An Irishman's Diary

 

It is 75 years today since Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight from New York to Paris. Early on the morning of May 20th, 1927 he took off from Roosevelt Field in the plane he had named The Spirit of St Louis. He flew north-eastwards along the coast and was sighted later in the day over Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. From St Johns, Newfoundland, he headed out over the Atlantic, depending only on a magnetic compass, his airspeed indicator and luck to help him find his way to Ireland.

His flight had captured the American imagination like few events in history. People waited nervously by their radios, listening for news of his progress. When he was seen crossing the Irish coast, all of America cheered and his arrival in Paris was eagerly awaited. A huge, excited crowd of over 100,000 had gathered at Le Bourget Field to greet him. When he landed, less than 34 hours after taking off from New York, he became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Mechanical ability

Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902-1974) was born in Detroit and grew up on a farm near Little Falls, Minnesota. His father was a lawyer and US congressman. The young Lindbergh showed exceptional mechanical ability. He went to the University of Wisconsin to study engineering, but was more interested in the new, exciting field of aviation. He left college after two years to become a barnstormer, a pilot who performed daring stunts at fairs.

He joined the army in 1924 to train as an air service reserve pilot. The following year he graduated as the best in his class. The Robertson Aircraft Corporation of St Louis hired him to fly the post between St Louis and Chicago.

In 1919, a New York hotel owner, Raymond Orteig, had offered $25,000 to the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Several pilots were killed or injured in pursuit of this prize but by 1927 it had still not been won. Lindbergh believed he could win it if he had the right aircraft. Having persuaded nine St Louis businessmen to help him with the costs, he picked the Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego to build the special plane, which he himself helped to design. He gave it the now famous name and in early May 1927 tested it by flying from San Diego to New York, with an overnight stop in St Louis. The flight took just over 20 hours and created a transcontinental record.

His heroic, 3,600-mile, transatlantic flight on May 20th-21st stirred people all over the world and many awards followed, including the Congressional Medal of Honour and the Distinguished Flying Cross from President Calvin Coolidge. After the flight, Lindbergh promoted the aeronautics industry throughout the US and also persuaded the Guggenheim family to support rocket research, then in its infancy. He worked as a technical adviser for a number of airlines as well.

At the government's request, Lindbergh flew to various Central and South American countries as a symbol of goodwill in late 1927. In Mexico he met Anne Morrow, daughter of the American ambassador, and married her two years later. He taught her to fly and they travelled the world together, working out new routes for various airlines. She also became famous for her poetry and other writings.

Kidnap tragedy

In March 1932, their son of 20 months, Charles Jnr, was kidnapped from their New Jersey home. Some 10 weeks later, his body was found. The police arrested and charged Bruno Hauptmann with the murder two years later. He was convicted and executed. The sensation of the tragedy led to the Lindberghs being constantly pestered, which caused the couple and their three-year-old son, Jon, to move to Europe in search of privacy and safety.

The governments of France and Germany invited him to tour their countries' air industries. The highly advanced aircraft industry of Nazi Germany particularly impressed him. In 1938, Hermann Goering presented Lindbergh with a German medal of honour. His acceptance of it caused an outcry among critics of Nazism in America.

The Lindberghs returned to the US in 1939 and Charles became active in the America First Committee, which opposed voluntary US entry into the second World War. He criticised President Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy and claimed that British, Jewish and pro-Roosevelt groups were leading America into the war. When Roosevelt publicly denounced him, he resigned his commission in the Army Air Corps. Some Americans accused him of being a Nazi sympathiser because he refused to return the Goering medal.

Combat missions

After Pearl Harbour, however, Lindbergh he wholeheartedly supported the war effort, acting at first as technical adviser and test pilot (his request to re-enlist had been turned down). Later he went to the Pacific to advise the army and navy and, although a civilian, flew about 50 combat missions. He developed cruise-control techniques that improved American fighter planes' potential.

Lindbergh deliberately withdrew from public attention after the war, working as a consultant to the chief of staff of the USAF. President Eisenhower restored his commission and made him an air force brigadier-general in 1954. He also worked for Pan Am, helping in time to design the Boeing 747 jet. In 1953, he published The Spirit of St Louis, a detailed account of the momentous 1927 flight, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

In later life he was an active conservationist. He died and is buried on the beautiful Hawaiian island of Maui. His simply designed gravestone bears the inscription: "If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea."