|Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis at Roosevelt Field on Long Island prior to the flight.
It was 87 years ago today on May 20, 1927 lanky, boyish Charles Lindbergh took off from a muddy airfield on Long Island, New York on his way to becoming “the most famous man in the world.”
Lindbergh was only 25 years old, an Air Mail pilot, former barnstormer, and reserve Army Air Corps officer when he undertook his attempt to be the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.
That spring there was a rush to claim the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first trans-Atlantic flight. Many of the most famous names in aviation, including Richard E. Byrd were in the hunt. All other competitors chose multi-engine aircraft, usually tri-motors with two to four men crews. The results were often disastrous. The completion cost six lives in three separate crashes and four men were injured in another.
On April 26 two U.S. Navy fliers were killed on take-off from Langley Field in Virginia testing their Keystone Pathway tri-motor bi-plane. French aviators Charles Nungesser and François Coli took off from Paris for New York on May 8 in their Levasseur PL-8 biplane L’Oiseau Blanc but were lost, probably near the coast of Maine. Meanwhile other competing teams were setting up at adjacent Long Island air fields waiting for the weather to clear. Clarence Chamberlin and Bert Acosta were prepping their Bellanca WB-2 monoplane, Columbia, in which they had just set a world endurance record by staying aloft circling Manhattan for more than 51 hours covering over 4,000 miles—less than the distance to Paris. But internal disputes on the team result in an injunction being issued to prevent the flight. Byrd and his team were recovering from a test crash in April and refitting their plane.
Lindbergh’s strategy was different. He had a single engine, single seat monoplane built especially for the effort by Ryan Aeronautical Corp. in San Diego at a cost of $10,000 and financed by St. Louis businessmen. He named it The Spirit of St. Louis. The plane was stripped of every non-essential including a radio, navigation equipment and even a parachute to enable it to lighten its weight. To increase fuel capacity a tank over the nose covered what would be a windshield. The pilot had to stick his head out a side window to see ahead.
On May 10 Lindbergh flew to his aircraft to Curtis Field setting a new transcontinental speed record in the process. As he began final test flights and tune-ups Byrd’s backers forbad him to make the crossing pending more information on the fate of Nungesser and Coli. Lindbergh completed his tests with a total of 27 hours of air time, less than would be required for the crossing but he determined to proceed so as not to risk damage to the plane in testing.
He also determined that with the weight of the extra fuel required for the crossing, Curtis Field’s runway was too short for a safe take off. On May 19 Byrd gallantly offered the use of his adjacent base at Roosevelt Field, which had a longer runway.
The next morning in a persistent drizzle and low ceiling, the heavily overloaded Spirit of St. Louis had to be hand pushed through the mud on the field to begin its take off and used almost every foot of runway before taking off, barely clearing telephone lines at the end of the runway. Lindbergh gambled on taking off under less than ideal conditions knowing that his competitors would wait for clear skies. He hoped the sky would clear over the Atlantic.
Much of the way he flew by starlight and dead reckoning and was not completely confident he was on course until he crossed the Irish coast. During the fight he had to fly over storm clouds at 10,000 feet and descend to the wave tops to prevent icing. As he crossed the French coast word to went out on the radio that he was heading for Paris.
|Parisians run to mob Lindbergh and his plane when he landed.
By the time he reached Le Bourget air field at 10:22 PM local time on May 21 after 33 ½ hours in the air covering about 3,600 miles, 150,000 people crowed the field to greet him. Virtually pulled from his plane as the crowd surrounded it, he was hoisted on shoulders and paraded for nearly half an hour before French police and soldiers could rescue him and his plane.
Spontaneous street celebrations broke out in New York and other cities has they got the word of the accomplishment. The hero was feted in France and presented with the Légion d’honneur by President Gaston Doumergue. President Calvin Coolidge ordered Heavy Cruiser the USS Memphis to bring Lindbergh and his plane back to America. On June 11, escorted by much of the Atlantic Fleet, waves of Army and Navy bombers and fighters, and the Navy airship USS Los Angeles, the Memphis steamed up the Potomac to Washington, D.C. Coolidge awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Post Office unveiled a hastily printed commemorative Air Mail stamp featuring the Spirit of St. Louis.
Two days later he was given a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue in New York and honored at a banquet at Hotel Commodore with 3,500 of the city’s political and economic elite in attendance.
And that was just the beginning of the waves of adulation he would feel. He was soon off on a non-stop national tour taking him to all 48 states and 92 cities giving 147 speeches to promote aviation. By some estimates fully a quarter of the American population got a chance to see Lindbergh and his air craft personally and almost all of the rest saw him on newsreels or heard his voice on the radio.
Meanwhile, without much notice Chamberlin took off on June 4 for an even longer successful flight to Eisleben, Germany and Byrd flew to Paris on June 29 with three crewmen but could not land because of fog and had to ditch his plane near the English Channel.
