Flight of the NC-4
Alcock and Brown
losses across the Atlantic
Charles Lindbergh
Wrong Way Corrigan


Charles Lindbergh

The lives of Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, have often been viewed as emblematic of America itself. Charles Lindbergh was probably the most famous person of his time, yet he was a retiring, contemplative man who hated publicity, even when he used it to further what he believed in. He became famous for a single heroic act, yet he influenced the development of commercial aviation through his continued efforts and flights, in a career that put him at the centre of progress just as it put him at the centre of controversy.

He dropped out of the University of Wisconsin, yet he valued knowledge and supported the work of such researchers as Robert Goddard in rocketry and Alexis Carrel in biology. He spoke his mind, even when it threatened his fame and he was scolded by President Roosevelt, yet he continued to serve his country by flying combat missions in the Pacific through World War II. Anne Lindbergh, the daughter of a U.S. ambassador, became an accomplished pilot under her husband’s tutelage, and became an author celebrated in her own right for eloquently capturing the thrill of flight and the enigma that was her husband.

The tragedy that engulfed them after the kidnapping and death of their child never left them. Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born on February 2, 1902, in Detroit. His early career in aviation included barnstorming and mail delivery. When the Orteig prize was announced, he tried to obtain a Bellanca airplane, designed by the Sicilian designer Giuseppe Bellanca. But Bellanca had a champion flyer in Clarence Chamberlin, who was then working for the Wright Aeronautical Corporation. Chamberlin convinced his company to install their new Whirlwind engine in the plane for a try at the Orteig prize.

Charles Lindbergh in flying gear in 1927 (though not on the morning of the trans-Atlantic flight, as is often reported).

The result was the Columbia, which Chamberlin was to fly across the Atlantic with Charles Levine after Lindbergh’s flight, and which became the first plane to cross the Atlantic twice. But Lindbergh was not  at all well known at the time and Wright was not about to risk the new plane on an unproven pilot. Anthony Fokker turned Lindbergh down for the same reason, though he suspected that Lindbergh might be able to win the prize. With the help of some St. Louis businessmen (who insisted that the plane be named after their city), Lindbergh contracted with a small San Diego aircraft manufacturer, Ryan Aircraft, to modify their standard  single-engine aircraft to his specifications.

The plane, designated the NYP bore a striking resemblance to the Bellanca. Its fuselage was cambered to give it added lift and its propeller was made of duraluminium. Lindbergh’s specifications stunned the workers at Ryan: he had them turn the plane into a flying gas tank, with no forward visibility and only a periscope giving the pilot any forward view at all. (Lindbergh figured that he could depend on maintaining the correct flight path by keeping tabs on the few instruments he had aboard.) He had the workers round out all the rivets to reduce drag. There was no radio, no navigator, and no co-pilot—and the aircraft was highly unstable, requiring constant vigilance by the pilot.

Amazingly, the plane was built in only two months at a cost of six thousand dollars (engine extra). Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, New York, in the early morning hours of May 20, 1927, when there was an unexpected clearing in the weather. He had been on his way to a Broadway show when he called the field from a pay phone on the way and got the word from the weatherman. He had not slept in nearly twenty-four hours when he took off, so fighting sleep was the most difficult part of the flight.

Among the witnesses to the takeoff was Anthony Fokker, who was certain the Ryan would never make it over the telephone wires at the end of the field. He and Chamberlin stood at either end of the runway in case Lindbergh needed rescuing. After thirty- three and a half hours of pinching himself and opening the side window to let in the cold air to stimulate him and keep him awake.

Lindbergh poses solemnly with his famous plane on May 31, 1927

Charles and his with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, pose in front of a plane (as they were asked to do many, many times) around 1927

Lindbergh landed in Paris. That made him the ninety-second person to cross the Atlantic, but he became internationally famous for being the first to cross the Atlantic alone and establishing in the process a distance record of 3,614 miles (5,815km). In the subsequent goodwill tour, Lindbergh met Anne Morrow, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. They were married in May 1929, and in 1930 the couple made three historic flights together: early in the year, they set a transcontinental speed record by crossing from Los Angeles to New York in fourteen hours and forty-five minutes, with only one refuelling stop. They flew a Lockheed Sirius at fifteen thousand feet (4,572m), above the clouds and weather where they believed the future of flight lay.

A similar flight took place in August of that year, as the Lindberghs flew from Maine to Tokyo, following a great circle route through Nome and Petroplavosk. Finally, in November, the Lindberghs inaugurated Clipper Ship service of Pan American Airways by flying the new Sikorsky S-40 Flying Boat, Southern Clipper, from Miami to the Panama Canal Zone. The events in the lives of the Lindberghs from 1932 onward reflect the complications and malaise of the twentieth century.

Charles Lindbergh Jr.

Their infant son was kidnapped and brutally murdered, and the sensational trial of the culprit was a strain that scarred them nearly as much as did the crime itself. In the late 1930s, Lindbergh became an isolationist and lent his name and prestige to causes that were tainted in the popular mind. He accepted citations from the German government as late as 1938, for which he was severely criticized. Anne Lindbergh found herself defending her husband in print, while at the same time putting forth her own, sometimes very different, views. Charles Lindbergh died in Hawaii on August 26, 1974.