Based on Lindbergh’s book and directed by Billy Wilder, a pilot enters a contest and becomes the first man to fly a plane from the United States to Paris without stopping.
At the Garden City Hotel reporters wait for the rain to stop for the famous flight from New Jersey.
In a hotel room Charles A. Lindbergh (James Stewart) is trying to sleep at 1:30 a.m., but he keeps thinking about his flight and his plane on Roosevelt Field.
He remembers past flights at night and landing in a biplane without lights on the field. He gets out of the plane and asks Burt about Peoria. Burt suggests he put the mail on the train, but Lindbergh asks for a can of gas. He is determined to go on to Chicago. Burt calls and finds no news from Chicago. Burt suggests improvements, but Lindbergh says the bankers don’t believe in commercial aviation. They start the engine, and Lindbergh takes off. Burt answers the phone, but it is too late to stop Lindbergh from going to Chicago. He flies in the dark, and one engine stops. He jumps out and parachutes to the snowy ground as the circling plane narrowly misses him twice.
Lindbergh finds a seat on a crowded train. A suspender salesman talks to him about airmail, showing him an article about a plane that crashed in New York. Lindbergh says air holds the plane up.
Lindbergh drives a car and parks on Lambert Field in St. Louis. He goes in a café and orders eggs. He calls New York for three minutes to ask the Columbia Aircraft Corporation to sell him an airplane so that he can fly to Paris.
Lindbergh goes to a bank to find businessmen who will loan him money. He meets with several prominent men in St. Louis and lights his first cigar. They do not want to finance a suicide. He says this is not a stunt. He has $2,000 toward the $15,000 he needs to buy their single-wing and single-engine plane for more lift and less drag. If they win the prize for the first trans-Atlantic flight, they would get $25,000. He is asked how long it will take, and he estimates it will take about forty hours. Taking another person would add more weight and take longer. The banker suggests the “Spirit of St. Louis” as the name of the plane, and Lindbergh likes it. He says he can make it across.
Lindbergh goes to New York to meet with the president of the corporation, but he gives the secretary the card of the suspender salesman by mistake. He has a cashier’s check for $15,000 and wants to complete the deal. The president says they have not decided on the pilot yet. Lindbergh gets upset and says he is the pilot.
Lindbergh returns to St. Louis on a train, but his backers meet him and do not want to give up. The banker says the Ryan company in San Diego can build a plane. They give him a ticket to San Diego, and he gets on the train.
Lindbergh arrives in a taxi at Ryan Airlines in an old wooden building. He goes in a large room where men are working. He asks for the boss and is sent to Mr. Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson) who is cooking sand-crabs with a blow torch. He offers him some and puts more on to cook. Mahoney asks if he wants a job and says they have a special order from St. Louis. Lindbergh asks if they are equipped to handle that. The chief engineer Donald Hall (Arthur Spac) comes down and discusses the specifications. Lindbergh asks if he can build her in ninety days. Hall says, “You bet your life.” Lindbergh is concerned about that expression because he is the pilot.
They work together in the plane using metal for the frame and wood for the wings. Lindbergh wants the gas tank in front of the pilot, and an engineer says he will be flying blind. He shows him a mirror he can use to see better. Lindbergh says he does not want a radio nor a sexton and will navigate by dead reckoning. Hall suggests they do the job in less than ninety days, and Mahoney agrees.
Canvas covers the fuselage. Lindbergh plans his route over the North Atlantic. They tell him the engine has been tested to run 150 consecutive hours. Mahoney tells Lindbergh that his competitors Wooster and Davis were killed while testing their plane with a load of gas. Lindbergh reads the article.
On April 28 they complete the plane after 63 days. They go to Dutch Flats for a test, and Lindbergh takes off, flies around, and lands. They fill the wings with gas and test it again.
Lindbergh announces that he is leaving to fly to St. Louis and then to New York. Mahoney tells him to talk to San Diego reporters on the phone, and he learns that two French flyers took off for New York. Lindbergh expects they will make it. Mahoney says that is the first plane to take off with that much gas. They dropped the landing gear and expect to land in New York harbor. Lindbergh decides to go on.
