The perils were many — fog, rain, sleet, thunderstorms, winds, potential engine failure. But none proved more threatening than sleep — the desire for it, which, if succumbed to, would bring the permanent kind. To fight it off, he stamped his feet, shook his head, and sang aloud songs learned from his father while driving roads near his boyhood Minnesota home. At times, he flew the Spirit of St. Louis just 10 feet above the ocean waves, salt spray splashing his face.
Charles Lindbergh, 25 years old, had taken off solo that morning in his custom-built, single-engine monoplane from a muddy runway on New York’s Long Island. Thirty-three and one-half hours and 3,600 miles later, he would land at Le Bourget airport, outside Paris, France, met by 150,000 French, many of them swarming the runway to greet the new hero.
Lindbergh had learned to fly just five years earlier. Barnstorming small Midwestern towns, he performed aerial stunts like wing walking, and he completed Army Air Service training, becoming a reservist. It was on a flight as an airmail pilot based in St. Louis that Lindbergh conceived the dream of his New York to Paris flight. A New York hotelier had offered a $25,000 prize to the first person completing such a flight nonstop, in either direction.
Navigating by dead reckoning, Lindbergh had only a pair of compasses, maps and the stars above to guide him. He flew without radio or parachute (to save weight), radar was not yet in use and his charted course was far north of the shipping lanes because this “Great Circle” route was the shortest. Had his plane gone down over the Atlantic, his chances of rescue were little to none.
Several others were also planning to attempt the flight, but Lindbergh was the only one intending to fly solo, and the only one taking off that day — May 20, 1927 — after receiving a favorable weather report late the night before. The story of the New York to Paris race had been a national sensation for weeks. When word was out that Lindbergh was on his way, America was riveted.
Incommunicado though he was, millions traced his flight in their imaginations. Humorist Will Rogers wrote in his syndicated column: “No attempt at jokes today, folks. A tall, slim, bashful, smiling American boy is somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where no lone human being has ever ventured before.” A soon famous newspaper editorial asked readers: “Alone? Is he alone at whose right side rides Courage, with Skill within the cockpit and Faith upon the left?”
With his landing in Paris, Lindbergh became the most celebrated and admired man in the world, and remained so for years. All that changed in 1940 when he became the most famous member of the “America First” movement to keep the United States out of another world war. In a country bitterly divided over the issue, half of it came to revile him.
It is dispiriting to read Lindbergh’s speeches and writings from that period. There is in them a whiff of defeatism and, in one notorious speech, anti-Semitism. The can-do hero seemed to believe Hitler’s Germany was too disciplined and technologically advanced to be defeated by the democracies. How could the man who had conquered the Atlantic from the air believe its expanse would keep America isolated from war?
There is another side to Charles Lindbergh in that ledger, however. When the United States did enter the war, he was determined to help win it. Denied a military appointment by the Roosevelt administration, he found a civilian role testing experimental war planes and subjecting himself to dangerous high-altitude tests. His usual single-mindedness of purpose eventually had him flying 50 combat missions in the Pacific, his preternatural aviation skills helping train fellow pilots to increase their flight radius.
Lindbergh’s story tells us something about heroes — and ourselves. They are not in all things wise or virtuous, but that should not surprise us. Better it is to admire their extraordinary accomplishments and the qualities of character responsible for them precisely because they arise from human beings who are, like all of us, limited and flawed.
In later life, Lindbergh’s interests turned from aviation to conserving wildlife and natural habitats, a cause he lobbied for in travels around the globe. Still, for years he paid visits when he could to a building at the Smithsonian Institution. There he would peer up at the Spirit of St. Louis, suspended (as it still is) from a ceiling. Lindbergh was often lyrical when remembering it, writing in a memoir that it was “like a living creature … a magic carpet …. We have made this flight across the ocean, not I or it.”
About that, who is there who can say he was wrong?
Kirk O. Kolbo is a Minneapolis attorney.