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A memorable flight

Aviation legend put Little Falls on the map 90 years ago

Charles Lindbergh and “Spirit of St. Louis,” the plane used used to fly across the Atlantic Ocean 90 years ago. Photo contributed by Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The flight was distinctive because it was the first successful non-stop flight by a pilot flying alone. Considered a farm boy from Little Falls who had grown up to become a daring adventurer, Lindbergh made history and put his boyhood home on the map.

Baseball was big in 1927. Silent films wowed the masses. Ain’t She Sweet by Ben Bernie hit number one on the singles charts. Henry Ford ended production of the Model T Ford and sold the first Model A for $385. Gutzon Borglum began sculpting Mt. Rushmore. The Grand Ole Opry aired its first radio broadcast from Nashville.

Advancements in technology, communication, and transportation made the post-World War I and pre-Great Depression years golden. Into this bright and shining time flew the tall, handsome, and daring aviator. The world was his oyster and the air above it gave him the freedom of the wind; he was only 25.

Charles Lindbergh was born in Detroit, in 1902, but spent much of his childhood at the Lindbergh “farm” near Little Falls. His father Charles Lindbergh, Sr. worked the land, but he was also a lawyer and served as a U.S. senator for 10 years. The family lived in Washington, D.C., as well as on their small Minnesota farm.

Charles was the only child of his father’s second wife, though he had two older stepsisters. Charles was interested in mechanical things and was curious about how things worked. Inspired by a stunt pilot’s air show, he became enamored by the dream of human flight.

Charles entered the University of Wisconsin in 1920 to study engineering. Two years later he decided that college wasn’t allowing him to spread his wings so he moved to Lincoln, Neb. He took a job with the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation which bought old military planes. “Old” military planes would have been fewer than 10 years old since they were likely used in World War I. Successful motorized flight via the inspired work of the Wright brothers (1903) was only two decades old when Lindbergh first crawled into a cockpit.

Charles Lindbergh became a barnstormer, a daredevil stunt pilot. Then he decided to get more formal flight training with the United States Army. He enlisted in 1924 and the next year graduated at the top of his class in flight school. He became a skilled and cautious pilot and was hired by the Robertson Aircraft Corporation, of St. Louis, to fly the mail between St. Louis and Chicago. Still, he experienced several close encounters with miscalculation and death. He acquired the name “Lucky Lindy” though it was his experience and training that kept him alive. He had learned when to bail and when to stay with the mail.

It seemed that he was on a steady course for his future, but the burning daredevil desire had not been extinguished. When he heard about the Orteig prize, a challenge by a business man and offer of a $25,000 prize to the first pilot who could cross the Atlantic alone, nonstop, Charles wanted it. The prize money was equaled by the distinction of being the first to succeed. Raymond Orteig, a New York City hotel owner, had offered the prize eight years earlier, and though several pilots had died trying, no one had succeeded.

With the confidence of youth, five years of flying experience and the backing of several St. Louis, Mo. businessmen, as well as $15,000 from the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, Charles commissioned the building of a plane made to his specifications. His friendship with Harry Knight, who was president of the St. Louis Flying Club and for whom Charles had become a personal flight instructor, proved very influential in making his attempt at the Orteig prize possible.

Lindbergh later explained his plea for support in his book The Spirit of St. Louis, “First, I’ll show them how a nonstop flight between America and Europe will demonstrate the possibilities of aircraft, and help place St. Louis in the foreground of aviation. Second, I’ll show them that a modern airplane is capable of making the flight to Paris, and that a successful flight will cover its own costs because of the Orteig Prize.”

The plane, with a nod to the financial backers, was named the Spirit of St. Louis. It was made by Ryan Airlines, of San Diego. It took just 60 days to construct the plane at a cost of $6,000. It was similar to the Ryan M-2 mail plane but had a longer range of distance which likely meant a larger fuel capacity. Only 10 days before Lindbergh’s historic flight he tested the plane by flying from San Diego to New York City with a stop in St. Louis. That flight was a transcontinental record at 20 hours 21 minutes and an exciting event for his St. Louis benefactors.

