Seventy-five years earlier, nearly to the minute, the dirty silver monoplane touched down outside Paris, France, over 33 hours and an epoch of human achievement after splashing skyward from a muddy field in New York. Now, 75 years later, I stood on the upper level of the National Air and Space Museum, glass of wine in hand, admiring the Spirit of St. Louis. I had the honor and supreme privilege of joining some of the great names in aviation history, and the descendants of many others, at the gala celebration of then-Captain Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the awesome Atlantic. At just above eye level, the Spirit’s open cockpit door and sparse, Spartan interior beckoned the imagination 75 years back in time to relive the flight that changed history.
It was a young 23 years after the Wright Brothers amazed the world by flying 120 feet, that a 25-year-old airmail pilot — with a few hundred hours’ flying experience — took off in a single-seat plane about the size of a Cessna 172. Pointing east on his first overwater flight, he cruised at an average 107 miles per hour, much of the time flying solely by crude “needle, ball and airspeed” and a pair of compasses in “hard” instrument conditions. Despite clouds, fog, airframe and carburetor ice, and serious fatigue that contributed to disorientation, momentary fuel mismanagement and (at one point) total loss of control, “Lucky Lindy” hit Ireland with amazing accuracy for the day. He then crossed far narrower bays and straits to the French coast, finally flying by pilotage to a landing-lightless touchdown on a poorly lit airfield — to the cheers of a crowd numbering over 100,000.
NO “FLYING FOOL”
Reporters called him “The Flying Fool,” before and during the flight, obviously insane for attempting the flight alone in a single-engine, landplane over the cruel Atlantic. “Lucky Lindy” became his moniker as he reappeared over Ireland, Great Britain, then finally France. When he circled Le Bourget and word arrived that his wheels brushed the European continent, Captain Lindbergh was dubbed “The Lone Eagle,” a “fool” no more. He was soon promoted past two ranks directly to Colonel in the fledgling Army Air Service.
But although he flew alone, Lindbergh did not make the trip without significant help. He was backed by some of the most energetic engineers, the most tireless planemakers, and the most visionary bankers and businessmen. He’d spent months learning the art of compass navigation under the tutelage of Naval officers, and countless “all-nighters” laying out, checking and rechecking his “great circle” flight path. He honed his compass skills to be able to maintain course within a degree for hours on end. He actively participated in the design and construction of his airplane, and the selection of the Wright Whirlwind engine, one of the very first that provided some confidence that it could continue to run for nearly two days aloft.
And Charles Lindbergh exercised risk management worthy of any aviation endeavor to date then or now. Why did he fly alone? Because he felt lifting fuel gave him a better chance of survival than carrying the weight of a second pilot or a navigator. Why a single-engine airplane? Because the multiengine airplanes of the day could not have continued the trip if an engine quit anyway — the extra engines (multiplying his chance of having an engine failure) would have simply “carried him to the scene of the accident.” It would also have required a vastly heavier airplane to get the extra weight of engines and additional fuel into the air. Why not use a seaplane? Because his intention was to not land in the water — and floats or a “flying boat” hull structure would be more weight to haul and more drag once aloft, weight that could instead be a payload of additional fuel.
So the flight of the “Lone Eagle” was not a “stunt” or a “trick,” and certainly it was not a casual “jaunt” by a single man in a shiny, new airplane. Lindbergh’s flight in the Spirit of St. Louis was perhaps the ultimate exercise in risk management, where no decision was made without careful consideration, no risk was taken without a strategy to avoid (or at least minimize) that risk. And it simply could not have happened without the vast support team that clustered in San Diego’s Ryan factory, around the radios of businessmen/backers in St. Louis, and bunched by the phone, at the weather desk, in the hangar and in the mud at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York. The flight of the Spirit was perhaps the ultimate expression of defining and intelligently overcoming a challenge — facing an almost insurmountable task and still having the courage to create a team and achieve a vision. If Lindbergh had truly acted “alone,” if he had not looked at his own limitations and those of his airplane, but instead cavalierly mounted up and steered east over the ocean, then we in the 21st century probably would never have heard of him. Instead, we celebrate his achievement, even to this day.
The gala event was attended by about 500 people: aviation dignitaries, relatives of persons involved in Lindbergh’s life or the Atlantic flight itself; nearly 30 of the direct descendants of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh themselves; and a very few “hangers on” (like me) who have been involved in the Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, or the recent Erik Lindbergh recreation of his grandfather’s flight. A French general represented the government of Lindbergh’s destination. Reeve Lindbergh, noted author and daughter of Charles and Anne, officiated in the Smithsonian’s theater. National Air and Space Museum director General John R. Dailey opened the event, joined by Deputy Director Donald Lopez — whose “first conscious memory,’ as a three-year-old, is waving at Lindbergh as his open car passed in the ticker-tape parade that welcomed Charles back from Europe. Retired Senator and astronaut John Glenn was keynote speaker, relating memories of when Lindbergh taught Glenn’s Marine Corps squadron to fly the Vought Corsair at a base in California, then later joined his unit for “three or four” Corsair combat missions in the South Pacific. The Lindbergh family bestowed the Lindbergh Spirit Award on Senator Glenn. Retired Air Force General Robert Scott (of Flying Tigers and “God Is My Co-Pilot” fame), spoke of how Lindbergh helped the American war effort, taught P-38 pilots to maximize range for combat patrols, and how much later the “greatest wrong” in U.S. aviation history was “corrected,” — Charles Lindbergh was promoted to Brigadier General in the Air Force reserves. Numerous other dignitaries spoke of Charles’ worldwide flights, his sponsorship of Robert Goddard’s pioneering work in rocketry, and Lindbergh’s own research in medicine and the development of an artificial heart.
As the event wound down I again turned to the rugged-looking monoplane, trim but boxy, patched-looking but sleek, hanging motionless, but forever flying. Seventy-five years, I thought, and I’ve been alive for more than half of them.
Where will we be, what will we have done, 75 years from now?