Everyone loves a bold explorer, someone who does something out of the ordinary, who risks everything, their life included, to make a mark on the world. Exactly ninety years ago just such a figure did exactly that when he touched down in Paris’s Le Bourget Airport, at the age of just 25.
Charles A Lindbergh, in front of his plane
Strictly speaking, Charles Augustus Lindbergh was not an explorer as such, but he was a navigator, having worked for just over a year as a pilot for the US Air Mail. The spur for his pioneering transatlantic flight on 20-21 May 1927 was a competition organised by a New York hotel magnate. Raymond Orteig was offering $25,000 for whoever could pull off the first successful non-stop flight from New York to Paris. The competition had started eight years previously, after British airmen John Alcock and A W Brown had managed to fly from St John’s, Newfoundland to the coast of Ireland on 14-15 June 1919, in a Vickers Vimy bomber. Up until May 1927 there had been a number of well-financed attempts by considerably well-known and experienced pilots, but all had failed, sometimes fatally – and these included a flight from the French wartime flying ace Charles Nungesser – so when a little-known US Air Mail employee from the Mid-West threw his name in the ring, very few observers gave him even a ghost of a chance of success. The New York Times of the 13 May reported the atmosphere in the run-up to Lindbergh’s flight:
Unheralded, almost unannounced, a tall, grinning youth of twenty-five soared out of the West into the heart of New York last night… While many think Lindbergh is risking almost certain failure in making this hop alone, all are rooting for the man whose flying experience has won for him the sobriquet of “lucky”, but whom others term as a “flying fool.”
Among the competitors for the Prize were the aviator Richard Byrd, who had already made his mark in exploration terms by being the first man to fly to the North Pole. Because he was a relative unknown among the Orteig hopefuls, Lindbergh had trouble attracting sponsorship for his attempt, and most of the $18,000 that he needed to build the plane that he had designed came from bank loans. As for the hardware needed for his attempt, it was almost as if Lindbergh was provocatively breaking the usual rules about long-distance flight, and seemed to lend fuel to the critics dubbing him the “Flying Fool”. Simplicity and travelling light were, he considered, the keys to success. Instead of having three engines, his plane, the Spirit of St Louis, would have just one; instead of its being a biplane or a triplane, it had just two wings; instead of being part of a team of pilots, Lindbergh would fly solo; instead of having a heavy metal seat, he would sit on a wicker chair; and there would also be no radios, sextant, or even a parachute. Lindbergh even went so far as to trim the margins off his maps to make the best use of what limited space he had. Just about the only heavy load that he had on board was the 450 gallons of fuel that he believed he would need. Speaking in a 2001 documentary about the journey, his daughter Reeve remembered him:
He said, ‘I don’t believe in taking unnecessary risks,’ and he also said ‘…but a life without risks is not worth living.’
The Spirit of St Louis took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field at 7:52am on Friday 20 May, and the omens weren’t looking good for Lindbergh. Though the weather was clearing, having been wet and stormy in the previous hours, it was still not ideal. The Roosevelt Field runway was damp and muddy from the rain, and there was a real risk of the plane hitting telephone lines at the end of the runway. The Spirit ultimately did manage to take off, clearing the lines by 20 feet, and headed north-east toward Massachusetts, Maine, Nova Scotia and then Newfoundland, before banking east across the ocean.
Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic proved to be a first for other reasons: caught on camera, it was the first time a news film would be captured with simultaneous sound, and it was also the first-ever “live” radio news event, with regular updates as to where he was (or was reported to be) whenever the news was being read. The flight was anything but a smooth ride: Lindbergh had to cope with fog, icing, skimming over storm clouds, spray from high waves, and of course a lack of sleep – which caused him at times to to hallucinate, making him think there were ghosts in the cockpit with him. In the words of his biographer A Scott Berg…
Never has a single person been so alone in the universe. Even astronauts, when they went to the Moon, were in some ways guided by remote control, had every heartbeat, every breath monitored by somebody down on Earth. Lindbergh was completely alone!
Make no mistake about it: this was a death-defying deed, this was one man alone, who was challenging the elements, challenging machinery, and challenging his own body.
Finally, after a 33½-hour flight, the Spirit of St Louis touched down at Le Bourget airport in Paris, at 10:22pm on Saturday 21 May 1927 – though he struggled initially to find the place, given that there were plenty of other lights in the darkness that were moving towards the airport: these turned out to be the lights of cars in a massive traffic jam, as thousands of people drove towards Le Bourget to catch a glimpse of history in the making. When the plane landed, a crowd of some 150,000 surged toward it, and dragged Lindbergh out, treating him to an unsought half-hour-long crowd surf. Much to his annoyance, souvenir hunters even tore some of the fabric off the Spirit. His global fame game got underway immediately: he was received at the US embassy, and awarded the Légion d’Honneur by France’s president, Gaston Doumergue. Lindbergh had wanted to tour Europe, but US President Calvin Coolidge straightaway dispatched a warship, the USS Memphis, to take him home: America would have a piece of their hero first. A ticker-tape reception awaited him in New York when he got back. Lindbergh received 10,000 marriage offers and 4 million letters, while various firms offered him millions of dollars’ worth of work – to all of which he said Thanks, But No Thanks. The “Flying Fool” had become “Lucky Lindy”.
The remaining 47 years of Lindbergh’s life would be marred by tragedy and controversy. In 1932 his eldest son, Charles jr, was kidnapped (at the age of just eighteen months) and later found murdered – a crime for which a German immigrant, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, would be wrongly convicted and executed. Afterwards, Lindbergh and his family moved to Europe to get away from the hysteria. When the war in Europe broke out in 1939 he campaigned for America to stay out of the war no matter what. He was an anti-Semite and a eugenicist, though he was not keen on Hitler, and was a believer in democracy. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, Lindbergh gave his country’s war effort his full support, and even flew with USAF bomber sorties over the Philippines. After the war he served as a consultant with both the Air Force and the Pan Am airline, and became a keen conservation campaigner, before his death in Hawaii from lymphoma in August 1974, at the age of 72. Not until after his wife Anne’s death in 2001 would it come out that this devoted and heroic family man and father of six had also fathered seven other children from three German mistresses.
Ninety years after his flight from New York to Paris, and henceforth history, however, Charles A Lindbergh remains best remembered for that pioneering solo transatlantic journey – which is surely what he would have wanted anyway. Despite the adulation that never properly left him, in spite of his controversial opinions, he remained at heart a relatively shy and reserved character who never truly came to terms with his status as a global celebrity. To quote his biographer, Berg:
He wasn’t doing it for the vanity, he wasn’t doing it for money, he wasn’t doing it for fame. He was doing it to show what he could do, what aviation could do, what mankind could do.