He flies the Spirit of St. Louis and wonders what he will do with the plane. He lands at Lambert Field and says it took 14 hours and 25 minutes. He asks about the French men, but they have not been heard from and are overdue. At the café they listen to the radio report about the French flight which is lost. They also mention Lindbergh’s plane entering the race. Lindbergh learns that Chamberlain’s plane has been stopped by a court injunction, and Byrd is waiting. His backers ask him to re-examine his flight. They say four or probably six men are dead already. They wonder if it can be done now. Lindbergh insists they have to try now and until it is done.
Lindbergh is still lying bed during the rain while reporters type downstairs. He wonders if he can take off in that mud with 5,000 pounds. He tries to sleep and looks at a St. Christopher medal Father Hussman gave him.
Lindbergh is teaching the elderly Father Hussman (Marc Connelly) to fly and tells him to pull the nose up. They land, but Lindbergh says he is not flying well. They talk about God and Lindbergh’s beliefs in the technology and his skills.
Lindbergh turns on a light and washes his face. Mahoney comes in and asks if he got any sleep. Lindbergh says he is not taking anything, not even a toothbrush. He says his stuff can be sent to his mother if he does not return. He checks out of the hotel and gives Paris as his forwarding address.
Lindbergh arrives in a car during the rain. In the hanger he listens to the reading of the checklist. He refuses to let them put a parachute in. They have put 300 gallons in, and Lindbergh says they will top it off on the runway. He asks for a small pocket-mirror, and a young woman offers him one. After it is installed, he explains to her it enables him to read the compass. He lets her sit in the cockpit, and she asks how he can see ahead. He explains that he can control the five tanks of gasoline. She has been standing in the rain all night. Mahoney knows the weather report and suggests that he wait until noon.
Lindbergh steps outside and sees the rain has stopped. He puts a tarp over the engine and tells them to roll her out. Men push the plane, and Lindbergh gets in the car which follows the towed plane out to the runway. He gets out, and Mahoney asks him if it will lift off. Lindbergh says it will if he can get enough speed up. They drive out to look at the markers on the runway. If he does not have enough speed by that mark he will switch off power and figures to stop before the row of trees. Lindbergh goes back to the plane and is told it has been topped off with 425 gallons. He is taking five sandwiches, and Mahoney puts in the St. Christopher medal. Lindbergh gets in the cockpit and makes sure the dials are working. They start the engine, and Lindbergh says it is 30 revolutions low, but the engineer says it is not mechanical. He puts cotton in his ears and puts on a leather helmet with goggles and attaches the chin strap. He sees an ambulance wagon by the runway. He closes the door and tells Mahoney he might as well go. He puts the goggles over his eyes, and men help push the plane forward. He gains speed slowly and rolls through water. The tail lifts off first; but he passes the marker before the two wheels lift off and bounce. He flies between telephone wires and clears the trees.
Mahoney gathers his stuff in the hotel room and calls San Diego. The young woman on a train has to use something else as a mirror. A newspaper reports that Lindy is off.
Lindbergh flies over land and thinks how he will land in Paris after 38 hours. He tells a fly to get off. He flies over a harbor with small boats. He switches tanks and reminds himself he must do it every hour. He looks at a map and sees he is flying over Cape Cod. He flies above the clouds and stretches his arms and legs. After four hours he feels exhausted and realizes he has not slept for 28 hours. He remembers how he used to sleep when he was younger. He is dozing off and losing altitude, but the fly wakes him up. He sees Nova Scotia ahead and open sky. He flies low over the land. He notices he is six miles off course and figures how far off he might be when he reaches Ireland. He shouts to a man on a motorcycle.
He remembers driving his motorcycle to Georgia where he traded it in on a surplus airplane. The man asks for $500. Lindbergh buys it for $440 and his motorcycle. He pays, gets in, starts the motor, and takes off in the field, landing again, and turning around. He goes around the building and tries to take off again but has to stop. The man asks Lindbergh if he can fly, and he says this is his first solo flight. He manages to take off.
