Charles Lindbergh Aviator, Adventurer and Innovator


Charles A. Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 4, 1902, and spent most of his childhood in Little Falls, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. From an early age, Lindbergh had shown an interest in the mechanics of motorized transportation, including his family's Saxon Six automobile, and later his Excelsior motorbike. By the time he started college as a mechanical engineering student, he had also become fascinated with flying, though he "had never been close enough to a plane to touch it". After quitting college in February 1922, Lindbergh enrolled at the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation's flying school in Lincoln and flew for the first time on April 9, as a passenger in a two-seat Lincoln Standard "Tourabout" biplane trainer piloted by Otto Timm.

Lincoln Standard "Tourabout" Biplane

A few days later, Lindbergh took his first formal flying lesson in that same machine, though he was never permitted to solo because he could not afford to post the requisite damage bond. To gain flight experience and earn money for further instruction, Lindbergh left Lincoln in June to spend the next few months barnstorming across Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana as a wing walker and parachutist. He also briefly worked as an airplane mechanic at the Billings, Montana, municipal airport.

Lindbergh left flying with the onset of winter and returned to his father's home in Minnesota. His return to the air and first solo flight did not come until half a year later in May 1923 at Souther Field in Americus, Georgia, a former Army flight training field, where he had come to buy a World War I surplus Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane. Though Lindbergh had not touched an airplane in more than six months, he had already secretly decided he was ready to take to the air by himself. After a half-hour of dual time with a pilot who was visiting the field to pick up another surplus JN-4, Lindbergh flew solo for the first time in the Jenny he had just purchased for $500. After spending another week or so at the field to "practice", Lindbergh took off from Americus for Montgomery, Alabama, some 140 miles to the west, for his first solo cross-country flight. He went on to spend much of the rest of 1923 engaged in almost nonstop barnstorming under the name of "Daredevil Lindbergh". Unlike the previous year, this time Lindbergh flew in his "own ship" as pilot. A few weeks after leaving Americus, the young airman also achieved another key aviation milestone when he made his first flight at night near Lake Village, Arkansas.

"Daredevil Lindbergh"

While Lindbergh was barnstorming in Lone Rock, Wisconsin, on two occasions he flew a local physician across the Wisconsin River to emergency calls that were otherwise unreachable due to flooding. He broke his propeller several times while landing, and on June 3, 1923 he was grounded for a week when he ran into a ditch in Glencoe, Minnesota while flying his father, then running for the U.S. Senate, to a campaign stop. In October, Lindbergh flew his Jenny to Iowa, where he sold it to a flying student. After selling the Jenny, Lindbergh returned to Lincoln by train. There, he joined Leon Klink and continued to barnstorm through the South for the next few months in Klink's Curtiss JN-4C "Canuck" (the Canadian version of the Jenny). Lindbergh also "cracked up" this aircraft once when his engine failed shortly after take-off in Pensacola, Florida, but again he managed to repair the damage himself.

Curtiss JN-4C "Canuck"

Following a few months of barnstorming through the South, the two pilots parted company in San Antonio, Texas, where Lindbergh reported to Brooks Field on March 19, 1924, to begin a year of military flight training with the United States Army Air Service.

Lindbergh had his most serious flying accident on March 5, 1925, eight days before graduation, when a mid-air collision with another Army S.E.5 during aerial combat manoeuvres forced him to bail out. Only 18 of the 104 cadets who started flight training a year earlier remained when Lindbergh graduated first overall in his class in March 1925, thereby earning his Army pilot's wings and a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve Corps.

Lindbergh later said that this year was critical to his development as both a focused, goal-oriented individual and as an aviator. The Army did not need additional active-duty pilots, however, so immediately following graduation Lindbergh returned to civilian aviation as a barnstormer and flight instructor, although as a reserve officer he also continued to do some part-time military flying by joining the 110th Observation Squadron, 35th Division, Missouri National Guard, in St. Louis. He was soon promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and to captain in July 1926.

In October 1925, Lindbergh was hired by the Robertson Aircraft Corporation (RAC) at the Lambert-St. Louis Flying Field in Anglum, MO to first lay out and then serve as chief pilot for the newly designated 278-mile Contract Air Mail Route #2 (CAM-2) to provide service between St. Louis and Chicago with two intermediate stops in Springfield and Peoria, Illinois. Lindbergh and three other RAC pilots, Philip R. Love, Thomas P. Nelson, and Harlan A. "Bud" Gurney, flew the mail over CAM-2 in a fleet of four modified war-surplus de Havilland DH-4 biplanes.

de Havilland DH-4 biplane

On April 13, 1926, Lindbergh executed the Post Office Department's Oath of Mail Messengers, and two days later he opened service on the new route. Twice combinations of bad weather, equipment failure, and fuel exhaustion forced him to bail out on night approach to Chicago; both times he reached the ground without serious injury and immediately set about ensuring his cargo was located and sent on with minimum delay. In mid-February 1927 he left for San Diego, California, to oversee design and construction of the Spirit of St. Louis.

