Project management lessons learned from the Spirit of St. Louis


Associate Professor, Harding University


Most people are at least vaguely aware of Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. The Spirit of St. Louis is the plane that Lindbergh used to become the first person ever to make a nonstop, transatlantic flight between North America and Europe and win the Orteig Prize. But most have probably not considered all the valuable lessons we can learn from this challenging project and the projects of those competing against Lindbergh. We will look at these projects from the perspective of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the ten PMBOK knowledge areas. By studying these projects we can learn valuable lessons including agile principles to apply to our own challenging projects in today's competitive business environment. A greater appreciation should also be developed for the value of studying lessons learned.


Project managers today are challenged by managing projects with time, cost, scope, and cost constraints, and the need to manage risks, along with the other PMI knowledge areas. To learn more about these aspects of the Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis project and the various competing projects, we will first need to set the background. After introducing the Orteig Prize, we will look at the timeline and give an overview of the various competing projects.

Orteig Prize

Aviation made great strides both in popularity and technical progress during World War I. After the war many people were intrigued by this new technology and looked for new ways to utilize it. Raymond Orteig was born in France and immigrated to New York in the US as a 12-year-old in 1892. In New York he went to work in the hotel industry, eventually owning multiple hotels. One was the Lafayette Hotel, where pilots, including those from France, often gathered. In 1919 Orteig offered a $25,000 prize for the first, nonstop, transatlantic flight from Paris to New York, or New York to Paris. The $25,000 prize would be worth $340,067 in today's US dollars. The offer originally was good for five years but then was renewed by Orteig in 1924. By 1927 several teams on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were competing for the prize.

Overview of Competitors

The competitors for the Orteig Prize can be broken down into those originating in New York and those originating in Paris. Starting with the Paris side, the Potez 25 consisted of French World War I pilots Paul Tarascon and Franҫois Coli. Coli had lost an eye flying during the war and was relegated to being a navigator. After the Potez 25 crashed, and Tarascon was severely injured and no longer able to pursue the Orteig Prize, Coli next teamed up with fellow Frenchman and World War I flying ace Charles Nungessner on the White Bird.

On the New York side, the Sikorsky S-35 team was led by the Russian immigrant aviation designer Igor Ivan Sikorsky and pilots Rene Fonck, another French World War I flying ace, and the American Lawrence Curtain. The America team was led by US Navy pilots Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett, who were previously credited with flying to the North Pole. Department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker was a key financial backer for the America. The American Legion had two more US Navy pilots, Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster. The Columbia was financed and led by Brooklyn businessman Charles Levine and started out with Clarence Chamberlin and Bert Acosta as pilots. The Spirit of St. Louis was financed by St. Louis businessmen, but Charles Lindbergh was basically a team of one after his plane was successful built by the Ryan Aeronautical Company in San Diego. Francesco de Pinedo from Italy actually started in Europe and flew to South America via Africa and then went on to the western United States before making it to New York. Exhibit 1 contains a complete timeline for the Orteig Prize and transatlantic flights.

Orteig Prize and Transatlantic Timeline

Exhibit 1 – Orteig Prize and Transatlantic Timeline

Importance of Lessons Learned

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Boehm, 2006, p. 12). Albert Einstein is credited with saying the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (Albert Einstein Quotes, n.d.). Therefore project managers also need to study the lessons learned from other projects, so they do not repeat the same mistakes. They need to learn from what worked on prior projects so that they can then repeat those things and convert them into best practices in their methodologies. They can learn valuable lessons not just from projects in their own organizations and industries but from other projects throughout history. Mark Kozak-Holland (2011) believes that project management is continually evolving, absorbing the best practices from all of the fields it comes in contact with. Therefore “the challenge of managing projects today is to combine the technology of the near-future with the lessons of the past ”(p. 21).

Lessons Learned from Competitors

Sikorsky S-35

The Sikorsky S-35 was built by Igor Ivan Sikorsky who was an innovative designer of airplanes for Russia in World War I. After the Bolshevik Revolution he left Russia for Paris and eventually ended up in New York. With French World War I ace Réné Fonck as the pilot, the Sikorsky S-35 team in 1926 was considered a sure thing to win the Orteig Prize. While Fonck was the most successful French pilot in World War I, he was not a popular one, and his inability to work well with others caused dissension on the project. This led to a split in the board of the Argonauts, Inc., the company that was sponsoring the project.

