Who was Charles Lindbergh? His Life and Legacy
The year was 1927, nine years after the world experienced perhaps its deadliest conflict up until then, the First World War. While countries were beginning to find their feet after the devastating war, Charles Lindbergh had his eyes set on a mission that would earn him a spot in the history books.
On May 21 that year, the American aviator became the first person in history to complete a nonstop flight across the Atlantic: flying from the city of New York to Paris all on his own. Though Arthur Brown and John Alcock had completed the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1919, Lindbergh’s 1927 achievement was nothing short of historic because it was the first time a pilot had gone on a solo flight across the ocean without stopping.
It is believed that his achievement played a very pivotal role in the growth of the American aviation sector. After his groundbreaking feat, the Detroit-born pilot became a global icon and a prominent figure in the aviation industry.
Early years of Charles Lindbergh
He was born to chemistry teacher Evangeline Lodge Land Lindbergh and former U.S. Congressman Charles Augustus Lindbergh. The only child of his parents, Lindbergh was only seven years when his parents separated. He was his father’s fourth child after sisters Lillian, Eva, and Edith.
Though he was born to what might seem as a rich family, Charles grew up on a Minnesota-based farm. In 1918, he graduated from Little Falls High School where his mom was a teacher. Before joining the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s College of Engineering in 1920, Lindbergh studied at a number of institutions, including Redondo Union High School, and Sidwell Friends School.
It was during his time at Wisconsin that he developed a love for flying. Driven by his passion, this future record-breaking pilot ended his university education in his second year to start his flight training in 1922.
The beginning of his aviation career
Lindbergh began his training at the flying school of the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation at the age of 20 years. In less than twelve months, he embarked on his first flying adventure when he was named as a passenger in an aircraft piloted by renowned barnstormer Otto Timm (1893 – 1978).
After gaining some amount of experience, Lindbergh left the training center in June 1922 to start a barnstorming business. Performing as a parachutist and wing walker, the former University of Wisconsin student traveled to many states including Nebraska and Kansas.
Before taking a short break from flying, he worked at the Billings Logan International Airport as one of their airplane mechanics. Lindbergh returned to flying in May 1923 and completed his maiden solo flight later that year.
He continued his barnstorming career for some time before opting to join the U.S. Army Air Service in 1924. With his skills and determination, he was one of 18 cadets who graduated from the training the following year. He was named as one of the best students of his group and joined the Air Service Reserve Corps as a 2nd lieutenant.
In addition to his barnstorming business, Charles was also a member of the 35th Division of the 110th Observation Squadron. By the end of 1926, the highly-rated pilot had been promoted to the captain rank. While serving in the group, Lindbergh worked with the Robertson Aircraft Corporation as one of their chief pilots.
In 1926, he was hired by the United States Post Office Department, where he worked as an air mail pilot.
The day Charles Lindbergh made history
Flying across the Atlantic Ocean was seen as a risky mission during the 1920s. Nonetheless, pilots were motivated to embark on this journey due to the Orteig Prize – a reward set aside by Raymond Orteig, a hotel manager, for any pilot who could fly nonstop from Paris to New York City or vice versa. Many aviators such as America’s Stanton H. Wooster and Noel Davis went missing in an attempt to complete this challenge.
In May 1927, Lindbergh decided to take part in this dangerous but rewarding adventure. Faced with financial problems, it is likely that the Detroit-born pilot participated in this competition due to the $25,000 prize at stake.
His bravery and self-belief were not the only things needed to go on this mission. He had to raise money to equip himself for the challenge. With support from the Robertson Aircraft Corporation and other business executives, he was able to purchase a customized monoplane from Ryan Aircraft Company at a cost of $10,580.
On May 20th, aboard the newly-built aircraft known as the “Spirit of St. Louis”, Lindbergh began his over 3,000 miles journey to Paris from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York City. Before setting off, he filled the aircraft with 1,700 liters of fuel. His departure was witnessed by thousands of people who had gathered at the Roosevelt Field. Also, prior to his record-breaking solo transatlantic flight, he was visited by his mother.
During historic flight, he encountered a thunderhead which almost forced him back. He later encountered other challenges, including icing conditions and moving through storm clouds.
After 27 hours in the air, he began to see fishing boats and porpoises which gave him the hope that he had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. About six hours later, the American pilot made history after he landed at the Paris–Le Bourget Airport, which is about seven miles outside of the French capital, Paris. The brave pilot had just completed a solo nonstop flight of a staggering 3,610 miles.
For being the first solo pilot to complete this task, Lindbergh was welcomed by a very huge crowd. Upon his arrival, he was met by Myron T. Herrick, then United States representative to France. His flight was later approved by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association.
Return to America
Similar to the reception a national soccer team receives in their home country after winning the FIFA World Cup tournament, the joy and ecstasy in the air was simply palpable when Lindbergh arrived in the United States. He became an instant celebrity. His image covered the front pages of many newspapers in the country.
When he arrived, he was escorted by many military aircrafts to the famous Washington Navy Yard. He was received by then-President of the United States Calvin Coolidge who honored him with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The streets were filled with millions of Americans who had gathered to celebrate their new hero. American flags were waved by the crowd while he sat in an open-touring vehicle through the streets of New York City. The treatment he received was comparable to that given to a president or a senior member of the British royal family.
Was he famous outside the United States?
Charles Lindbergh’s fame crossed the boundaries of the United States. This was very much expected considering the fact that he just completed an unprecedented task. Many people lost their lives in their attempts to record this feat. Aside from the Americas, he was also popular in some parts of Europe.