Around the same time, French-born New York hotelier Raymond Orteig was approached by Augustus Post, secretary of the Aero Club of America, and prompted to put up a $25,000 award for the first successful nonstop transatlantic flight specifically between New York City and Paris (in either direction) within five years after its establishment. When that time limit lapsed in 1924 without a serious attempt, Orteig renewed the offer for another five years, this time attracting a number of well-known, highly experienced, and well-financed contenders, ‌none of who were successful. On September 21, 1926 World War I French flying ace René Fonck's Sikorsky S-35 crashed on take-off from Roosevelt Field in New York. U.S. Naval aviators Noel Davis and Stanton H. Wooster were killed at Langley Field, Virginia on April 26, 1927, while testing their Keystone Pathfinder. On May 8 French war heroes Charles Nungesser and François Coli departed Paris – Le Bourget Airport in the Levasseur PL 8 seaplane L'Oiseau Blanc; they disappeared over the coast of Ireland.

Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian

Part of the funding for the Spirit of St. Louis came from Lindbergh's earnings as a U.S. Air Mail pilot.

Financing the operation of the historic flight was a challenge due to Lindbergh's obscurity, but two St. Louis businessmen eventually obtained a $15,000 bank loan. Lindbergh contributed $2,000 of his own money and another $1,000 was donated by RAC. The total of $18,000 was far less than what was available to Lindbergh's rivals.

The group tried to buy an "off-the-peg" single or multiengine monoplane from Wright Aeronautical, then Travel Air, and finally the newly formed Columbia Aircraft Corporation, but all insisted on selecting the pilot as a condition of sale. Finally the much smaller Ryan Aircraft Company of San Diego agreed to design and build a custom monoplane for $10,580, and on February 25 a deal was formally closed. Dubbed the Spirit of St. Louis, the fabric-covered, single-seat, single-engine "Ryan NYP" high-wing monoplane (CAB registration: N-X-211) was designed jointly by Lindbergh and Ryan's chief engineer Donald A. Hall. The Spirit flew for the first time just two months later, and after a series of test flights Lindbergh took off from San Diego on May 10. He went first to St. Louis, then on to Roosevelt Field on New York's Long Island.

In the early morning of Friday, May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field across the Atlantic Ocean for Paris, France. His monoplane was loaded with 450 U.S. gallons of fuel that was strained repeatedly to avoid fuel line blockage. The fully loaded aircraft weighed 5,135 lb, with take-off hampered by a muddy, rain-soaked runway. Lindbergh's monoplane was powered by a J-5C Wright Whirlwind radial engine and gained speed very slowly during its 7:52 am take-off, but cleared telephone lines at the far end of the field "by about twenty feet with a fair reserve of flying speed".

Over the next ​33 1⁄2 hours, Lindbergh and the Spirit faced many challenges, which included skimming over storm clouds at 10,000 ft and wave tops at as low as 10 ft . The aircraft fought icing, flew blind through fog for several hours, and Lindbergh navigated only by dead reckoning (he was not proficient at navigating by the sun and stars and he rejected radio navigation gear as heavy and unreliable). He was fortunate that the winds over the Atlantic cancelled each other out, giving him zero wind drift – and thus accurate navigation during the long flight over featureless ocean.

He landed at Le Bourget Aerodrome at 10:22 pm on Saturday, May 21. The airfield was not marked on his map and Lindbergh knew only that it was some seven miles northeast of the city; he initially mistook it for some large industrial complex because of the bright lights spreading out in all directions‍—‌in fact the headlights of tens of thousands of spectators' cars caught in "the largest traffic jam in Paris history" in their attempt to be present for Lindbergh's landing.

A crowd estimated at 150,000 stormed the field, dragged Lindbergh out of the cockpit, and literally carried him around above their heads for "nearly half an hour". Some damage was done to the Spirit (especially to the fine linen, silver-painted fabric covering on the fuselage) by souvenir hunters before pilot and plane reached the safety of a nearby hangar with the aid of French military fliers, soldiers, and police.