The S-35 was considered one of the largest and probably most advanced planes at that time (Jackson, 2012). In 1911 Sikorsky's first plane, the S-5, crashed during a demonstration. He discovered the cause was a mosquito that had been sucked into the carburettor, starving the engine of fuel. From then on one engine was never enough for him as he stressed redundancy, and the S-35 had three large engines. With a crew of four and three large engines, the S-35 would need to carry an extremely large amount of fuel for the transatlantic trip.

The Sikorsky S-35 had taken several test flights but never when it was fully loaded. The plane weighed 8,000 pounds empty and had been tested up to 20,000 pounds. But when preparing for the actual transatlantic flight, it was overloaded at 28,160, instead of the expected 24,000, pounds. This was a clear problem with scope management as the extra weight included things such as an enormous amount of last-minute baggage—designer-installed mahogany chairs, a red leather hide-a-bed, food cabinets, a table for a victory dinner, and a hot dinner in a vacuum container. Concerned with the scope creep leading to additional weight, Sikorsky wanted to perform more tests, but the stakeholders refused, afraid that there might be potential negative publicity and that the other competitors might take off before the testing was complete (Jackson, 2012). They were told to take off at all cost and did on September 21, 1926. The S-35 never got off the ground, crashing with the two of the four crew members dying. Sikorsky felt his friends and plane “had been sacrificed at the altar of publicity” (p. 54).

Santa Maria

Francesco de Pinedo started his four-continent, goodwill tour with the Santa Maria from Italy, going to Africa first and then to Brazil and other places in South America before coming to the United States. At the Theodore Roosevelt Lake in Arizona, a teenage boy threw a cigarette in the lake and accidentally started a fire that burned up the Santa Maria. De Pinedo had tried being apolitical up to this point, but in order to get a new plane from Benito Mussolini, de Pinedo now had to show more support for Mussolini's policies. After arriving in New York he became involved in a political controversy while waiting on his new plane.

Potez 25

In France two other World War I aces were working together to win the Orteig Prize. They were Francois Coli, who had lost his right eye, and Paul Tarascon, who had lost his right leg. When they heard rumors of other French and German pilots preparing for transatlantic flights, they hastened their testing and crashed their heavily loaded plane. Tarascon was burned badly during the crash, leaving Coli in need of a new partner.

White Bird

Francois Coli would find a new partner in another French World War I ace Charles Nungessner. They made their attempt in the White Bird, called that since Nungessner had painted it white so it could be seen from a distance. It appears by accounts that they completed the most difficult part of the trip across the Atlantic Ocean but probably went down somewhere near Canada. Whether they went down due to the weather, malfunction, or pilot error is still not known. Some even speculate that the plan was shot down by a bootlegger rum boat that thought it might be a USA government plane (Jackson, 2012).

American Legion

Noel Davis graduated third in his class from the US Naval Academy and was the most educated, and possibly the most intelligent, pilot in the competition. The American Legion was another large plane with the redundancy of three engines. There was talk of Davis taking his wife, Mary Merritt Davis, with him as a copilot, but since they had a one-year-old child, he instead teamed up with fellow US Navy pilot Stanton Wooster. Considered the frontrunner on April 26, 1927, the American Legion took a final test run. It weighed in at 17,000 pounds, 4,000 pounds more than any of the other test runs. It never got more than 50 feet off the ground before crashing and killing both pilots (Bak, 2011). While not a victim of the scope creep of the Sikorsky S-35, it was still another example of not truly understanding the requirements and the need for a higher-level, incremental testing when trying things that have never been done before.


