While growing up on a farm near the small Midwestern town of
Twin Falls, Minnesota, Charles Lindbergh was fascinated by
speed. As a teenager, the thin, socially awkward young man
acquired a motorcycle, which he raced around town, testing
the limits of his courage--and honing his skills at the
controls of a speeding machine. Two years after enrolling at
the University of Wisconsin to study mechanical engineering,
the 20-year-old Lindbergh dropped out and began a life of
aerial adventure. He toured the country with a veteran
barnstormer who taught him how to wing walk and parachute
jump. In 1923, Lindbergh borrowed $500 from his father and
bought a World War One surplus Curtiss "Jenny" biplane, in
which he finally made his first solo flight.
22 years old, Lindbergh was already a skilled pilot when he
enlisted in the Army Air Service in 1924. A year later, he
graduated from flight training school in San Antonio at the
top of his class. After completing his army service, he took
a job as chief pilot with the Robertson Aircraft Corporation
in St. Louis, inaugurating a commercial airmail route
between that city and Chicago. By his mid-twenties,
Lindbergh had logged hundreds of hours in the air and been
forced to parachute to safety at least four times. Still,
the fearless young flyer's greatest--and most
dangerous--adventure was yet to come.
As chief pilot of Robertson Aircraft Corporation, Charles
Lindbergh was given the honour of inaugurating the first
flight on April 15, 1926, from Chicago's Maywood Field to
St. Louis, stopping to pick up mail in Peoria and Springfiel
In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a New York hotel-owner, had offered
$25,000 to the first aviator to fly non-stop from New York
to Paris. Eight years later, with the prize money still
unclaimed, Lindbergh persuaded nine St. Louis businessmen to
share the $10,580 cost of custom-building an airplane,
expressly to go after it. He named the Ryan Aeronautical
Company's M-2 strut-based monoplane the Spirit of St. Louis.
view of Charles Lindbergh's plane taking off.
Aerial view of Charles Lindbergh's plane in flight.
About two hours after sunrise on May 20, 1927, Lindbergh
taxied his small, single-engine aircraft down the rainy
runway at Long Island's Roosevelt Field. It was so loaded
down with fuel that it almost touched the trees and
telephone wires near the field during its 7:52 a.m. takeoff.
Using a magnetic compass to navigate, the 25-year-old
aviator--dubbed "the Flying Kid" or "the Flying Fool" by a
sceptical press corps--charted a course north-northeast over
Nearly a day
later, with great relief, Lindbergh spotted the
South-western coast of Ireland. He flew over the British
Commonwealth republic, then over England and the English
and one-half hours and 3,610 miles (5,810 kilometres) after
leaving New York, Lindbergh made aviation history when he
landed at Le Bourget field near Paris at 10:21 p.m. The
exhausted young flyer was instantly mobbed by thousands of
jubilant admirers from whom he literally had to be rescued
by French police.
sailors pose with the Spirit of St. Louis, June 12, 1927.
After being feted by British and European monarchs,
Lindbergh returned to New York, where he received a hero's
welcome from four million people. In Washington, President
Calvin Coolidge awarded Lindbergh the first-ever
Distinguished Flying Cross. The U.S. Congress presented him
with the Congressional Medal of Honour. He was promoted from
lieutenant to colonel in the Army Air Corps reserves.
For the next
five years, "Lucky Lindy" or "the Lone Eagle," as Lindbergh
now was known to an adoring public, continued to live a
hero's life. He flew the Spirit of St. Louis to all 48
states to promote the neophyte commercial aviation industry,
then took it on a goodwill tour of Latin America.
Charles Lindbergh's Sirius plane on the Yangtze River in
During a stopover in Mexico City, he was hosted by U.S.
Ambassador Dwight Morrow. Lindbergh was smitten by the
wealthy man's shy, beautiful 21-year-old daughter, Anne.