A day after he landed in France with the “Spirit of St. Louis”, he was invited to the American embassy, where he was well-received by a very huge crowd. He later paid homage to the President of the country Gaston Doumergue at the famous Élysée Palace. During their meeting, the pilot was awarded the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honour).
On his way to his native country, he made a stop at Belgium, where he was welcomed by Henri Jaspar, Prime Minister of Belgium, and other government and military officials. He was later invited to the royal palace by King Albert I of Belgium. Before leaving the palace, Lindbergh was made a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold.
As if that wasn’t enough, the pilot moved to Britain, where he would meet Stanley Baldwin, the country’s Prime Minister. He was later transported to meet with King George V at Buckingham Palace in London, England. There, he was honored with a British Air Force Cross.
Marriage and the kidnapping of his son
Charles Lindbergh was on his way to Latin America when he came into contact with writer Anne Morrow. Though both were Americans, they first met in Mexico. After some months of dating, the couple exchanged their marriage vows on May 27, 1929. In order to deepen their connection, Lindbergh taught his wife how to pilot a plane. The couple were blessed with five children: Jon Morrow Lindbergh, Anne Lindbergh, Reeve Lindbergh, Scott Lindbergh, and Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. The latter was kidnapped from their residence in 1932. The culprit later demanded a ransom of $50,000. This attracted lots of media attention.
Though Charles and his wife paid the ransom, they did not receive their child alive. The lifeless body of Charles Jr., who was a little over a year old, was seen in the woods close to their apartment. After a thorough investigation by the police, it was revealed that a carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann, who had a bad criminal record, was the offender. He was arrested and convicted. Hauptmann was executed on April 3, 1936.
What was his relationship with the Nazis?
To move away from the spotlight, Lindbergh and his family migrated to Europe. Before finally settling in France, the family spent some time in England. Though he was away, he continued to support the American aviation industry and even worked as one of the board directors of Pan-American World Airways.
Due to his fame, he was invited to Germany by Hermann Göring, a senior military officer of the Nazi German. He was escorted to the country’s aviation facilities. At a dinner hosted by America’s representative to Germany, Hugh Wilson, in 1938, Göring decorated Lindbergh with a Commander Cross of the Order of the German Eagle medal. This raised a few eyebrows in his native America.
It can be argued that this honor was the reason why Lindbergh was against America’s involvement in what would become the Second World War. Many Americans accused him of sympathizing with the Nazis. Initially serving as the leader of the America First Committee, an antiwar group that opposed America’s involvement in World War II (WWII). Critics of the group called out on many of the prominent leaders of the AFC, including Linderbergh and American industrialist Henry Ford, for having anti-Semitic and pro-fascist views.
It was not until the w that the Lindberghs changed their ideas and actively got involved in the war effort. He even collaborated with Henry Ford to work on a number of bombers. The aviator also flew more than 50 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II. He even shot down one enemy craft.
Life after WWII
Lindbergh was appointed an advisor to the U.S. Air Force’s Chief of Staff after the Second World War. He also held an advisory role at Pan American World Airways. He went on to write a number of books including “The Spirit of St. Louis” which won him a Pulitzer Prize. The book also inspired the 1957 film of similar title which was directed by Austrian-American filmmaker Billy Wilder.
Three years before the release of the film, the renowned pilot was commissioned to the United States Air Force Reserve as a brigadier general. This came after he was recommended by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1967, the Detroit-born pilot became a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He was also decorated with a number of laurels including the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, the Daniel Guggenheim Medal, and the New York State Medal for Valor.
Sickness and death
Charles Lindbergh retired to his Maui-Hawaii home with his family after the war. In his later years, he was diagnosed with cancer which led to his death in 1974. He was 72 years old. He was survived by his wife, whom he was married to for 45 years. His wife died in 2001 after suffering a series of strokes. He was laid to rest on the grounds of the Palapala Ho’omau Church in Kipahulu, Maui, Hawaii, U.S.
Charles Lindbergh: Fast Facts
Born: February 4, 1902
Place of birth: Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Died: August 26, 1974; Kipahulu, Hawaii, U.S.
Buried at: Palapala Ho’omau Church in Kipahulu, Maui, Hawaii
Best known for: the first person to make a solo transatlantic flight
Honors: US. Armed Forces’ Medal of Honor (1927), Légion d’honneur (1931), Congressional Gold Medal (1930), US Armed Forces Distinguished Flying Cross (1927)
Parents: Charles August Lindbergh and Evangeline Lodge Land
Spouse: Anne Morrow
Did you know…?
- The first aircraft he owned was named Curtiss JN-4, popularly referred to as Jenny. He paid $500 for the biplane which was a surplus of World War I.
- His first major flying accident came in 1925 during his military training. While in the air, he collided with an Army S.E.5 plane during a combat training.
- As a writer, he published many books with some titled “WE” (1927) and “Of Flight and Life” (1948). The former is an autobiography (published on July 27, 1927) that details his life and his historic nonstop flight across the Atlantic in May 1927.
- His mother, Evangeline Lodge Land Lindbergh, died of Parkinson’s disease on 7 September 1954 in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan.
- In the 1930s, he and his wife together explored and charted air routes between continents. They became the first to fly from Africa to South America. They also explored polar air routes from North America to Asia and Europe.
- He fathered a number of children outside of marriage. It’s said that he fathered three children with a German woman called Brigitte Hesshaimer. It’s been reported by biographer Rudolf Schröck, author of Das Doppelleben des Charles A. Lindbergh (“The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh”), that he fathered two children with Marietta, Brigitte’s sister.