Rob Hardy: "Flight of the Century"

August 31, 2010 1:05:00 PM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


There are a number of aeronautical or aerospace accomplishments that might be called "the flight of the century." The initial flight of the Wright Brothers in 1903 might be one, but the nation responded with little enthusiasm at the time. Speed ahead only 60 years, and the space flights and the lunar landings might also qualify, but no one has been back to the Moon for decades.  


Historian Thomas Kessner is surely correct in his assignment of the title to his book "The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation" (Oxford University Press).  


This is something different among the many books about Lindbergh. The flight itself takes up a small chapter toward the early middle of the book (after all, there are only the reports of Lindbergh himself to refer to). Before that is a brief history of his upbringing, and more importantly his training as an aviator.  


Most of the book, however, has to do with what happened to Lindbergh afterwards and his direct effect on how Americans and the world viewed flying and started up commercial airlines. After all, Kessner himself says the flight was a stunt, an entry in a competition to win a prize:  


"He cured no deadly diseases. He ended no wars, uncovered no fresh continent; he made no scientific discoveries. He did not invent jazz or write a great novel or stir the American conscience with his eloquence." 


Accomplishing the stunt, however, made him the most famous man in the world, and he used his fame to boost commercial and government endeavors in aviation; we fly the way we do today at least partially because of his involvement. The structure of Kessner''s book also means that the unseemly aspects of Lindbergh''s racial views are mentioned but do not overwhelm that latter part of the book. 


Lindbergh was born in 1902, the son of a Minnesota lawyer. As a kid he spent some time playing within the halls of the U.S. Capitol when his father was an elected official. His father was distant, emotionally and often physically, but Lindbergh was devoted to his mother all his life.  


He didn''t take to schooling; when it came time for him to study anything to do with flying, he had no problem buckling down and taking in the information efficiently and quickly, but nothing else much motivated him. Thus, in 1924 he was in a year-long Army school to get his pilot''s wings, and he surpassed all his fellow students in testing, and had no problems qualifying in the pilot''s seat. The Army, however, was not building up defenses in peacetime, and so Lindbergh reverted to barnstorming and teaching private students to fly. As the mail system started using planes, Lindbergh became a postal pilot; it was the one innovative aeronautical institution at the time.  


This was his job, one of numbingly carrying sacks of mail from one city to another, when he began planning for the $25,000 prize offered for a nonstop flight from New York to Paris. The prize had been on the table since 1919, and aircraft were getting more power and more range so that it seemed a feasible goal. 


There were others trying for the prize, like polar explorer Richard Byrd, who had flown over the North Pole. The other competitors, however, were using big, sometimes luxuriously appointed planes with multiple motors and multiple operators. There had been failures and deaths using such planes, but no one was re-thinking how to make the flight until Lindbergh came along. He wanted a stripped-down plane built to the purpose of the task, with just one motor and one pilot. Comfortable seating, emergency equipment, navigation lights, communications devices, parachute - for Lindbergh, they were all jettisoned as excess weight that would make attaining his goal less likely. He even clipped the margins off his navigational charts to save weight. He didn''t build the plane himself, but he was there daily as it was being built to his specifications. He got the backing from boosters in his hometown St. Louis; they were hoping that St. Louis would be a headquarters for aviation.  


In 1927 Lindbergh flew his new plane from San Diego, where it had been built, to New York, with a stop in St. Louis, breaking the coast-to-coast flying record, and attracting attention to his upcoming transatlantic venture. He took off from New York and had a relatively worry-free flight, landing near Paris, with his main worry being that he didn''t have a visa and so might be kicked out of the country.  


France, after all, was peeved at having to repay war debts to the US, and France already was the world''s leader in aviation (although two fliers had just gone missing on an attempt to reach New York). Lindbergh had nothing to worry about, except that the swarms of Frenchmen to greet him were overenthusiastic: "The reception was the most dangerous part of the trip," he said modestly.  


He was aided immeasurably by the U.S. Ambassador to France, Myron Herrick, who skillfully led the inexperienced young man from one celebratory gathering to another, all the while nurturing Franco-American goodwill.  


Lindbergh was perfect - he looked naïve and bewildered, and when he was called upon to talk, he kept his speeches short and used every opportunity to praise French aviation and aviators and war heroes. He went on to visit England to the same sort of acclaim, and then back to America as the most famous man in the world. 


Lindbergh was shy and often uncomfortable with crowds. He seldom smiled. Everyone loved him as a hero, and when he could have cashed in with a proffered lucrative film role ("I have had suggestions to be a cowboy, sheik, robber and lots of other things - but I am an aviator."), people loved his down-home restraint.  


Will Rogers said that his innocence ought to be protected as a national resource. Lindbergh wasn''t as naïve as he seemed, though; he had an intelligence for aviation that he plied into the airline boom, and with his book sales he did very well indeed.  


He wanted aviation to change the world and make it a more peaceful place. He had a hand in just how those planes were going to fly. He had shunned a radio for his own plane, but realized that lightweight ones were needed for safety''s sake; he knew that the barnstorming flyboys he had grown up with were going to have to turn into conservative and trustworthy pilots if they were going to fly passengers; he studied emergency backup systems; he worked on pressurized cabins for high-altitude flights. He was meticulous and private, but the world was fascinated about what this eligible bachelor would do for a sweetheart; he himself set up what he called a "girl meeting project," which got him connected with Anne Morrow, the daughter of one of his backers.  


The Depression found him out of touch with the common man who had acclaimed him as hero and now saw him as just another tycoon. He clashed bitterly with FDR. He hated the lack of privacy, whose worst manifestation was the kidnapping and death of his son.  


Aviation, which he thought would unite a peaceful world, became another tool in warfare. His winning boyish charm changed into a dogmatic racism. He admired Hitler''s Germany and his America First movement seemed more and more wrong until it was undone by the start of World War II.  


Kessner, however, barely gets to mention all these difficulties, and ascribes at least some of them to Lindbergh''s belief that the next new technology was going to bring about real progress. His optimism is thus part of his darker side, but Kessner''s portrait is mostly of Lindbergh, the admirable hero and planner of an aeronautic future. There is no reason to forget the darker parts, but plenty of reason to celebrate the accomplishments before they took over.

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]