A Mailplane for Lindbergh
Donald Hall's 1927 rush job.
- By Tom Leech
- Air & Space magazine, July 2011
NASM (SI NEG. #SI-94-8819~PM)
In the mid-1960s, Tom Leech, on behalf of the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, interviewed Donald Hall, who in the late 1920s was the chief engineer at Ryan Airlines and the designer of the Spirit of St. Louis. A portion of the interview ran in a 1967 AIAA newsletter. Last year, Leech donated the transcript to the National Air and Space Museum.
Leech: How did you come to be at Ryan?
Hall: I was from Brooklyn, and started out with Curtiss on Long Island. I joined Douglas Aircraft in 1923. In 1927, I had been on leave from Douglas to go to Army Air Corps flying school in San Antonio, Texas. I washed out and got back to Douglas. Things were slow—very dull—and they said Ryan needed an engineer. Jack Northrop and another man were working at Douglas and found it too hard coming down weekends; they wanted to quit.
I joined Ryan on January 31, 1927—three weeks before Lindbergh came out there. I was the first engineer working full time; Jack Northrop was a consultant on weekends.
A telegram four days after I’d arrived came from Lindbergh’s backers, asking if we could build an airplane to fly from New York to Paris nonstop. It didn’t say anything more than that. I studied it. It looked questionable for the short time in which they wanted it, for spring, but we said yes anyway. And the first I knew of it again, Lindbergh walked in the door on February 21. Never heard of him before. No one else had either. His name wasn’t even used in the telegrams.
Leech: You’d been with the company such a short time.
Hall: I’d been hired to get government approval from the Bureau of Air Commerce for the Ryan M2 mail airplane. While I was working on that, another party wanted a passenger job, so I switched to that temporarily. With wide-tread landing gear and bigger [wing]span, it gave me a little lead on what would be the Spirit. I had to increase wingspan some more and increase length. I basically enlarged the airplane and kept the same wing chord [straight-line distance between leading and trailing edges].
Leech: When did the Spirit activity get started? Did it take you just 60 days?
Hall: The contract was signed Friday, February 25. We started about the 28th, then test-flew on April 28. No one else tested it; that was one of Lindbergh’s requirements. He was the only flier.
I had a ride in it. Sat on the right-hand arm of the wicker chair. Vision was pretty good after all; straight ahead was blind, but it had big windows on each side. You had to make a side-slip landing to see.
Leech: About the design?
Hall: It wasn’t a very stable airplane. Lindbergh wanted it unstable so he’d stay awake. Notice the ailerons are very small. I did that purposely. I was worried that with a full load and sudden gusts, the wing might have structural failure. It lost some weight. I was very satisfied when I was through. The main job was to get good flight data in the limited time we had.
We had more than the usual instrumentation. We had an earth inductor compass and a magnetic compass. The earth inductor wasn’t working too well and failed in flight.
Leech: What was your first reaction to Lindbergh’s planning to fly alone?
Hall: It surprised us but right away we saw the merit. With two people, you need a much larger airplane. One advantage is that one person could rest while the other was flying. Lindbergh felt confident he could do it solo. I wasn’t worried a bit.