Flying High in May

If you were to ask people what Charles Lindbergh is famous for, chances are very good that you would be told he flew the first transatlantic flight in history.

In actuality, there were at least 80 successful transatlantic flights before 1927, with the first transatlantic flight  was accomplished in May of 1919 by the U.S. Navy’s Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read, who flew a Navy Curtiss NC-4 flying boat --  a fixed-wing seaplane with the whole which can land on water -- from New York to Lisbon, Portugal.

The first nonstop transatlantic flight was completed three weeks later when Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Brown flew from Newfoundland to England. And in 1924, Lieutenants Lowell Smith and Erik Nelson flew the first transworld flight, beginning and ending in Seattle, Washington, after flying 26,100 miles.

But Charles Augustus Lindbergh, a 25-year-old  an Army reserve officer and pilot for Airmails of the United States, finished the first solo transatlantic flight specifically from New York to Paris, France on May 21, 1927. It took him 33 hours to fly the 3,600 mile trip in his fixed-wing plane named the Spirit of St. Louis. And his is the name most remembered for transatlantic flight.

He won the Medal of Honor for the trip as well as the Orteig Prize, for the trip. The Orteig Prize was a $25,000 reward which was offered on May 19, 1919, just days after Read took off on the first transatlantic flight ever. The prize was offered by Raymond Orteig, a New York hotel owner, to be paid for the first allied aviator to fly non-stop either from New York City to Paris, France, or from Paris to New York.

By May 27, 1929, Lindy married Anne Morrow, the daughter of a United States Ambassador, who would later become an author and poet.

Their first son Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was born in June of 1930. Sometime during the night of March 1, 1932, in what would become known as “the crime of the century,” 20-month old Charles Jr. disappeared from his crib, and it was later determined that he was abducted. A ransom of $50,000 was paid to no avail, and six weeks later, on May 12, 1932, the toddler’s body was found by a passing truck driver in New Jersey.

As a result of this crime, Congress passed the “Lindbergh Law” which made kidnapping a federal offense  in most cases.

Almost two years later, police arrested a 34-year-old immigrant from Germany named Bruno Richard Hauptmann, on charges of kidnapping, extortion, and first-degree murder. In short order, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Hauptmann continued to maintain his innocence, even after he was offered a commutation to life in prison if he would confess. He was electrocuted in Trenton, New Jersey on April 3, 1936, still professing his innocence.

In 1940, Lindy became the spokesperson of the “America First Committee,”  a non--interventionist group which actively sought to keep America from entering World War II. It was founded by R. Douglas Stuart, Jr.,  the heir to the Quaker Oats Company fortune, who would become the United States ambassador to Norway in the 1980s.  Charter members included  future U.S. President Gerald R. Ford, future Peace Corps founder and JFK brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, and Potter Stewart, who would become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Although he continued to be  a rabid non-interventionist, testifying in front of Congress and speaking out regularly in order to advance that agenda, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he asked to be re-commissioned in the  United States Army Air Forces,  a request which was denied by order of the White House. Never one to be defeated, Lindy offered his services as a civilian consultant to the military, teaching the troops how to get the most from their fighter-bombers, how to conserve fuel, and other valuable things.

In 1944, he got himself designated as a World War II technical representative in the Pacific Theater, and on May 21, 1944, he flew his first combat mission, though still a civilian. He regularly participated in fighter bomber raids on Japanese planes. Although he was still a civilian, he flew 50 combat missions, including one where he shot down a Japanese observation plane.

He went on to live a very eventful life, siring children with various women in Europe, campaigning for the protection of endangered species such as humpback whales, and attempting to find the perfect balance between technological advancements, many of which he pioneered, and the preservation of natural environment and ecology.

 And if all that wasn’t enough he had numerous things and places named after him, including a very popular dance, “the Lindy Hop,”  Lindbergh Field which is also known as San Diego International Airport,  various other landing fields and airports across America, as well as a plethora of high schools and streets.

His last years on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where, on August 26, 1974, he died of lymphoma. He was 72 years old.



Additional Reading:

Charles Lindbergh, An American Aviator

The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation

The American Experience: Lindbergh