Lindbergh's flight was certified by the National Aeronautic Association based on the readings from a sealed barograph placed in the Spirit.

Lindbergh received unprecedented adulation after his historic flight. People were "behaving as though Lindbergh had walked on water, not flown over it". His mother's house in Detroit was surrounded by a crowd estimated at about 1,000. Countless newspapers, magazines, and radio shows wanted to interview him, and he was flooded with job offers from companies, think tanks, and universities.

The French Foreign Office flew the American flag, the first time it had saluted someone who wasn't a head of state. Lindbergh also made a series of brief flights to Belgium and Great Britain in the Spirit before returning to the United States. Gaston Doumergue, the President of France, bestowed the French Légion d'honneur on Lindbergh, and on his arrival back in the United States aboard the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Memphis (CL-13) on June 11, 1927, a fleet of warships and multiple flights of military aircraft escorted him up the Potomac River to the Washington Navy Yard, where President Calvin Coolidge awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross. The U.S. Post Office Department issued a 10-cent Air Mail stamp (Scott C-10) depicting the Spirit and a map of the flight.

Lindbergh flew from Washington, D.C. to New York City on June 13, arriving in lower Manhattan. He travelled up the Canyon of Heroes to City Hall, where he was received by Mayor Jimmy Walker. A ticker-tape parade followed to Central Park Mall, where he was honoured at another ceremony hosted by New York Governor Al Smith and attended by a crowd of 200,000. Some 4,000,000 persons saw Lindbergh that day. That evening, Lindbergh was accompanied by his mother and Mayor Walker when he was the guest of honour at a 500-guest banquet and dance held at Clarence MacKay's Long Island estate, Harbor Hill.

The following night, Lindbergh was honoured with a grand banquet at the Hotel Commodore given by the Mayor's Committee on Receptions of the City of New York and attended by some 3,700 people. He was officially awarded the check for the prize on June 16.

On July 18, 1927, Lindbergh was promoted to the rank of colonel in the Air Corps of the Officers Reserve Corps of the U.S. Army.

On December 14, 1927, a Special Act of Congress awarded Lindbergh the Medal of Honour, despite the fact that it was almost always awarded for heroism in combat. It was presented to Lindbergh by President Coolidge at the White House on March 21. Other noncombat awards of the Medal of Honour were made to naval aviators Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett, as well as arctic explorer Adolphus W. Greely.

Lindbergh was honoured as the first Time magazine "Man of the Year" when he appeared on that magazine's cover at age 25 January 2, 1928; he remains the youngest Man of the Year ever. The winner of the 1930 Best Woman Aviator of the Year Award, Elinor Smith Sullivan, said that “before Lindbergh's flight, People seemed to think we aviators were from outer space or something. But after Charles Lindbergh's flight, we could do no wrong. It's hard to describe the impact Lindbergh had on people. Even the first walk on the moon doesn't come close. The twenties was such an innocent time, and people were still so religious, I think they felt like this man was sent by God to do this. And it changed aviation forever because all of a sudden the “Wall Streeters” were banging on doors looking for airplanes to invest in. We'd been standing on our heads trying to get them to notice us but after Lindbergh, suddenly everyone wanted to fly, and there weren't enough planes to carry them.”

A "Lindbergh boom" in aviation had begun. The volume of mail moving by air increased 50 percent within six months, applications for pilots' licenses tripled, and the number of planes quadrupled. President Herbert Hoover appointed Lindbergh to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

Lindbergh and Pan American World Airways head Juan Trippe were interested in developing a great circle air route across Alaska and Siberia to China and Japan. In the summer of 1931, with Trippe's support, Lindbergh and his wife flew from Long Island to Nome, Alaska and from there to Siberia, Japan and China. The route was not available for commercial service until after World War II, as pre-war aircraft lacked the range to fly Alaska to Japan nonstop, and the United States had not officially recognized the Soviet government. In China they volunteered to help in disaster investigation and relief efforts for the Central China flood of 1931.

Charles and Ann Lindbergh in China

Lindbergh used his fame to promote air mail service. For example, at the request of the owner of West Indian Aerial Express and later Pan Am's chief pilot, in February 1928 he carried some 3,000 pieces of special souvenir mail between Santo Domingo, R.D., Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Havana, Cuba, ‌the last three stops he and the Spirit made during their 7,800 mi "Good Will Tour" of Latin America and the Caribbean between December 13, 1927 and February 8, 1928.

