Charles Lindbergh | Ilija Dokmanovic
It has felt like an eternity since I have been on a plane. What was once a typical staple of my life commuting backwards and forwards between the Anglosphere, has now suddenly felt in some ways unattainable as new restrictions are put in place “for our safety”. I now laugh at my inherent fear of flying. Bah! How foolish was it for me to let something so childish like fear of heights and lack of faith in flying diminish my experience on some of modern engineering’s finest pieces of work.
Less than 100 years ago the very thought of fast trans-continental aviation was laughed at. Go back only a few decades before that and human aviation was believed by most to be thousands of years away. Much to everyone’s amazement and bewilderment, what two bicycle manufactures managed to achieve by flying a prototype aircraft in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina would set off an age of rapid development, exploration, and great and terrible feats of industrial society. The Age of Aviation would forever change our world.
Few understood the power that aviation would hold over humanity’s course, and fewer still would be deified as one of the greatest pioneers of the skies like Charles Augustus Lindbergh.
Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1902, Charles A. Lindbergh was from an esteemed family. The grandson of Swedish immigrants and the son of a United States Senator, he would go throughout childhood and his young adult life drifting from place to place, never quite settling his feet in a definite location. Charles often had to find solace in his own company, and his own interests in the world around him. Automobiles and motorcycles would provide time to engage in practical skills while exploring his interests in mechanical engineering, but it wasn’t until he found his passion for aviation that Lindbergh would utilize his unique character to push the boundaries of what man thought was possible.
What he is most known for – the first solo flight from New York to Paris across the Atlantic – is often just a footnote in American history classes, as many often skim the interwar years to mainly focus on the Great Depression, bootleggers and mobster violence, or the eventual rise of Roosevelt and the New Deal. It’s a shame – at the time and for many older Americans, Lindbergh’s life and legacy has had an almost mythic impact on the country and culture, especially in the time that he was alive. In many ways he represented the manifestation of the American Spirit – that daring, extraordinary Faustian spirit that drives success and glory. In other ways, he was one of the first victims of the mass media machine – his celebrity status would grow to gargantuan levels, bolstering him in some ways, but haunting his life in many others post-flight.
When Charles Lindbergh conceived the idea of the New York to Paris flight during one of his air-mail routes across the United States, he knew that there would be detractors and doubters following him throughout the journey. Lindbergh wasn’t famous at the time – in an era that was littered by flying ace heroes and veterans of World War One – and he certainly wasn’t the most experienced pilot either.
His competitors for the revered Orteig Prize – a generous sum of $25,000 – were the best of the best. Richard Byrd, Clarence Chamberlain, Francois Coli, and Charles Nungesser were just a few of the names of the veteran pilots that had the financial and logistical help that Lindbergh simply didn’t have access to due to his low notoriety. They all had the best equipment and crews, and were determined to showcase the power of a tri-motored plane over extended periods of flight.
This disadvantage that he had didn’t act as a crutch – but rather a motivation to push forward and prove that impossible was merely a word. Despite the daunting task of trying to convince sponsors, aviation enthusiasts and aircraft manufacturers to help him with his flight, he managed to assemble the right team of loyal, hard-working and determined men who understood that this flight wasn’t just about personal glory – it was about carrying humanity into the future.
The Spirit of St Louis is an aptly named aircraft. What it lacked in flash, and in the number of engines, it made up for endurance, quality, and soul. The manufacturer, Ryan Aircraft Company, was hardly a pioneer in the industry compared to Wright-Bellanca or the Columbia Aircraft Company. But, like Charles, they saw this impossible task as a benchmark to overcome – not a ceiling to be grounded by. Much is the attitude of many aviators, I’m sure.
After witnessing failure after failure from his competitors, and the deaths of fellow aviators, it became increasingly clear that Charles would be the first, and best option in completing the flight in his single-engine monoplane.
Spending 33 hours alone in a specially designed aircraft with no front-facing windows, no parachute, no serious navigation equipment to use other than a compass and dead reckoning of the chartered course, Lindbergh would make the journey that many others before him tried, and failed to do. For almost a day, he would spend his time over open ocean with nothing but his own wit and will to occupy him – almost losing both in the mundane crossing of open ocean. With absolutely no way to communicate with the outside world via radio, Lindbergh must’ve experienced a loneliness that only a few in human history have ever really appreciated – or lamented.
Regardless of the challenges, and despite the sheer scope of the task, this 25 year old Daedalus would become the world’s first true celebrity after he landed at the Paris-Le Bourget Airport. An incredibly mild-mannered mail pilot from Michigan would change the way we see aviation. Prior to his flight, aviation was a mere passtime for the rich, the sky devils and their fancy tricks, circus acts and wing-walking. Afterwards, aviation became a more serious venture for all to take an interest in. From it’s application for communication, trade, innovation, inspiration, culture, and – unfortunately – war, Lindbergh would fix the world of aviation in everyone’s minds and hearts.