The America project was led by US Navy pilot Richard Byrd. Department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker was a key sponsor and financial supporter. Byrd and Floyd Bennett are credited as being the first pilots to fly over the North Pole. Their plane was built by Dutch airplane designer Anthony Fokker, who designed and built airplanes for the Germans in World War I. Fokker was planning to take America on a test run to determine why it was acting nose heavy. At the last minute Bryd decided he wanted to go on the test flight, against everyone else's better judgment. With too much weight on board the America did a summersault and crashed onto its back. This moved America from a frontrunner (with the American Legion gone) to a plane in need of repair with injured crew members. Floyd Bennett was seriously hurt with life-threatening injuries.

Although the crash was Byrd's fault, he blamed it on Fokker, moving a difficult relationship to the toxic level. Byrd was also depressed to lose Bennett, his longtime partner, from the team (Jackson, 2012). This may have decreased his motivation to complete the project swiftly. After repairs were made, America still could have taken off in mid-May but was waiting for clearer weather, and the key sponsor Wanamaker thought it would be bad publicity to leave before the fate of the White Bird was determined. After the Spirit of St. Louis flight on May 20, 1927, on June 29 America flew from New York and crashed in Normandy, France, after missing Paris due to bad weather.


Brooklyn businessman Charles Levine was the business side of the Columbia, with Giuseppe Mario Bellanca providing the technical expertise of designing and building the plane. Levine had an eye for elements like the benefits of the publicity resulting from winning the Orteig Prize and the potential movie deals and other endorsements it would lead to, along with the opportunity for commercial airlines. But Levine also severely lacked interpersonal skills, which is seen his dealings with Bellanca, his pilots, and the navigator.

Between April 12 and 14, 1927 Levine's two pilots, Clarence Chamberlain and Bert Acosta, set the world endurance record of 51 hours in Columbia (Van Der Linden, Pisano, & Lindbergh, 2002). With the America crash, the Columbia moved up as the frontrunner. But due to Levine's inability to handle human resource issues, they squandered that lead. First there was a controversy over which pilot Levine would take along with the navigator Lloyd Bertaud. There was also a ontroversy over whether a radio would be taken due to the extra weight, a disagreement Chamberlain and Bellanca began and eventually won. The biggest issue ended up being life insurance policies that Wanamaker was providing for the America crew, but which Levine refused to arrange for the Columbia crew. This eventually went to court, further delaying the Columbia takeoff for Paris. After the Spirit of St. Louis flight on May 20, 1927, Columbia with Chamberlain and Levine flew from New York to Eisleben, Germany on June 4. While this was short of Levine's goal of Berlin, they still set a record of 3,930 miles of nonstop flight (Jackson, 2012). With a skilled second pilot or navigator instead of Levine as the second person in the person in the plane, it is likely they would have successfully made it to Berlin.

Lessons Learned from the Spirit of St. Louis

Ten PMBOK® Knowledge Areas


The traditional triple constraint of project management is scope, time, and cost (Marchewka, 2012). Compared to its competitors the Spirit of St. Louis was limited as far as time and very limited as far as cost. Lindbergh was getting a late start compared to the other projects, and his budget of $15,000 was very limited compared to the others who often had more than $100,000 to spend. Therefore, going back to the triple constraint, the flexibility would have to be in narrowing the scope of the project. While the amount of miles to be traveled from New York to Paris could not be changed, several other factors relating to scope could be. The size of airplane, size of engine, size of crew, seating and upholstery, types of instruments, amount of food, amount of clothing, luggage, and other types of amenities could be adjusted to lower the cost and time.

Lindbergh went with a smaller, single-engine plane. He went with a crew of only himself as opposed to a crew of between two and four. He replaced the regular seat with a lighter, wicker chair. He even put a gas tank in front of him so he could carry more fuel and installed a periscope so he see directly in front of him when necessary. He took a minimal amount of food and no clothing or luggage. He did not take a radio, lifeboat, or any other emergency items in case of a crash.


Lindbergh got off to a later start than any of his competitors. When he went to New York to buy a Bellanca plane from the Columbia Aircraft Corp., Charles Levine turned him down. Levine offered to take Lindbergh's $15,000 and name the plane the Spirit of St. Louis, but Levine would still retain the right to name the pilot of the plane. This, of course, was unacceptable to Lindbergh, so he then knew he had to have a plane built from scratch.

