Today, May 20, is a historic day in the world of aviation, thanks to a young man with a love of flying and a determination to succeed.
While Charles Lindbergh was born in Michigan, he spent most of his childhood in Little Falls, Minnesota. Born in 1902, he also spent some of his childhood in Washington DC as his father was a Republican Congressman for Minnesota.
As a young child, Lindbergh always expressed interest in mechanics and motorized transportation. At age 20 he took his first official flying lesson. To earn money to continue his lessons, he became a stuntman – both a wing walker and a parachutist. His first solo flight as a pilot wasn’t until 1923; soon after he became a daredevil pilot known as “Daredevil Lindbergh.”
Lindbergh was drafted into the US Army Air Service and graduated first in his class in 1925. Having earned his Army pilot’s wings, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve Corps. He attributed his ability to be focused and goal-oriented, as well as becoming a skilled aviator, to his year of military flight training. Since the Army did not need his services as an active-duty pilot, Lindbergh returned to being a daredevil and flight instructor, then as a chief pilot for the air mail route.
The $25,000 Orteig Prize was offered by Raymond Orteig to the pilot of the first successful nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. The prize drew interest from many highly experience and well-financed pilots. And also a 25-year-old unknown pilot who oversaw the building of his own plane, the Spirit of St. Louis (where it was built). Lindbergh had only a small bank loan and his own savings as his financial support. He was also at a distinct disadvantage as he had far less flying experience than the others, and NO experience flying over water. The first several attempts by other pilots ended before they ever left the ground. The first plane to actually get airborne lost contact with their crew and were never seen again.
Early in the morning on May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh lifted off from Roosevelt Field and flew 33.5 hours before landing at Le Bourget airport on May 21. The excited Parisians mobbed the Spirit of St. Louis, dragged Lindbergh from his plane, and carried him about for almost half an hour. His life was never the same after that.
Much has been written about Lindbergh’s marriage to Anne Morrow, the kidnapping and murder of their first child, his opposition to World War II, and even his three “families” living in Europe. (After his and Anne’s death, the news came to light that he actually had six children with her and seven with three women overseas.) He was an extremely bright, driven, and focused individual; a complex man, to be sure.
However, his impact on aviation and the world’s fascination with flying is unparalleled. His historic flight even increased the use of air mail, as well as the number of applicants for pilot licenses. He was the youngest person ever featured as Time’s Man of the Year. He worked with Longines to create a watch that would help pilots with navigation, which is still in production today. He authored 15 books. His invention of a glass perfusion pump for the heart has been credited with making more heart surgeries possible. During the war, he instructed Marine pilots on take-off safety, and introduced new techniques that enabled long-range fighter aircraft to complete longer missions.
Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis has remained on public display since 1928 at the Smithsonian Institution. A replica hangs in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, and in the Missouri History Museum.