They were married in May 1929. Lindbergh taught his bride to
fly. Together, they charted new commercial aviation routes,
including the Great Circle-Polar route to China and West
Africa to Brazil. In June 1930 their first child, Charles
Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., was born. Respected and adulated by
millions, Charles and Anne Lindbergh were living what seemed
a fairy-tale perfect life.
Less than two
years later, however, America's Golden Couple was visited by
tragedy. Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant carpenter,
kidnapped Charles Jr. from their suburban New Jersey home.
Although a ransom was demanded and paid, the Lindbergh's
20-month-old son was never returned and was later found
dead. Hauptmann was subsequently arrested, tried, convicted
on capital charges, and executed.
and murder of the first-born son of America's hero brought
wide and sensational press coverage. To escape the unwelcome
publicity, Lindbergh moved his family--which now included
three-year-old son Jon--to Kent, England.
While living in
Europe, Lindbergh was invited by the Nazi government to
inspect the German aircraft industry, whose size and
capabilities for building advanced combat aircraft greatly
impressed him. Adolf Hitler awarded the famed American
aviator a German medal of honour. Although Lindbergh was
harshly criticized by U.S. critics of the Nazi regime, he
refused to return the medal, and later described the German
dictator as "undoubtedly a great man."
Lindbergh became a spokesman for the America First movement.
He gave speeches and radio broadcasts for the isolationist
group, in which he criticized Jews, the British, and
supporters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt for allegedly
trying to drag the United States into the burgeoning world
war. Publicly castigated by the president as a traitor and
defeatist, Lindbergh angrily resigned his commission in the
Army Air Corps.
But after the
Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Lindbergh
stopped his speechmaking and tried to rejoin the military.
Roosevelt blocked the move. However, in 1944, in the guise
of civilian test pilot, Lindbergh flew some 50 combat
missions over the South Pacific before senior commanders
learned of the ruse and grounded him.
In May 1945,
following the Allied victory in Europe, Lindbergh received a
rare chance to officially redeem himself. The U.S.
government asked him to once again assess Germany's air
capabilities, this time focusing on its V-2 rocket program.
Lindbergh gratefully obliged. Aware of Lindbergh's war
service and his historic contributions to flight, President
Dwight D. Eisenhower later restored Lindbergh's military
commission, promoting him to the rank of brigadier general
in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
Lindbergh published The Spirit of St. Louis. The dramatic
account of his historic 1927 flight was awarded the Pulitzer
Prize in 1954. In the postwar years, Lindbergh also became a
commercial adviser to Pan American World Airways and Boeing
Aircraft Corporation and served as a consultant to the air
force chief of staff. However, he now kept a low public
profile--until the 1960s, when the cause of conservation led
him to re-enter public life. In July 1964 Lindbergh
published an article in the popular magazine Reader's Digest
titled "Is Civilization Progress?" in which he emerged as an
advocate for conservation. He expressed the belief that the
quality of life could be preserved and improved only if
technology and conservation were successfully balanced.
Travelling round the world, Lindbergh worked to help the
indigenous tribes of the Philippines and Africa and to save
the humpback and blue whale, which were in danger of
extinction. He opposed the development of supersonic
passenger aircraft because he feared the effect they would
have on the environment.
In 1977, on the
occasion of the 50th anniversary of his solo flight, the
Charles A. Lindbergh Fund was created by friends of
Lindbergh at The Explorers Club in New York City. The
foundation's mission was both to further Lindbergh's belief
in balance between technology and conservation and to honour
him as a flyer and for his other aeronautical achievements.
In 1994, the name of the foundation was changed to the
Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation to reflect
the couple's shared vision.
Lindbergh contracted cancer. With his wife Anne at his side,
he died on August 26, 1974, on the couple's Hawaiian island
retreat at Maui. Although he had chartered new air routes,
fathered five children, written books, fought in a war,
promoted commercial aviation, global conservation, and U.S.
isolationism during an eventful 72 years, in the end none of
that mattered as much to the world as the brave and
unexpected achievement while an obscure young man.