When negotiating with the Ryan Aeronautical Company in San Diego, CA, Lindbergh was able to save a month by pulling them in from three to two months on the completion date of building the new plane. Much of this time savings was probably because he was physically there to work with them. Lindbergh was constantly looking for opportunities to cut time out of the schedule, such as minimal testing other than the flights from San Diego to St. Louis and then on to New York. He was also constantly looking for ways to cut weight off the plane, which would increase the speed of the actual trip and thus reduce the time and fuel required.


Lindbergh was limited to the $15,000 he had raised from his sponsors, the businessmen of St. Louis. Therefore he really had to manage the cost tightly as compared to his competitors, some of whom had over ten times this much to spend. By reducing the size of the plane and crew, he also significantly reduced the amount that needed to be spent on fuel.


This is the area where Lindbergh showed a lot of flexibility to make the required adjustments and tradeoffs for the previously discussed knowledge areas. Risk tolerance is “the degree, amount, or volume of risk that an organization or individual will withstand.” (Project Management Institute, p.560). Lindbergh had an extremely high level of tolerance for risk. “He had one of the worst safety records in the history of aviation. He was underfunded. His competition included some of the most famous adventurers in the world. Unable to buy the airplane he wanted, he turned to a small, struggling company with an unproven design. Short on cash and short on time, he ignored the conventional wisdom and adopted a design and strategy filled with risk.” (Dobson, 2013, p. 101-102).

A high level of risk tolerance increases the danger of failure but also increases the options for success. As a member of the Caterpillar Club, Lindbergh embraced this naturally. To become a member you must have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled plane. President George H. W. Bush, James Doolittle, and astronaut John Glenn are all members of this club. But there only two Caterpillar aces, meaning they have done it four times. They are Lt. D. J. Lortscher, USN, and Charles Lindbergh.

Due to his love of aviation Lindbergh dropped out of college and became a barnstormer, wing walker, daredevil, and parachutist. All of Lindberg's competition had crews of between two and four people, and only the Columbia was a single-engine plane like the Spirit of St. Louis. While all of the pilots were risking death, some might consider Lindbergh as having a lower level of risk since he was single and did not have a wife or children dependent upon him. On the upside he had much more to gain than that of the older, more accomplished pilots, especially those who were already famous, such as Byrd and Fonck.


While Lindbergh was willing to narrow the scope of his project, that does not mean he was willing to accept lower quality. Since Lindbergh used a single-engine instead of multiple-engine plane, quality was very important. By working with the engineers of the Ryan Aeronautical Company in San Diego, CA, he was able to ensure the quality was being achieved to meet his requirements.


The formula for communication channels is n(n-1)/2. For a two-man crew that formula requires two channels; for a three-man crew, it requires three, and for a four-man crew, it means six. But when you are a crew of just one person, communication on a project is really simplified. By going to San Diego to be with Ryan Aeronautical Company as they built the plane, Lindbergh also improved the communication process during the critical phase of designing and building the plane. This is a great example of David Packard's MBWA or “management by walking around” (Packard, 2006).

Human Resources

Some of the biggest issues the other projects had were in the area of human resources. Having a crew of one instead of two or more greatly simplified this.


Failing to purchase the Bellanca plane from the Columbia Aircraft Corporation appeared to be a problem at the time. While losing two months, Lindbergh was able to have more influence on the design of the plane he would use.


By keeping the scope, cost, time, and project team smaller than the competition, Lindbergh in many ways made integration on the Spirit of St. Louis project simpler. When keeping the scope, cost, time, and project team smaller on a project, it usually also makes the integration easier.


Unlike some of the other projects he was competing with, Lindbergh appears to have had a much better relationship with the stakeholders on his project. They included the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, the Ryan Aeronautical Company, and sometimes even the competing projects themselves since they shared some resources at the airfield. The Sikorsky S-35, America, and Columbia all had significant stakeholder issues, especially with their sponsors. All three of these teams had sponsors who were located with them in New York City and who had invested in their projects heavily and correspondingly wanted to influence the projects heavily. The Spirit of St. Louis sponsors had provided the critical $15,000 to have the plane built, but they were located in St. Louis, which empowered Lindbergh to manage the project as he felt was best.

