A legion of forgotten men and women flew the Atlantic - or tried to - before and after Charles Lindberg's epic flight 50 years ago today.

The Lone Eagle was not the first to cross the 2,000-mile sea, nor the second. He was the first to do it alone, in a single-engine plane, in a non-stop flight between two of the world's major cities and for a well-publicized prize of $25,000.

The feat wiped out the memory of the 1919 transatlantic flights by Alcock and Brown from a farm in Newfoundland to a crash landing in an Irish bog, the two crossings of the British dirigible R-34 that same year, and the flights by Army and Navy pilots in the mid-'20s.

While transoceanic flying was riskier then than flying to the moon today, the tremendous publicity reaped by Lindbergh sent some genuine "flying fools" into the air. For the lucky or successful ones, a book, perhaps a lecture tour, sometimes some money from a grateful government or publicity-seeking city were the rewards.

It was a great adventure, one which could be indulged in by anyone with a plane and courage. They transformed their aircraft into flying gas tanks, then hoped for the best. The Copilot Mystery

When Lindbergh was shopping for a plane, he offered to buy the Columbia owned by Charles Levine of New York. Levine turned him down, but it got him thinking that a transatlantic flight would give his new aircraft company a lot of publicity which might snag it a government airmail contract.

A millionaire through post-war scrap dealings, Levine had branched into aviation in the mid-'20s. He even took some flying lessons. His plane was proven, and so was the pilot who came with it when he bought it. Clarence Chamberlin was a fine flier, but his diffident personality and mild appearance made Levine feel he lacked the charisma to get maximum press coverage for the venture.

One after another, Levine interviewed or hired, or dismissed, pilots he felt had pizzazz. All the while, Chamberlin continued testing the plane and watching the weather.

Finally, Lloyd Bertaud was announced as Chamberlin's copilot, through Chamberlin never felt he needed one. Everything went well except the financial arrangements between Levine and the pilots. Bertaud felt Levine was fudging on the deal, to say the least. He got an injunction preventing the Columbia from leaving its hanger until the dispute was settled.

That's where the Columbia was on the morning Lindbergh took off. Later that day, Levine got the injunction lifted but then declined to okay a take-off for Chamberlin alone. Bertaud, of course, had been fired.

In the wake of Lindbergh's success, the press lost some interest in Levine's antics. He endeavored to arouse it by announcing that his plane would fly nonstop to Berlin with Chamberlin and a mystery copilot aboard. The second man would be named just before take-off.

Sure enough, on the dreary morning of June 4, two weeks after Lindbergh's triumph, Chamberlin warmed up the Columbia, alone in the cockpit. He taxled down the runway at Roosevelt Field, Lindbergh's runway, and came back to the waiting crowd. His copilot had yet to appear.

Chamberlin opened the cockpit door, a man ran from the crowd and climbed in beside him. It was Charles Levine. The door slammed shut; Chamberlin gunned the engine and pointed the Columbia down the runway; and Mrs. Levine fainted.

Levine had bought a ride on his own plane. Several days earlier, he promised Chamberlin $25,000 and a $50,000 insurance policy for his wife if he would take Levine along. Chamberlin agreed. He didn't need a navigator, figuring Europe was too big to miss if they got anywhere near it. And Levine didn't know enough about flying to second-guess him.

Forty-three hours and 3,900 miles (a new non-stop record) later, Columbia ran out of gas and came to earth at Eisleben, southwest of Berlin. They were safe and famous.

That was enough for Chamberlin. After accompanying Levine on a tour of Europe, he took a ship home. Levine, still milking the publicity, said he would fly back. In Paris, he hired Maurice Drouhin to pilot him, then fired him.

Drouhin got friends to guard the hanger to prevent Levine from leaving wihtout him. But, somehow, Levine got the Columbia out and in the air. He came bouncing down at London's Croydon airport in his first solo flight.

He then hired, and later dismissed, Walter Hinchliffe, a one-eyed pilot. By then, the weather had soured so Levine and the Columbia came home by ship.

Levine now lives in New York City but declines to talk about his flight.