At 7:52 on the rainy morning of May 20, Charles Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field near New York City. His imagination of what that flight would be came from his experience though he had never before flown for 33 and one-half hours. Surely he was aware that U.S. army aviation pioneer Major Harold Geiger had died in a plane crash only days before. Did he question whether his flight would have the impact he’d hoped for with Pan American Airlines about to incorporate and British Imperial Airways already serving hot meals on commercial flights? How much did he worry about the weather since routine weather observations were done only from airplanes and none were sending back forecasts for his flight path? Fuel, food, oxygen, warmth, hydration and dehydration certainly all played their part in occupying his mind. As did simply staying awake.

Lindbergh later wrote that during the flight he hallucinated, seeing “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane.” Perhaps he was lucky in that they offered words of wisdom.

He had his wits about him when he landed in Paris and was greeted by an estimated 150,000 eager sky watchers.

While his fame may not have come overnight, it was close. Following the celebrations in France, Lindbergh set off on a tour of the United States, flying the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ to 49 states and visiting 92 cities. He gave 147 speeches and rode 1,290 miles in parades.

Though Lucky Lindy didn’t lead an entirely charmed life, his solo flight assured his place in history. Those 33 ½ hours in the air on May 20-21, 1927, have been commemorated, celebrated, and remembered; especially by fellow flight enthusiasts.

Emily Warner Field Aviation Museum in Granby, Colo., home of Lindbergh’s supporter Harry Knight who built an airport for Lindbergh’s use on weekend visits, hosts an annual re-enactment. Co-founder Dr. Penny Rafferty Hamilton loves to share avionics and pilot history. “We have a local volunteer who ‘becomes’ Lindbergh…down to the dirt on his Wellington boots because the field was wet and muddy when he took off for Paris.”

Lindbergh’s grandson, Erik Lindbergh, has been inspired by his grandfather’s passion for flight. Erik is a pilot with commercial, instrument, flight instructor and glider ratings. With connections to St. Louis, as his grandfather had, he helped launch the XPRIZE Foundation (considered an innovation engineer providing competitive incentives for discovery) in St. Louis. He also retraced the 1927 solo flight in 2002, raising funds for this foundation. He is working with a group of students in developing the first all-electric plane, which is known as the e-Spirit of St. Louis.

“I am planning a 90th anniversary celebration with the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) at Oshkosh Airventure July 25 – 29 (details TBD) and demonstrating the e-spirit of St. Louis at Airventure and several locations around the country this summer (also TBD),” Erik said of his involvement with the anniversary.

Check out this video on the student-built e-Spirit:

Erik also put in a plug for support for this student project, “We are still fundraising for the students to tour with the aircraft this summer, so anyone who wants to donate can use the link on our webpage; it is tax deductible and goes direct to the program:

Charles’ boyhood home near Little Falls is a National Historic Landmark. This year’s celebration at the Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site on the Mississippi River just west of town has several activities planned: guided tours of Lindbergh’s childhood home will be offered every 30 minutes between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. except at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. when special programs on Lindbergh’s flight will be presented in the visitor center.

Melissa Peterson, manager at the Lindbergh site, encourages area residents to attend anniversary-related activities throughout the Little Falls community. She also has recommendations for reading more about Lindbergh’s life, “For the flight specifically, I always recommend reading The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles Lindbergh. The book is a wonderful blend of flight details and stories from his youth and early flying career. It is easy to read, and you get a sense of Lindbergh’s voice and motivations since it is an autobiography.

“If you are more interested in a general Lindbergh biography, I recommend reading Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg. Berg is the only biographer to have unrestricted access to family archives and tells a complete view of Lindbergh’s life,” added Peterson.

On May 20, take some time to ponder Lindbergh’s words from 90 years ago: “The life of an aviator seemed to me ideal. It involved skill. It brought adventure. It made use of the latest developments of science. Mechanical engineers were fettered to factories and drafting boards while pilots have the freedom of wind with the expanse of sky. There were times in an aeroplane when it seemed I had escaped mortality to look down on earth like a god.”

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