Charles Lindbergh was an American aviator who, in 1927 because the first person to make a nonstop flight from New York to Paris. His groundbreaking journey gave him instantaneous global fame – epitomising the new era of possibilities and global travel. Five years later his son was kidnapped in a story that gripped America and the world. Such was its impact it has often been called the ‘crime of the century.’ Although famed for his flying exploits, he was known to have anti-semitic views and some feared his friendship with Nazi officials and support of “America First” gave him a sympathetic view of fascism. Despite opposing America’s entry into the Second World War, he later supported the US war effort and flew 50 civilian missions in the Pacific. One of the world’s first global celebrities, Lindbergh went from hero to a dramatic fall from grace due to his perceived political views. In later years, he retreated from public view but expressed support for environmental activism.
Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan on 4 February 1902 and grew up in Minnesota and Washington D.C. His father was a US Congressman from 1907-17, whose most memorable activism was opposing the US entry into World War I.
Lindbergh was fascinated with mechanised transport and he enrolled in an engineering degree. However, impatient with theoretical understanding, he left to train to become a pilot. By 1923, he had his own aeroplane (a surplus WWI Curtiss “Jenny” plane.) and was flying solo across the country. Right from the start of his flying career, he gained an attitude as a ‘daredevil’ flyer – flying solo across states and on numerous occasions taking local doctors to emergency calls in remote areas. In 1924, he enrolled in US army Air service and graduated first in his class. He was commissioned as Lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve corps. He also gained employment with the US Post office department in their new air mail department. In the early 1920s, flying was still a hazardous and dangerous activity. Safety procedures were rudimentary and the equipment was quite basic. Lindbergh experienced numerous crashes and equipment failure, which could have been a lot more damaging, but he escaped unscathed.
The first transatlantic flight was completed in 1919 from Newfoundland to the west coast of Ireland. This spurred great interest in long-distance flights which seemed almost unbelievable to a population not used to travelling far beyond their home town. In 1919, Raymond Orteig put up a prize of $25,000 for anyone who could fly non-stop between Paris and New York City. After five years, no-one had stepped forward to claim the prize. There were several unsuccessful attempts, with many pilots dying on the route, but it did not dim the enthusiasm of potential flyers.
In 1927, Lindbergh succeeded in gaining funding of $18,000 to finance his expedition. He bought a custom monoplane, he called the “Spirit of St. Louis. The fuselage was made with treated fabric over a metal frame and the wings were made of wood covered with fabric. Lindberg took a close eye on the design of the plane, making an effort to save every gram of weight.
With great public expectation, he began the flight on 20 May 1927 from Roosevelt Field on Long Island. The plane was loaded with 1,704 litres and in total the aircraft weighed 2,329 kg – a heavyweight for a single-engine plane. He took no radio only a map for navigation. He mostly flew by ‘dead reckoning’ – trying to fly in a straight line. This involved flying through several hours of thick fog and storm clouds. At one point, he may have suffered hallucinations from a lack of sleep.
The following day, after a flight of 33 1⁄2 hours, he landed in Le Bourget Aerodrome near France. A huge crowd had come to greet his arrival, causing one of the biggest traffic jams in Paris. His successful flight created a surge of interest and excitement – become a global media event. Lindbergh himself remarked
“I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on the nations of the world. It was like a match lighting a bonfire.”
Lindberg was feted as a national hero, receiving a ticker-tape parade in New York. He was named Time “Man of the Year” (the youngest ever to receive the award) and numerous awards such as the “Medal of Honor.” Lindbergh grew to find the fame and press intrusion very difficult and generally he did not like people to make a fuss over him. He recalls once coming out of a building and everyone following him.
“I recall stepping out of a building on Wall Street, and having almost everyone on the street turn and follow me.”
Significance of the flight
In the 1920s, people only travelled a small distance from their home, flying across continents was like a dream, but now Lindberg seemed to have shortened the distance of the world. Now people realised it was possible to travel from Paris to New York in one day – rather than several weeks. It led to a boom in investment in aeroplanes and helped to boost a fledgeling commercial aircraft industry and a boom in airmail.
Just two months after the epic flight, Lindbergh published an autobiography “WE” – it was first ghostwritten before Lindbergh insisted on re-writing in longhand all 40,000 words in less than three weeks. It was one of the fastest published books and was promoted by George P. Putnam – a wealthy financial backer. It became a global bestseller though reviewers were disappointed that Lindbergh account focused on the mechanical aspect and gave little in terms of human drama. It earnt Lindbergh a significant sum, though he never lost the spendthrift ways he had been brought up on.
After the flight, Harry Guggenheim a millionaire and aviation enthusiast encouraged and sponsored Lindbergh to go on a goodwill tour – flying across all the American states and then across Latin America. He logged nearly 500 hours of flying time as he took his “Spirit of St. Louis” to fascinated visitors across the US. A year after his epic flight, he ended his tour in Washington D.C. where his plane has remained on display at the Smithsonian.
In 1927, whilst visiting Mexico he met Anne Morrow. They married in 1929 and had six children. Anne Morrow became a well-known poet and author in her own right.