Still, he was the lucky one. Chamberlin died several years ago, a successful businessman. Bertaud and Hinchliffe both tried to fly the Atlantic and were lost at sea. Drouhin crashed to his death testing a transoceanic plane. A Burden Unlifted

It took pilot Roger Williams four tries before he completed a successful transatlantic crossing. After two false starts, he was back at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, on June 13, 1929, for a third attempt, this time with Lewis Yancey as co-pilot in a new plane, the Green Flash. Alongside them was the Yellow Bird carrying the hopes of France for its first transatlantic crossing with Jean Assolant, pilot; Rene LeFevre, copilot; and Armand Lotti, passenger. The same trio had failed the year before in a flight from Paris to America.

A coin toss determined that the Yellow Bird should take off first. It barely did, and looked oddly tailheavy as it slowly gained altitude. With the Frenchmen away, Williams and Yancey gunned the Green Flash down the sand, hit a deep rut in the sand and crashed. Both pilots escaped injury.

Out over the Atlantic, the French plane was still trying to climb and reach its cruising speed of 125 miles per hour. The problem soon was solved when Arthur Schreiber, a plane-crazy Portland, Maine, teenager, emerged from the Yellow Birds's tail section.

He had smuggled himself abord the night before. There was no reason to hide any longer, except from the fury of the French.

Deciding not to chuck him overboard, they reasoned his added weight would soon be equalized by the gas being consumed by the plane's engine. They droned on for almost 30 hours, lost their way, but made a landing at Comillas, Spain.

Williams and Yancey, having dusted off the sand, were astonished to have an unnamed aviation enthusiast offer them another plane, the Pathfinder, for another Rome attempt. On July 8, they left the Maine beach and landed 31 1/2 hours later at Santander, Spain, out of gas. The next day, Roger Williams finally flew in to Rome. Family Fare

By 1932, adventurers were thinking up some angles to make Atlantic flights more newsworthy. George R. Hutchinson of Baltimore announced he would make his hop a family affair with his wife and daughters Blanche Kathryn, 8, and Janet Lee, 6, aboard the twin-engined amphibian he had bought. Three crewmen and photographer Norman Alley also were invited along.

There was an immediate public outcry.The press and concerned citizens protested that the children were too young and Hutchinson too inexperienced a pilot for the still-dangerous journey.

Hutchinson would not be stopped. On Aug. 23, he took off from New York and flew in easy stages north to Newfoundland and Labrador. Off Greenland, a fuel leak developed and Hutchinson had to set the plane down in the sea among ice floes.

For two days, the family and crew sent out SOS's via the plane's tiny hand-cranked radio. Battered by waves, it was a question how long they could survive. They did not know a fishing trawler had picked up their message and was hunting for them.

Aboard the searching ship, a crewman saw a flash of light and asked the captain to send a blinker signal in its direction. He did, and there was an answering flash. The trawler carefully approached the light and found the family and crew still safe aboard. Narrow Escapes

The sea had forgiven other challengers. Harry Hawker and Kenneth MacKenzie-Grieve left Newfoundland on May 18, 1919, in a plane which had a detachable lifeboat as the upper half of its fuselage. They never got to use it.Just 500 miles out, the engine overheated and quit.

Searching the ocean, Hawker found a tiny fishing vessel and ditched his plane alongside it. The ship had no radio so it was almost a week before any one knew the fliers were safe.

Willy Rody was a 21-year-old newlywed who loved to fly. He named his huge, all-metal plane after his wife, then took off from Lisbon on Sept. 13, 1931, for America with two companions. Off Newfoundland, they were forced down into the sea, the plane all but sinking from the impact. For six days, the soaked trio sat on the half-submerged plane living off bits of chocolate and water from the radiator. Then, somehow, a frieghter spotted them and saved them. East Is East

The era ended with what is remembered as the wackiest flight of them all. Douglas Corrigan had managed to get his $600, single-engined plane from California to New York unharmed. Now, he told airport officials, he wanted to fly home.

They didn't think the patched-up heap could make it and were reluctant to allow him to take off at all. He had hinted that a transatlantic flight was really what he had in mind. Absolutely not, promised Corrigan. California is my destination. Permission for the flight was granted.

On July 17, 1938, Corrigan got his crate airborne. In the darkness, no one could tell which way he was headed. The next day, he landed in Dublin and forever became "Wrong-Way" Corrigan.

Nothing could top that. When World War II came, and planes were regularly ferried across the Atlantic, all the adventure and thrill was gone. The pilot who said, "When you leave New York, just fly up to Newfoundland and turn right," summed up what transoceanic flying had become come.