1927 in his aircraft Spirit of St. Louis. However, a number of lives were lost by men who were competing to win the prize. Six men died in three separate crashes, and another three were injured in a fourth crash. The Prize occasioned considerable investment in aviation, sometimes many times the value of the prize itself, and advancing public interest and the level of aviation technology.
The Orteig Prize was a $25,000 reward (equivalent to $369,000 in 2019) offered on May 22, 1919, by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig to the first allied aviator(s) to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris or vice versa. The offer was in the spirit of several similar aviation prize offers, and was made in a letter to Alan Ramsay Hawley, president of the Aero Club of America at the behest of Aero Club secretary Augustus Post.
Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care.
Yours very sincerely,
The Aero Club replied on May 26 with Orteig confirming his offer three days later. His offer was accepted by the Aero Club and Augustus Post set up a formal structure to administer the competition.
Coincidentally, just a few weeks later Alcock and Brown successfully completed the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland, winning an earlier prize offer, and in late June the British airship R34 made an east-west crossing from East Fortune, Scotland, to Long Island, New York, returning by the same route in early July.
On offer for five years, the goal of the prize seemed beyond the capacity of aircraft of the time and the prize attracted no competitors. After its original term had expired Orteig reissued the prize on June 1, 1925 by depositing $25,000 in negotiable securities at the Bryant Bank with the awarding put under the control of a seven-member board of trustees. By then the state of aviation technology had advanced to the point that numerous competitors vied for the prize.
In 1926 the first serious attempt on the prize was made by a team led by French flying ace René Fonck, backed by Igor Sikorsky, the aircraft designer. Sikorsky, who put $100,000 towards the attempt, built an aircraft, the S-35, for the purpose, and in September that year Fonck, with three companions, made their flight. However the aircraft was hopelessly overloaded and crashed in flames attempting to take off. Fonck and his co-pilot, Curtin, survived, but his companions, Clavier and Islamoff, were killed.
By 1927 three groups in the United States and one in Europe were known to be preparing attempts on the prize.
From the US:
In April 1927 the various teams assembled and prepared for their attempts, but all suffered mishaps.
Chamberlin and Acosta undertook a series of flights, increasing Columbia's weight as they went to test the aircraft's capability and to simulate the planned takeoff weight. They also simulated the duration of the flight, setting an endurance record in the process. However their attempt was riven with arguments, between Levine and the others, resulting in Acosta leaving the team for Byrd's and his replacement, Lloyd Bertaud, taking legal action against Levine over a contract dispute.
Byrd's team also made preparations. Wanamaker had the Roosevelt Field improved (Fonck's crash had been caused in part by the aircraft hitting a sunken road running across the runway) while Byrd had a ramp built for America to roll down on takeoff, providing extra impetus. However, on 8 April Byrd's team, in America, crashed during a test flight; Bennet was injured and unable to continue.
On 26 April Davis and Wooster, in American Legion, also crashed on a test flight; this time both were killed.
On 8 May Nungesser and Coli set off from Paris in L'Oiseau Blanc to attempt an east-west crossing, a more difficult proposition given the prevailing winds; they were last seen off the coast of Ireland, but never arrived in New York and no trace of them was ever found, creating one of aviation's great mysteries.
Meanwhile, a late challenge, by solo flyer Charles Lindbergh in Ryan aircraft Spirit of St. Louis, and backed by bankers in St. Louis, Missouri, was started in February, with Lindbergh arriving at Roosevelt Field in mid-May.
Lindbergh had chosen to fly solo, although this was not a requirement of the prize and required him to be at the controls for more than 30 hours. Following a period of bad weather, and before it had sufficiently cleared, Lindbergh took off for Paris, stealing a march on his rivals.
Lindbergh pursued a risky strategy for the competition; instead of using a tri-motor, as favored by most other groups, he decided on a single engined aircraft. The decision allowed him to save weight and carry extra fuel as a reserve for detours or emergencies. He also decided to fly the aircraft solo, so avoiding the personality conflicts that helped delay at least one group. To save weight which had contributed to the crashes of other contributors, Lindbergh also dispensed with non-essential equipment like radios, sextant, and a parachute, although he did take an inflatable raft. The final factor in his success was his decision to fly into weather conditions that were clearing but not clear enough for others to consider safe. 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."
After Lindbergh's success, the other teams had to re-evaluate their aims.
Chamberlin decided to attempt a flight to Berlin, which his endurance flight had shown to be achievable, and for which the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce were offering a $15,000 prize. On 4 June Chamberlin (and, at the last minute, Levine) took off in Columbia for Berlin; they arrived over Germany after a flight of 42 hours but were unable to find their way to the city and landed, out of fuel, at Eisleben, 60 miles to the south-west. They finally arrived in Berlin on 7 June.
Byrd, meanwhile, announced his aim was not simply the prize, but "to demonstrate that the world was ready for safe, regular, multi-person flight across the Atlantic"  and that he would head for Paris, as planned. He and his crew, Acosta, Noville and, as a late addition, Bernt Balchen (who actually did most of the flying) set off in America for Paris on 29 June. However, after a 40-hour flight they were unable to find the airfield at Le Bourget and turned back to ditch on the coast, landing at Ver-sur-Mer, Normandy, on 1 July.
Advancing public interest and aviation technology, the Prize occasioned investments many times the value of the prize. In addition, lives were lost by men who were competing to win the prize. Six men died in three separate crashes. Another three men were injured in a fourth crash. During the spring and summer of 1927, 40 pilots attempted various long-distance over-ocean flights, leading to 21 deaths during the attempts. For example, seven lives were lost in August 1927 in the Orteig Prize-inspired $25,000 Dole Air Race to fly from San Francisco to Hawaii.
1927 saw a number of aviation firsts and new records. The record for longest time in the air, longest flight distance, and longest overwater flight were set and all exceeded Lindbergh's effort. However, no other flyer gained the fame that Lindbergh did for winning the Orteig Prize.
|1926|| René Fonck and crew:
Charles Clavier (died)
Jacob Islamoff (died)
|Sikorsky S-35||-||Gear collapse from excess weight during take-off; crashed in flames|
|1927|| Charles Nungesser
|L'Oiseau Blanc.||unknown||Disappeared at sea|
|1927||Charles Lindbergh||Spirit of St. Louis||33½ hours||Winner|
|1927|| Noel Davis
|American Legion||-||Crashed during test flight; both killed|
|1927|| Clarence Chamberlin,
Bert Acosta (replaced by Levine)
Lloyd Berthaud (left after disagreement with Levine)
|Columbia.||42 hours||Flew to Germany mid-June|
|1927|| Richard E. Byrd and crew:
Floyd Bennett (injured in test flight)
Bert Acosta (joined later),
Bernt Balchen (joined for flight),
|Fokker America||40 hours||Flew to France late June; ditched on French coast|