Lindbergh is flying over forests and has been flying for eleven hours. He goes over mountains and is in fog. He needs a checkpoint for the compass at St. Johns. He flies lower and comes out of the clouds. He sees St. Johns ahead and flies over it. Now he has 1,900 miles over the ocean to Ireland.
Sun is setting as he flies over the sea, and he compensates for drift from the wind. He is flying 90 miles an hour and goes up higher than the 300 feet.
Lindbergh remembers barnstorming in the prairies. He offers ten minutes for $5. He carries newsreels. He meets Bud Gurney (Murray Hamilton) flying, and they have dinner in a field. Bud tells him about a flying circus. Lindbergh says his father was a lawyer and was in the Congress. Bud asks why they fly. They fly planes for the circus and do stunts at the same time. A man walks on the wing and transfers to the other plane.
Lindbergh is flying at night and has gone 1,700 miles. He calculates the millions of explosions in the engine during his flight. He has to make it through the night. He thinks he sees sails, but it is an iceberg. He thinks of landing on an iceberg so he can sleep.
He remembers inspection in the army at Brooks Field. Lindbergh lands his circus plane, and the officer tells him to get it out of there. Lindbergh says he is assigned there. The officer orders him to remove his filthy plane. Lindbergh pulls the propeller and gets in while the plane is moving.
Lindbergh has been flying for eighteen hours and puts on gloves. He finds ice on his window and realizes the plane cannot fly with ice on its wings. He climbs higher to get away from the ice. The plane shakes, and he fears it is stalling. He turns the plane to find warmer air. He prepares to land on the water. Ice begins to break off the plane as he nears the water. He closes the door and goes on. He turns around to get back on course. The compasses are not working right. He looks up and decides to fly by the stars. He climbs higher and looks for the Big Dipper. He sees the stars and is guided by them.
At dawn he flies in that direction. He wonders how far off course he is and looks for land. He has been flying for 25 hours. His mind becomes confused, and he is sleepy. He forces his eyes to stay open, and his vision becomes blurry. He falls back asleep, and the plane circles. The sunlight reflects off his mirror and helps to wake him. He sees how close the water is and pulls the plane up. He looks into the sunlight in the mirror to keep himself awake. He sees seagulls and two fishing boats. He circles around them and shouts, “Which way to Ireland?” They do not respond, and he flies on. He wonders why they did not answer him.
Lindbergh sees little islands and land ahead. He wonders where he is and looks at his map. He recognizes Dingle Bay and realizes he is over Ireland. He shouts to fishermen. He sees sheep running and a ruined castle. He passes over towns and changes the tanks again. He notices Plymouth on the coast of England. He decides to have lunch and pulls out a sandwich and finds the St. Christopher medal. He sees Cherbourg on the coast of France and turns north to look for the Seine River. He sees it and follows it, expecting to reach Paris in 58 minutes. He hears something and takes out his earplugs. He is worried and tries to switch to other tanks to get gas. His altitude falls but stabilizes.
It is dark, and he sees the lights of Paris. He passes by the Eiffel Tower. He looks for Le Bourget Field and checks the map. He tries to see with a flashlight. He has been flying for 33 hours and has not slept for three days. He sees lights and hopes it is Le Bourget. He drops down to look and wonders what the lights are. He sees it is Le Bourget and plans to come in over the hangers. He does not feel the plane and struggles. He prays for a good landing and comes down on the field.
A crowd of people surges forward after the plane has landed. Lindbergh stops the engine, and his plane is surrounded by shouting people. They carry him on their shoulders.
The plane is rolled into a hanger. Lindbergh comes in as police stand guard. He finds a torn flap on the side and hears them cheering. He says there were 200,000 people there that night and four million waiting back home in New York City during the parade for him.
This biopic dramatizes one of the famous flights in aviation history, showing the challenges Lindbergh had to overcome.