Lindbergh claimed his Orteig Prize, a promotion to Colonel in the Air Corps Reserves, and a Medal of Honor. When he finally got a chance to breath, he wrote an acclaimed memoir of the flight, We, a runaway best seller.
The rest of his life was punctuated by bliss, triumph, numbing personal tragedy, and a foray into Isolationist politics that would deeply tarnish image, combat and some redemption.
First the bliss. In December 1927 he met Anne Morrow, the beautiful and cultivated daughter of the Ambassador to Mexico. She was said to be the only woman the straight-laced flyer had ever asked out. They married on May 27, 1929.
Their beloved, curly haired first born son, Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was abducted from the family home in East Amwell, New Jersey and held for ransom. After a 10 week search, including the payment of $50,000 in ransom, the boy’s body was found buried less than three miles from the Lindbergh estate. It was the first Crime of the Century. After a year and a half some of the ransom was traced to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant living in the Bronx. Hauptmann was convicted in a sensational trial and quickly executed, although doubts have circulated for years whether Hauptmann was either a patsy for the real killer, or a member of a wider conspiracy.
Even before the execution Lindbergh decamped in secrecy with his wife and second son and took a quiet residence in a village in Kent and after three years to a private French island. He busied himself with medical research, including co-developing an early model of an artificial heart pump that would be the basis of later work in the area.
From 1936 to ‘39 the Army commissioned him to assess the German and Italian air forces. He was personally escorted by Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring on some of these occasions and was somewhat deceived about the strength of the of the German air arm. Lindbergh became convinced it was, at least in the short run, so advanced of anything the British, French, or the United States had that it was virtually invincible. He also, as an engineer, came to admire the “efficiency” of Fascist regimes.
As storm clouds gathered over Europe, Lindbergh returned the U.S. and undertook assignments for the Air Corps. But he privately warned the British against war with Germany and advocated standing aside if it went to war with the Soviet Union. He expressed similar opinions in a widely read article in the Reader’s Digest in 1939.
After war broke out in Europe he was convinced that British propaganda would draw America in as it had in World War I. He resigned his Air Corps commission to campaign against the war assuming leadership in the America First isolationist movement and speaking to mammoth rallies in New York’s Madison Square Garden and Soldier Field in Chicago. He drifted from arguing neutrality toward Germany to arguing that it was the necessary bulwark against Communism.
In a speech at Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941 he claimed the three groups, “pressing this country toward war [are] the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration.” Heavily criticized for overt anti-Semitism, he claimed to have nothing personally against Jews, but stood by his charges. Lindbergh, an advocate of eugenics, and un-abashed advocate of “racial solidarity” was tied to overt anti-Semites like his close friend Henry Ford who boasted to an FBI agent that, “Whenever he visits, all we talk about is the Jews.”
President Franklin Roosevelt, chaffing at the effectiveness of Lindbergh in rallying opposition to Lend-Lease and other assistance to Britain, privately opined that he believed Lindbergh was a Nazi. Certainly the German propaganda machine delighted in featuring his big crowds at America First rallies.
Whatever his pre-war sympathies, Lindbergh threw himself into the war effort after Pearl Harbor. His attempt to re-join the Air Corps was coldly turned down by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson on direct orders of the President. Instead he signed on as a technical consultant on aircraft production and contributed significant improvements to both production techniques and the design of several air craft.
|Lindbergh, the civilian contractor at Emirau with pilots of the Army Air Force 475th Fighter Group. He would fly combat missions with them in a P-38 dual-tailed fighter.
In 1944 United Aircraft sent him as a technical consultant to the Pacific Theater. He “tested” various aircraft by flying combat missions with Marine pilots and later with Air Corps P-38 twin tailed fighters. In all he flew more than 50 combat missions as a civilian wining high praise from the service pilots he flew with. He was shot down and survived several days on a raft before being rescued.
Lindbergh returned to the States a hero once more to continue his engineering services.
After the war a tour of the Nazi extermination camps shook him to the core. Yet he privately believed that the advance of Communism in Eastern Europe validated his pre-war position. But he refrained from re-entering political debate.
He continued to promote aviation and later space exploration. President Eisenhower restored his commission in the Air Force and promoted him to Brigadier General.
Although apparently devoted to his wife, the author of several acclaimed books of essays, Lindbergh secretly conducted affairs with three German women from 1957 to until his death in 1974 and fathered five children between the Hesshaimer sisters, Brigitte and Marietta. He visited these families once or twice a year. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, mother of his five surviving children, apparently went to her death in 2001 without knowing.
Lindbergh’s final years were spent advocating for environmental protection and the preservation of the cultures of primitive people he encountered in the Philippines. He wrote widely and saw the partial rehabilitation of his reputation although he avoided public appearances. He lived quietly on the Hawaiian Island of Maui until he died on August 26, 1974 at the age of 72.