In all senses, Charles Lindberg was America. He embodied the spirit of excellence throughout his life; from his famous flight, his development of the first artificial heart pump, to his service in World War II, and his life beyond the cockpit, Lindbergh knew that determination, a resilient spirit, and perhaps most importantly believing in oneself were the keys to overcoming the impossible – whether that be a solo flight spanning almost two days, the kidnapping and death of a son, or the tarnishing of one’s own character by an unelected and unaccountable entity such as American media. Ah yes. How could one forget Charles’ reputation in the press cycle?
From being the “reckless daredevil” of the pilots determined to make the flight, to having his life invaded at every facet pre and post-flight, to his deification in the media, and eventually the demonization he faced is yet another reason why I think Lindbergh ought to be remembered more.
Had it not been for the invasiveness of the press in his personal life, it’s likely that the infamous kidnapping and subsequent death of Charles Lindbergh Jr. would not have happened. Despite this tragic loss, and the constant harassment and invasion of the press that he and his family faced – Lindbergh would still show that incredible bravery in his testimony during the subsequent court proceedings against the kidnapper.
His eventual travels across Europe to escape the press would lead him to rub shoulders with many of Europe’s interwar socialites and political figureheads – a large amount of those being high-ranking officials of Nazi Germany.
Lindbergh’s enthusiasm for aviation and technological development would mean he was one of the few Americans to appreciate the air-power that Germany was building in the lead-up to World War II. His sympathies with the Third Reich also extended to his belief that Soviet Communism was a grave threat for Western Civilization, and that a potential alliance with Hitler might’ve been made to hold back this threat beyond the Urals.
Lindbergh would bring back this belief to the United States after his self-imposed exile from the North American continent – and, much like with the impossible task of crossing the Atlantic, he was determined to do something about it.
The America First Committee was established as a proto-populist, anti-war movement. Lindbergh, one of the key founders and leaders of the committee, saw it as his duty as an American to protect his nation’s democracy from yet another European conflict. Along with his views that another total war would be disastrous for Western Civilization, he argued that America should focus instead on fortifying its internal stability – especially in the face of international Bolshevism.
Clearly this message was quite popular, with the membership of the America First Committee exceeding 800,000 members. Among those members were two future Presidents; a young JFK and Gerald Ford, and influential Senators and Congressmen across both aisles, and screen actress Lilian Gish to name a few.
Despite the isolationist message, the America First Committee was subject to accusations and controversies of anti-semitism and being pro-Nazi Germany. Understandably, given Charles Lindbergh’s time in Europe during the 30’s many of these accusations stuck – and of course, the press didn’t do any justice in covering Lindbergh’s denouncing of Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany. Much like today, journalist outrage and activism simply tarnished any potential for constructive dialogues or deeper and nuanced explanations – instead, they resorted to the characteristic behaviour we have become all-too-familiar with: name-calling, intentional misinterpreting, and acting as a filter between the horse’s mouth and the audience.
Even so, regardless of these accusations of disloyalty and treasonous behavior, the America First Committee remained active up until the attacks on Pearl Harbour. Consequently, the AFC recognized the need to defend one’s nation, and put aside any sympathies to the Third Reich in order to serve the nation. Lindbergh himself served valiantly first as an advisor, and then eventually as a pilot during the Second World War. Having flown over 50 combat missions in the Pacific Theatre, it is beyond doubt that Lindbergh was an American patriot.
Lindbergh was far from perfect; he had his faults, like his extra-marital affairs that led to him having children whom he never raised or even met, or his hardline stubborn convictions that would bring him press defamation for much of the remainder of his life. Even today, popular shows like The Plot Against America forget the man and his deeds, instead focusing on the contentious politics of the era. How shameful that one of America’s best and brightest wasn’t even deemed worthy of recognition in President Trump’s “National Garden” executive order – plenty of baseball players and celebrities made that list, yet America’s most famous aviator is shunned? It is simply an injustice to one of the bravest sons the United States has ever produced.
Despite his controversiality, and his political views during the 30’s and 40’s, Lindbergh would still continue to serve his country, serving on government advisory committees and continuing to work as a pioneer and advisor for the advancement of aviation. Much of what we understand about flight, its practicality and its applications, stems from Lindbergh’s life and legacy. To sweep him under the rug, or to try and tarnish his character based on our own contemporary sensibilities is simply wrong. How shameless of us to take advantage of the great things that he achieved, and the technological advancements Charles Lindbergh pioneered – and yet we don’t listen to his warnings about technology misused and wrongly applied:
“We have seen the aircraft, to which we devoted our lives, destroying the civilization that created them… we find ourselves moving in a vicious circle, where the machine, which depended on man for its invention, has made man dependent on its constant improvement for his security – even for his life… we have come face to face with the essential problem of how to use man’s creations for the benefit of man himself.”
Whether it was exploration, invention, writing, politics, his philosophy, or even his reputation in modern America – Charles A. Lindbergh fits the bill of a rogue with a heart of gold and an iron will. Especially these days in the face of political disaster, weak leaders, and crushed dreams, we ought to remember – and imitate – that very same bravery in the face of impossibility, conviction and integrity in the face of detractors, and that larger-than life spirit that can shape destiny itself.