The Apollo 11 moon landing was an epic event symbolizing America’s spirit of adventure and achievement. In fewer years than the average person’s lifetime (just 66 years), American aviation had leapt from Orville and Wilbur Wright’s 17-second airborne flight over North Carolina to an implausible manned lunar landing 238,000 thousand miles away.
Not quite mid-distance between Kitty Hawk and the moonwalk, a daring aviator piloted a small monoplane christened the “Spirit of Saint Louis” in a nonstop trans-Atlantic flight that captured the imagination of the world like almost nothing before or since.
Back in 1927, a solo nonstop flight across the North Atlantic was considered insurmountable. Eight years earlier a wealthy Frenchman, Raymond Orteig, offered $25,000 (then a considerable sum) to the first pilot to fly direct from New York to Paris. Eight ace pilots had tried; eight crashed to their death. It was under this cloud of doom that an airmail pilot would step from the shadows of obscurity to become, in the eyes of the world, the very incarnation of heroism.
In the Roaring Twenties, where prohibition and showgirl flappers incongruously lived side by side, Americans thirsted for heroes. If anyone looked like an American hero, it was 25-year-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh. Blond and blue-eyed, 6-feet-3 inches tall, Lindbergh’s movie star looks were made for a time that author, Frederick Lewis Allen, called the “age of ballyhoo.”
Son of a five-term congressman, the unassuming midwesterner transformed flying from a carnival atmosphere into an accepted means of transportation. In cramped cockpits, with no radio or navigation equipment, Lindbergh barnstormed for the U.S. Post Office flying through 48 states, often in violent, wing-snapping winds and furious, unpredictable storms. At night, Lindbergh was compelled to land in open fields illuminated only by headlights of cars and, once, by the slender beam of a pocket flashlight.
Under such treacherous conditions, pilots were frequently killed. But Lindbergh’s blend of skill, resourcefulness and luck enabled him to survive and become a legend among the small circle of aviators.
He now had in his sights the elusive New York to Paris prize. Funded by wealthy Saint Louis businessmen, Lindbergh oversaw the construction of a single engine, silver monoplane that was pared down to its primitive necessities, which meant no radio, not even a sextant.
After dining with Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, son of the late president, Lindbergh sojourned to Roosevelt Field, Long Island, to test his machine and mettle in the greatest challenge man had ever embarked on. A crowd of 30,000 people were there all asking themselves the same tantalizing question: Could one man flying alone make a 3,600-mile, non-stop voyage through the atmosphere?
A morning rain casts a pall over the wide, spacious sky in Westbury. Taciturn and self-possessed, Lindbergh climbs into the compressed cockpit and, with characteristic nonchalance, fastens his seat belt and pulls down his goggles. Firing up the engine the aircraft begins to move – slowly at first – and then with ever greater speed.
It’s raining harder now, and running with the aircraft are young, athletic men pushing forward on the struts, running as fast as they can across the splashing, soaking runway – their yells of encouragement drowned out by the roar of the motor until, after 100 breathless yards, the last of them falls off as the tail skids lift off the ground and, with the engine now at full throttle, Lindbergh pulls the stick back hurtling the plane up from the earth, its nose arching skyward to the great beyond.
Soaring over the great Long Island Sound to New England, to Nova Scotia and then Newfoundland, the Spirit of Saint Louis finally breaks free over the majestic Atlantic. Lindbergh was suddenly alone; unlike Columbus and Magellan he had no crew; unlike the manned space flights, there was no Mission Control, no human voice to reassure and ease the loneliness. Amid an island of clouds, he had become an airborne Robinson Crusoe.
Through ocean-shifting winds, dense fog, iced wings and hours of darkness, Lindbergh dauntlessly flew on. One thing was certain: The aircraft depended on his navigational skills – the plane would not fly itself.