Two weeks after his Latin American tour, Lindbergh piloted a series of special flights over his old CAM-2 route on February 20 and February 21. Tens of thousands of self-addressed souvenir covers were sent in from all over the world, so at each stop Lindbergh switched to another of the three planes he and his fellow CAM-2 pilots had used, so it could be said that each cover had been flown by him. The covers were then backstamped and returned to their senders as promotion of the Air Mail Service.

On the evening of March 1, 1932, twenty-month-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was abducted from his crib in the Lindbergh's rural home, Highfields, in East Amwell, New Jersey, near the town of Hopewell. A man who claimed to be the kidnapper, picked up a cash ransom of $50,000 on April 2, part of which was in gold certificates, which were soon to be withdrawn from circulation and would therefore attract attention; the bills' serial numbers were also recorded. On May 12, the child's remains were found in woods not far from the Lindbergh home.

In response to what was widely called "The Crime of the Century", Congress passed the so-called "Lindbergh Law", which made kidnapping a federal offense if the victim is taken across state lines or (as in the Lindbergh case) the kidnapper uses "the mail or ... interstate or foreign commerce in committing or in furtherance of the commission of the offense", such as in demanding ransom.

Richard Hauptmann, a 34-year-old German immigrant carpenter, was arrested near his home in the Bronx, New York, on September 19, 1934, after paying for gasoline with one of the ransom bills. $13,760 of the ransom money and other evidence was found in his home. Hauptmann went on trial for kidnapping, murder and extortion on January 2, 1935 in a circus-like atmosphere in Flemington, New Jersey. He was convicted on February 13, sentenced to death, and electrocuted at Trenton State Prison on April 3, 1936.

An intensely private man, Lindbergh became exasperated by the unrelenting public attention in the wake of the kidnapping and Hauptmann trial, and was concerned for the safety of his three-year-old second son Jon. Consequently, in the predawn hours of Sunday, December 22, 1935, the family "sailed furtively" from Manhattan for Liverpool, the only three passengers aboard the United States Lines freighter SS American Importer. They travelled under assumed names and with diplomatic passports issued through the personal intervention of Treasury Secretary Ogden L. Mills.

News of the Lindberghs' "flight to Europe" did not become public until a full day later, and even after the identity of their ship became known radiograms addressed to Lindbergh on it were returned as "Addressee not aboard". They arrived in Liverpool on December 31, then departed for South Wales to stay with relatives. The family eventually rented "Long Barn" in Sevenoaks Weald, Kent. In 1938, the family moved to Île Illiec, a small four-acre island Lindbergh purchased off the Breton coast of France.

Except for a brief visit to the U.S. in December 1937, the lived and travelled extensively in Europe before returning to the U.S. in April 1939, settling in a rented seaside estate at Lloyd Neck, Long Island, New York. The return was prompted by a personal request by General H. H. ("Hap") Arnold, the chief of the United States Army Air Corps in which Lindbergh was a reserve colonel, for him to accept a temporary return to active duty to help evaluate the Air Corp's readiness for war. His duties included evaluating new aircraft types in development, recruitment procedures, and finding a site for a new air force research institute and other potential air bases. Assigned a Curtiss P-36 fighter, he toured various facilities, reporting back to Wright Field. Lindbergh's brief four-month tour was also his first period of active military service since his graduation from the Army's Flight School fourteen years earlier in 1925.

Curtiss P-36 fighter

In 1929, Lindbergh became interested in the work of rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard. By helping Goddard secure an endowment from Daniel Guggenheim in 1930, Lindbergh allowed Goddard to expand his research and development. Throughout his life, Lindbergh remained a key advocate of Goddard's work.

In 1930, Lindbergh's sister-in-law developed a fatal heart condition. Lindbergh began to wonder why hearts could not be repaired with surgery. Starting in early 1931 at the Rockefeller Institute and continuing during his time living in France, Lindbergh studied the perfusion of organs outside the body with Nobel Prize-winning French surgeon Dr. Alexis Carrel.

Lindbergh Perfusion Pump

Although perfused organs were said to have survived surprisingly well, all showed progressive degenerative changes within a few days.m Lindbergh's invention, a glass perfusion pump, named the "Model T" pump, is credited with making future heart surgeries possible. In this early stage, the pump was far from perfected. In 1938, Lindbergh and Carrel described an artificial heart in the book in which they summarized their work, The Culture of Organs, but it was decades before one was built. In later years, Lindbergh's pump was further developed by others, eventually leading to the construction of the first heart-lung machine.

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