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.
Leech: Did Ryan add any engineers?
Hall: I was all alone during the design of the plane, except for two evenings when a purchasing agent helped me with weight analysis. We kept the office door locked so nobody could walk in. A few aeronautical people were always interested in anything and they’d walk around; we didn’t keep anything from them. I don’t think we talked about it but gradually it leaked out. When test flights started, people in San Diego heard about it.
Leech: Where did you make the test flights?
Hall: We flew from Dutch Flats, just opposite from Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Dutch Flats was a tidal flat at one time. I think they built up a dike so water wouldn’t flow in. It was not paved; it was a natural tidal ground with sand and muck. When it rained heavily you might have two to three feet of water.
Just before Lindbergh got here, we had heavy rains and floods for two weeks. You couldn’t leave San Diego except by way of El Centro. Lindbergh came by train about a week later.
Leech: What were his first thoughts about the site?
Hall: The water had disappeared when he arrived, and we had no rain at all during flight tests. We had only about 12 days for tests. He flew every day he could. There were no major problems and the engine was excellent. The M1 had a Wright engine, though a few had J4 engines, for mail flights from San Diego up to Seattle. The Spirit had a J5C 200-horsepower Wright Aeronautical engine. All we used from the M2 were the wing ribs and the tail surfaces. Everything else was different.
Lindbergh was not a bit nervous about the flight. He was the most composed man I ever ran across. Physically he was very good, had excellent vision—maybe better than normal, which helps a lot in flying. He was an excellent cross-country navigator by means of dead reckoning, just by following maps. He had cut all his own maps from New York to Paris and plotted his course on them.
Leech: Did he participate in the design?
Hall: He wasn’t actually a designer but he had his own ideas, some of which I accepted and some I disagreed with. We’d come to an agreement. Claude Ryan was acting manager out in the field. I only saw him once or twice, outside of our office hours only, during design. [Ryan co-owner Bob] Mahoney said leave us alone, Lindbergh and I, and not to bother us, that we could handle it without any interference. When we got to construction, we had to work with the shop. We laid a lot of stuff down full-size—landing gear, axles—on plywood and worked from that.
Leech: Looking back?
Hall: I don’t like to stress the work on the Spirit. Other work has been extremely important over the years. I did another airplane in 1928 with Ryan-Mahoney more important to me than the Spirit. After all the publicity, I started my own company, Hall Aeronautical Development. But I could never get the X-1 promoted far enough. It was a monoplane with low semi-tandem wings; the aft wing was a little higher. Ryan-Mahoney bought the idea all right, but they went back to St. Louis and we parted company. It was too hard through the Depression and I finally gave it up when Consolidated moved to San Diego.
I was with Consolidated from 1936 to 1949 as an aeronautical engineer. I was a consultant to Mac Laddon, chief engineer, for a few months. Then I went into pre-design. I was with the Navy from 1949 to retirement in September 1963, at the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, as an engineer, head of the helicopter branch and then the structures branch. My interests are home and garden.
Donald Hall died at age 69 in 1968.
Tom Leech is a presentations coach, an outdoors writer, and a professional speaker.