A pioneer of early aviation, who became the first aviator to fly an airplane nonstop from New York to Paris.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh, whose family moved about a great deal, was raised more by his mother, Evangeline Land Lindbergh, than by his father, Charles August Lindbergh, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1907 until 1917. During his precollege years, Lindbergh, an unimpressive student, attended eleven schools. He showed considerable mechanical ability, however, and was entranced by automobiles, motorcycles, and especially airplanes.
Lindbergh first saw an airplane in 1910, when a single-engine aircraft flew at treetop level up the river alongside the Minnesota farm where his family was living. From that time forward, Lindbergh thought of little but flying. He wanted to study aeronautical engineering in college, but no universities offered such programs. Finishing high school in 1918, he farmed for two years before entering the University of Wisconsin to study civil engineering. By 1920, he owned an Excelsior motorcycle, on which he rode to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1922 when, bored by his studies, he dropped out of the university to attend flying school. Although the school closed before he earned his pilot’s license, he knew by then that he wanted to spend his life flying.
Lindbergh apprenticed as a mechanic to a barnstorming pilot. He earned the nickname “Daredevil Lindbergh” by walking on the wings of the planes piloted by his boss, dazzling and delighting the assembled throngs below. By 1923, he was able to pilot planes himself. He traded his motorcycle for a war-surplus airplane, a Curtiss Jenny, in which he barnstormed on his own until, determined to perfect his skills as a pilot, he joined the U.S. Army Air Service Reserve in 1924.
In 1925, the U.S. Postal Service inaugurated airmail service to the Midwest, and Lindbergh became one of its earliest pilots, flying between St. Louis and Chicago, a treacherous route because of its severe winter weather. Twice Lindbergh had to parachute from his plane. While flying this route, Lindbergh learned that an affluent Frenchman, Raymond Orteig, was offering a $25,000 prize to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Seven people had attempted this feat and failed. Lindbergh immediately began to work toward winning the prize. He designed a plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, to be built by Ryan Airlines in San Diego with funding from both Lindbergh and a group of St. Louis businessmen.
Those who had failed to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean had attempted the flight in dual-engine planes. Lindbergh designed a single-engine plane that would conserve weight. An enormous fuel tank occupied the area from the engine to the pilot’s seat, totally blocking forward vision. A periscope was installed on the left window to overcome this problem. The plane carried 450 gallons of fuel, which so impeded its takeoffs that it barely cleared trees at the ends of runways.
After battling eight days of bad weather conditions that made a takeoff impossible, Lindbergh finally was ready to fly out of New York’s Roosevelt Field on May 20, 1927, taking off at 7:52 a.m. To minimize weight, he carried only five sandwiches and a quart of water. He further lightened the plane by having no radio or parachute aboard.
Lindbergh flew the great circle route over Cape Cod, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and, after the long Atlantic crossing, Ireland, England, and France. The most hazardous leg of the flight, the crossing of the Atlantic, occurred at night. Ice formed on the wings shortly after Lindbergh passed Newfoundland. Fortunately, it soon dissipated. Lindbergh’s chief battle now was against sleep. He would doze off and then quickly be jarred into wakefulness, realizing he was flying off course.
The Spirit of St. Louis flew through rain while passing over the southern tip of Ireland, but as the plane approached southern England, the weather cleared. The weather over Cherbourg, France, was so good that Lindbergh finally took a first bite from one of his sandwiches. He followed the Seine to Paris’s Le Bourget Airfield where he landed on May 21 at 10:22 p.m., having flown more than 3,500 miles in 33.5 hours. Cheering crowds greeted him, and Raymond Orteig later awarded him the promised $25,000 prize.
Once home, the bashful Lindbergh was lionized. He was given a ticker-tape parade down New York City’s Broadway. He became a roving international goodwill ambassador for the United States. In the course of these travels, he met Anne Spencer Morrow, the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, whom he married in 1929.
Celebrity perplexed the ever-reticent Lindbergh. He tried increasingly to evade public notice. He and his wife traveled throughout the world and became ardent conservationists. Their first son, Charles Augustus, Jr., born in 1930, was kidnapped and murdered in 1932. In 1935, the Lindberghs, longing for privacy, relocated to England, where Lindbergh worked with Dr. Alexis Carrel to develop an early heart pump machine for use in open-heart surgery.
In Lindbergh’s later years, his pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic sentiments were condemned by his once-adoring public. He gradually withdrew from public life, spending many of his remaining years at his favorite home in Hana, on the island of Maui, Hawaii, where he died of cancer in 1974.
Blythe, Randolph. Charles Lindbergh. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990. A brief yet accurate account aimed at juvenile readers. Davis, Kenneth S. The Hero. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959. A splendid assessment of the role the mass media played in shaping Lindbergh. Giblin, James Cross. Charles A. Lindbergh: A Human Hero. New York: Clarion, 1997. A thorough account aimed at adolescent readers, but useful as well to general readers. Profuse illustrations. Lindbergh, Reeve. “Charles Lindbergh.” In People of the Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. A brief, personal account by Lindbergh’s son.
Airline industry, U.S.
Spirit of St. Louis
Charles Lindbergh poses with the Spirit of St. Louis before taking off on his solo transatlantic flight in 1927.