One thousand miles … 2,000 miles … now nearing 3,000 miles, the urge to doze became overwhelming. Purgatories of exhaustion taunted his sleep-starved brain – but to give in meant not deliverance but certain death. With eyelids weighted down with sleeplessness, Lindbergh, in a remarkable display of stamina, reached Ireland and now curving over to England he began to follow the Seine River to Paris. The gleaming lights of the world’s most beautiful city and the flower of European civilization were now visible with the airfield beckoning just northeast of it.
Buoyed by a sudden burst of adrenaline, Lindbergh flew triumphantly over the Champs Elysees, circling the Eiffel Tower, and at 10:22 p.m., like Apollo in his winged chariot, he descended from the heavens and bounced down at Le Bourget airfield and into the realm of mythology.
Global stardom was instantaneous. More than 100,000 wildly ecstatic admirers were there to greet the Lindbergh landing. Now lionized at every turn, Lindbergh was feted, toasted and celebrated. Congress awarded him the Medal of Honor and President Coolidge ordered the USS Augusta to bring Lindbergh home. As the ship sailed up the Potomac, he received an honor reserved only for visiting heads of state, a 21-gun salute. Meanwhile, millions of Americans began to dance to a new step called the Lindy Hop.
Under the glare of the celebrity lights, Lindbergh married the strikingly beautiful Anne Morrow, the daughter of a United States senator and ambassador. This union only added to his luster, for was there ever a more romantic couple than the Lindberghs? Not only was nature generously indulgent with gifts of beauty and intelligence (he would write a lyrical, Pulitzer Prize-winning work and she, fluent in several languages, would author 13 books, several critically acclaimed) but the sight of them flying together, when almost no American flew, into the wild blue yonder to chart future commercial aviation routes was the stuff of storybook dreams.
Their first child, Charles Jr., was adopted as America’s baby. Life seemed picture-perfect until the 20-month-old, chubby-cheeked boy, was abducted from his second-story bedroom at the Lindbergh 400-acre estate in New Jersey. The crime electrified the nation. A ransom note was found, but after a heart-wrenching 10-week search, the baby was found dead in a wooded area by a roadside ditch. A Bronx carpenter was fingered, convicted and executed for the crime.
The tragedy and the media feeding-frenzy surrounding it shattered the Lindberghs. With a public so deeply touched by his heroism and personal tragedy, Lindbergh’s dizzying fall from grace is all the more astounding. Ensnared by a quixotic fascination with Nazi Germany’s technological ingenuity and, to a large extent, their politics of racial purity, Lindbergh visited the country five times and received a Service Cross of the German Eagle festooned with small swastikas.
A fiery isolationist, Lindbergh invited scorn when he denounced aid to England and criticized President Roosevelt and the Jews for pushing America toward war. After Pearl Harbor, he would join the service and flew 50 successful combat missions over the Pacific. Redemptive? So it would seem, but for the rest of his life Lindbergh never recanted his views and even savaged the Nuremberg Trials for prosecuting war criminals.
His philosophy tightened around these inflammatory notions to a point where he became a quasi-outcast. It seemed those qualities of presumption, unreflective self-assuredness and stubborn independence that served him so well in the “fabled flight of ’27,” were the exact ones that were his undoing when confronting the larger drama of the world.
Fixed ideas, said Prince Metternich, are as dangerous as fixed guns for those who move along its line of trajectory. There was something too fixed in Lindbergh’s character to change. Perhaps his spending most of his last years on the African continent and choosing to die, among the natives, with orders to be buried naked on the island of Maui, was itself a flight from a world that was once was so familiar, so intimate, and, for him, so self-defeating.
None of this shakes the ineradicable image of the quintessential American challenging, in one nostalgic moment of time, the mysterious forces that rule the earth. Today, the Spirit of Saint Louis is located in the Smithsonian, right behind the aircraft of the Wright Brothers and near the Apollo 11 module that landed on the lunar surface in 1969. On the 40th anniversary of that landing they represent, on reflection, not dead relics of the past, but living reminders summoning us not to shrink inward, but to boldly reach outward to the moon, yes, and the stars.