Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 3036: THE GHOST OF ST. LOUIS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the ghost of St. Louis. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Lindbergh's airplane, the Spirit of St.Louis, touched down shortly after dark at Paris' Le Bourget Aeroport, on May 21st, 1927. It'd been in the air 33-1/2 hours.

Exactly 89 years later, a party in a hangar at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York: A band plays. Tables surround a great silver aeroplane. It is, exactly, the Spirit of St. Louis. Or rather, the ghost of the Spirit. This near perfect replica has just flown for the guests. Now, with Lindbergh's daughter, Reeve, among them, they celebrate - perfumed by the faint odor of grease and machinery.

This replica is not the first, but it's the most perfect. It was decades in the making; and it represents amazing patience and scholarship. It was the brainchild of the Museum's founder, Cole Palen. Palen died in 1993 and Ken Cassens took over his work.

Spirit of St. Louis Replica
The Spirit of St. Louis Replica, engine running, on the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome field.

Lindbergh had coaxed California airplane builder Claude Ryan into building the plane on very short notice. No working drawings exist. Ryan's chief engineer radically altered the design of a Ryan airmail plane. And he got it done in just two months.

Spirit of St. Louis Replica under construction
The Spirit of St. Louis replica, still under construction, in 2014.

Two odd sidebars here: The plane's real name was The Ryan NYP (for New York to Paris.) But the St. Louis Racquette Club had helped pay for it, so the words Spirit of St. Louis adorn its nose. Also: A few years later, Ryan's factory manager built the glider in which Ann Morrow Lindbergh learned to fly.

So: How was one to make a replica without plans? Luckily, a Ryan worker had drawn plans from memory - after Lindbergh's flight. Memory, of course, is elusive; and the plans had errors. But Cassens combined them with his close study of the original airplane in the Smithsonian. And Palen had found a Wright Whirlwind engine, identical to the one that powered the original aeroplane.

The biggest difference between Lindbergh's and Cassens' airplanes is the fuel supply. Lindbergh's largest tanks were hidden away under the wing, directly in front of him - blocking his forward vision. The replica has only one 55 gallon tank in that space. But to see forward, Cassens, like Lindbergh, has to push a periscope out of the side. Cassens finds the periscope pretty useless. To land the plane, he sideslips to see the runway ahead, from his side window. Then he straightens out to touch down.

Cassens piloting Spirit
Ken Cassens piloting the Spirit. Rectangle in upper left is the retracted periscope.

The Spirit of St. Louis is what pilots call a tail dragger, with a tailskid under its rear. Modern airplanes, and previous replicas, replaced the skid with a wheel. Tailskids were meant for a grass fields; and The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome has a vintage grass field. The original skid works far better on it.

So here's the airplane that paved the way for transoceanic airliners. It emerges from the twilight to land at the Aerodrome, just as it did that evening in another century. And the deep rumble of its engine throttling down is the sound of the past reclaimed.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

Spirit in flight
The Spirit of St. Louis replica in flight over New York countryside.
(Theme music)


Note Added on May 30, 2016: The party that I describe was still five months in the future as I wrote this episode in December, 2015. The party was a fine success, however the Lindberghs' daughter Reeve was unable to attend owing to her husband's health issues. Instead, the Lindberghs' granddaughter Kristina and grandson Lars represented the family.

See the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome website. See also this episode about my visit in 2006 as well as this slideshow of my visit in 2014 (It includes two photos of the replica under construction.) For additional material on the Spirit of St. Louis, see the Smithsonian page. See this article for details of the replica construction.

Here's a nice video of Cassens at work on the Spirit and other airplanes. This article and video show the maiden flight of the replica Spirit's first flight.

The Wright Whirlwind engine in the Replica is a J-5AB instead of Lindbergh's J-5C. That probably signifies only a different batch of engines. Cassens was unable to identify any difference in the engine itself.

Wright Whirlwind engine
The 9-cyl. radial Wright Whirlwind J-5AB engine mounted on the replica.

Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis bore the registration number N-X-211. The FAA allowed the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome to use the number N211XC. This Number is tucked away on the side of the fuselage, while the wings and rudder bear the original N-X-211.

See also the Wikipedia article about the Ryan mail plane, the M-2. The chief engineer who modified it into the Spirit of St. Louis, was Donald A. Hall. The person who drew the plans from memory, after the fact, was former Ryan Airlines employee Ed Morrow. Lindbergh's Spirit had five gas tanks: three in the wings held 183 gallons. Two more in the space under the wing held 209 and 88 gallons respectively.

I mention Ann Morrow Lindbergh's glider flying in the text. Here is more on her close relationship with glider piloting.

My thanks to Tom Polapink from the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome for going far out of his way to provide wonderfully detailed information about the reconstruction. He also graciously provided photos, by Tim Haggerty, of the finished replica. Photos of the replica under construction are by John Lienhard.

This episode was first aired on December 18, 2015



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2015 by John H. Lienhard.