In 1932, his one year old child, Charles Lindbergh Jr. was abducted from his home in East Amwell, New Jersey. It led to a frantic manhunt and ransom demand by his kidnapper. On 2 April a ransom of $50,000 was paid. But, five weeks later the remains of his child were found in woods near their home. In 1935, Richard Hauptmann was tried for the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr.. He had been arrested after paying for petrol with cash linked to the ransom. He was convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution. The kidnap and trial created a media storm and US congress passed a “Lindbergh Law” making kidnap a federal crime if it passed across state boundaries.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, Lindbergh was a staunch opponent of the US entering into a war against Nazi Germany. Like his father in WWI, he believed that America should remain neutral and not get drawn into European affairs. He was also a key supporter of America First – a quasi-fascist organisation that sympathised with Nazi Germany and spoke out against Jewish control of the media in the US. In 1938, he visited Nazi Germany and was given an extensive tour of the German airforce, and he was allowed to fly a new Juncker bomber. He was awarded a German medal of honour by Hermann Goering a high ranking Nazi – Lindbergh refused to return the medal – even after the much-publicised attack on Germany Jews during Kristallnacht later in the year. He expressed admiration for the strength, purpose and direction of life under Nazi Germany and considered moving his family there until war broke out saying once.
“strong central leadership of a Nazi state was the only hope for restoring a moral world order.”
After seeing first hand the military strength of Germany, he gave warnings to the British, French and US airforce about the overwhelming superiority of the German airforce.
From 1939, he began giving speeches arguing America should not get involved with a war against Nazi Germany. In September 1941, he gave a speech in Iowa, which was broadcast on radio. He argued
“The Jewish races . . . for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in this war.. We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we must also look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.”
His speech was cheered by anti-semites and racists, but condemned by many others. He later claimed he was not anti-semitic but refused to withdraw his statement. Because of his celebrity status, it had a profound impact on American life. His continued sympathy with Germany and expression of anti-semitic sentiments was badly timed. American public opinion was beginning to swing behind idea of confronting the axis power, and the Japanese attack at Pearl Habour on 7 Dec. 1941, changed everything. Lindbergh dropped his opposition to war and sought to re-enlist, but the damage was done. Roosevelt personally refused his request to rejoin the military. Although he wasn’t accepted in the military, he did fly over 50 operations in the Pacific war theatre as a civilian. He was shocked by the destruction of the atom bomb when dropped over Japan, it shook his faith in science and progress.
With a keen engineering mind, Lindbergh also worked on several inventions. His most notable invention was (in collaboration with a French doctor) an automatic heart valve, which could push blood through the tissues of an organ. This was important research into early attempts at organ transplants. As a pilot in the Pacific, he helped to develop a primitive form of cruise control.
Scarred by his political views and public condemnation, Lindbergh retreated from public life and he did not make any public statement or major public appearance. Eisenhower did restore his commission and he served as a brigadier general in the US air force. He also served as an adviser for Pan-Am airways, playing a role in the development of the Boeing 747 jet engine and advising them on the purchase of a new fleet of jet planes. In 1953, he also re-wrote his autobiography and republished it under the title “The Spirit of St Louis.”
In his later life, Lindbergh became interested in environmental conservation and a passionate supporter of primitive cultures – which still lived in harmony with nature.
“Civilization must be based on life. We should never forget that human life was created in and for millions of centuries, was nourished by primitive wildness. We cannot separate ourselves from this ancestral background. It is folly to attempt to do so. I believe that many of the social troubles we face today result from our being already too far removed from our ancestral environment.” (NY Times)
In the 1960s, during the early creation of an environmental movement, he broke his public silence to support the conservation of whales. Ironically, given he had done so much to promote the airline industry, he began to warn about the dangers of supersonic aircraft and the impact on the environment of their emissions.
“I have seen the science I worshipped, and the aircraft I loved, destroying the civilization I expected them to serve.” Of Flight and Life (1948)
Lindbergh was brought up a Christian, but, he left the organised religion of his youth early in adult life.
“I grew up as a disciple of science. I know its fascination. I have felt the godlike power man derives from his machines.”
But over his life became more disillusioned with material progress and concerned with spiritual progress of man. Throughout his life he remained sympathetic to the moral and spiritual teachings of Christianity. During WWII the only book he carried was the New Testament. From an early age, he said
Lindbergh was also interested in philosophy and in 1948 published a book “Of Flight and Life.” it includes some of his ideas on using spiritual principles to avoid the misuse of science and industry. He argued
“To progress, even to survive we must learn to apply the truths of God crib to the actions and relationships of men, to the direction of our science. We must learn from the sermons of Christ, the wisdom of Laotzu, the teachings of Buddha.” (NY Times obituary)
Lindbergh died of cancer on 26 August 1974, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. His tombstone bears the words of Psalm 139.
“If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea”
In a modern world which takes air travel for granted, it is hard to imagine the impact his flight from New York to Paris had. It struck a chord with people around the world and made him one of the most famous people in the world. His fame and adulation proved short-lived with his sympathies to Nazi Germany causing a rapid fall in popularity, so much he mostly retreated from public view. But for two decades he was one of the most famous persons in America.
Albert Einstein – His Life and Universe
The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh at Amazon
Adventurers – Famous adventurers and explorers, including Christopher Colombus, Marco Polo, Roald Amundsen and Neil Armstrong.
Roaring Twenties – ‘Jazz Era’ (1920-1929) The Roaring Twenties was a period of economic expansion and social change. New styles of music, dance and dress. Including Calvin Coolidge, Louis Armstrong, Al Capone and Coco Chanel.
Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businessmen. Featuring Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey.
Famous Environmentalists – A list of famous environmentalists including conservationists, writers, political activists and those who have taken a lead in promoting a more caring approach to the environment.