Agile Principles

The hottest, recent trend in project management is agile. Augstine (2005) defines the agile project methodology as a” barely sufficient or lean approach to avoid waste and increase responsiveness to change” (p. 21). He goes on to list some of the basics of agile as small releases, iterative and incremental development, collocation, self-organizing teams, tracking, and finally, simple, lean, and adaptable.

With the Spirit of St. Louis project, Lindbergh could be a poster child for agile. He took a very lean approach, avoiding waste. By reducing his scope he was able to have significant cost- and time-saving he could use not only to catch up but to surpass his competition.

Another aspect of agile is getting business involvement. Lindbergh was the only pilot actively involved with the design and building of his plane. While the other pilots took their planes up for test flights around New York, Lindbergh actually flew his across the continental United States with a stopover in St. Louis with his sponsors. This could be viewed to be more like actual production releases instead of just test runs.

Lindbergh's Project Management Attributes

With the Spirit of St. Louis Charles Lindbergh showed many attributes of a successful project manager that we should emulate today in our projects. First he was also willing to take on a difficult project that most would have considered impossible to accomplish. He was willing to take on the necessary risk where appropriate to minimize the scope, time, and cost to make success a reality. He showed passion for his project and commitment to seeing it through to success. He was willing to collaborate with others to enhance his chances for success.

Lindbergh's grasp of project management can also be seen in his assessment of working with Ford's aviation division later in his career. “Once they get an idea, they want to start in right now and get action tomorrow, if not today. Their policy is to act first and plan afterward, usually overlooking completely the essential details. Result: a tremendous increase of cost and effort unnecessarily.” (Grandin, 2010, p.302). While Lindbergh was a man of action, he definitely saw the value of planning his actions first.

Impact of the Project on Society

Between May 20 and 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh crossed from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis in 33 hours 30 minutes (2, 610 miles). No one else would attempt a solo transatlantic flight until Amelia Earhart did, exactly five years later on May 20–21, 1932. And the Spirit of St. Louis project definitely made an impact on society. In 1928 the following increases over 1927 occurred: air transport lines flew twice as many miles and carried three times the amount of mail and four times more passengers; licensed aviators increased from 1,500 to 11,000, and the number of cities with airports from 100 to nearly 1,000 (Jackson, 2012). Today we think nothing of a transcontinental, transatlantic, or transpacific air flight. Due to the Spirit of St. Louis project the entire world took a significant step in getting smaller and more connected.

Impact on Our Projects Today

Sometimes what appears to be a disadvantage for us can end up being an advantage. Malcolm Gladwell gives several examples of this in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). His examples include areas as varied as David and Goliath, youth sports, civil rights, and business. Just as Lindbergh looked at his weaknesses and turned them into strengths, we need to do the same on our projects. We need to look at the PMBOK knowledge areas and determine where we can find ways to use tradeoffs and alternatives to our benefit. The triple constraint (time, cost, scope) is a great place to start, but as with the Spirit of St. Louis project, another knowledge area such as risk may be the area where we have the greatest opportunity to gain on our competition. We also need to always be looking to learn from lessons from prior projects. And not just those we managed, or even just in our organization or industry. History and the world around us are full of project management lessons we can apply today. As taught by Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (2013), we should always be proactively looking for opportunities to sharpen the saw and renew ourselves by learning new things. So next time you are reading a book, watching a movie, or just carrying on a conversation with a friend, always keep an eye (or ear) open for lessons that you might be able to apply to your current or future projects.


Studying lessons learned from prior projects is a very powerful tool in project management. It is not enough just to document lessons learned; we need to make sure that other future project's project managers and team members know where they are stored and that they read them before starting their next project. We need to be sure that the best practices are added to our project methodology and that things that did not work are prevented from happening again in the future.

We cannot only learn from projects in our organization and our industry but also from various projects in history. From this paper you should have learned about the Orteig Prize and the Spirit of St. Louis and the various projects competing to win the competition. From these projects you should have also learned lessons that you can apply to your projects today.


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© 2014, Jacob S. Stewart
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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