One of the great celebrity tours in American history took wing on July 20, 1927. Two months after being the first to fly solo directly across the Atlantic Ocean, Charles A. Lindbergh embarked on a three-month, nationwide extravaganza. In the Spirit of St. Louis, the same plane in which he had tamed the Atlantic, the aviator touched down in 48 states and visited 92 cities. He gave 147 speeches, rode in 1,290 miles of parades and was acclaimed by millions of spectators.
With that one tour, according to some accounts, he transformed Americans toward the cause of aviation. Previously, the public had been faltering in support of the new mode of transportation. But as for his influence upon the country—and the world, for that matter—Lindbergh was just beginning.
This is a subject that I am more qualified to speak of than most people. On Nov. 4, 1927, two weeks after completing the tour, Lindbergh was flying from Long Island to Buffalo, New York when he had to make an emergency landing due to weather. Like the veteran barnstormer that he was, he set his aircraft down in a hayfield to wait for conditions to clear. Located in rural Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, that hayfield was owned by my family.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, I grew up in the farmhouse overlooking that field. Often my mother and my grandfather would tell of how Lindbergh came to the kitchen door that stormy evening, how he warmed his hands over the coal stove and how he later sat in the living room reading a magazine.
That night, word of his presence there spread like fire through an old barn. The next day thousands of people flocked to the field to see him, despite frigid weather and country roads “fearfully muddy,” as my mother put it.
As a boy, I often would contemplate that 10-acre “flat,” as such fields are referred to back there. It stretches out along a valley floor, with steep hills rolling off to either side, typical of northeastern Pennsylvania. For “Lucky Lindy,” it was not a matter of mere chance here; he had picked one of the few places suitable for landing for miles around. His skill as a pilot was obvious, even years later.
Sometimes as we baled hay or cut corn off the piece, I’d try to imagine it all—the man, the crowds, the airplane—and I’d wonder what was it all about. Just what was the lure of this person, to draw so many to this remote location?
“People were touched,” one relative of mine often said. “People walked around with these goofy grins about them. They’d go up just to reach out and feel his uniform. The poor guy was mobbed. I don’t blame him for keeping to himself.”
My mother was just six years old back then, but she knew all about the “Lone Eagle.” “He was the most famous man in the world,” she would explain. “Even more famous than the President.” With a tinge of pride, she would point to the corner of the living room. “He sat right there in that chair and I sat in his lap.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this all set me off on some kind of search. Ever since, I’ve been reading about Lindbergh, visiting Lindbergh sites around the country, including his house and gravesite here on Maui, and interviewing people about him. In a sense, I’ve been trying to catch up with the man, his essence and his appeal. Little did I realize what a job it was going to be.
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Contrary to popular opinion, Lindbergh was not the first person to fly the Atlantic. He was the first person to fly it nonstop. A U.S. Navy biplane flew from Canada to the Azores Islands to Portugal in 1919, accomplishing the first transatlantic passage by air, a good eight years before Lindbergh did.
Nor was his feat far ahead of its time. Other daring flyers made similar crossings on the Atlantic in the weeks following Lindbergh’s. Plus some equally impressive records—conquering the Pacific Ocean, a much wider body of water, for instance—were set soon after by other pilots. But as the years went on, the public discarded these other names like used confetti.
Little known as well is the fact that Lindbergh was vying for prize money, in addition to trying to mark an aviation first. Twenty-five thousand dollars was promised by a New York hotel owner to the first person to pass over the Atlantic, in either direction.
Lindbergh laid claim to the prize May 21, 1927 after 33 1/2 hours in the air. As he made his approach to Le Bourget Field near Paris, France little did he realize that as soon as his tires impacted that runway, he and the world would never be the same.
An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in the night to welcome him. The effect on them was electric. Police tried to hold back the crowd but it was overtaken with the frenzy of the moment. Thousands surged through and swarmed the plane before the propeller even stopped spinning.
Some people ripped shreds of fabric from the Spirit of St. Louis; others dragged the aviator from the cockpit and ecstatically carried him off on their shoulders. People danced and wept and popped corks from champagne. “The whole place was gone insane with joy,” one
eyewitness remembered. “Everyone had the best of intentions,” Lindbergh later wrote of the scene, “but no one seemed to know what they were.”
In the weeks that followed, people everywhere were infused with similar excitement over the man and what he did. Lindbergh’s stature as a hero grew to fantastic proportions. Wherever he went—Brussels, London, New York—wildly waving admirers packed the waysides. Ticker-tape parades were held in his honor. Presidents and royalty received him. In the process of it all, he became the first mass-media celebrity in history.
Granted, his was a courageous, magnificent flight, the first of its kind ever. But somehow it didn’t quite add up—this one act has never fully explained the fascination and star-effect that followed him thereafter, nor how he managed to energize so many.
He was surprised by it all himself. “I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on the nations of the world,” he wrote. “To me, it was like a match igniting a bonfire.”
The symbolism was certainly inspiring to many: The lone aviator pressing on through fatigue and darkness and rain, the angry waves churning below. Other attempts had been made by teams of pilots, alternating at the controls. While he, single-handedly, had conquered the great abyss of the open ocean.
For others, he became the ray of hope in a gray and weary world, still reeling from the mass slaughters and disillusionments of World War I. Perhaps it had to do with something inside the man—his modesty, his charisma. Whatever it was, something about him and his accomplishment aroused the sense of awe that exists in almost everyone.
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Originally trained in mechanics, he became known as a friend of the working person, a reputation also due to the rickety aircraft of the times. While businessmen or politicians may finance airplanes, he knew that it was mechanics who fixed them. They often were responsible for an aviator’s successes or failures. And failures were plentiful back then—20 flyers were lost trying to cross the Atlantic in the year spanning 1927 and 1928 alone.
A demonstration of this practical part of him occurred seconds after his landing at Paris. As thousands of screaming Frenchmen descended upon him, he yelled out from the cockpit, “Are there any mechanics here?”
One of his greatest skills was in landing in out-of-the-way places—fields, pastures and roads. His landing in my family’s hayfield was a good example. As witnessed by my relatives, he flew back and forth a number of times only a few feet above the ground, inspecting the terrain. When he came to a hedgerow, he’d gun the engine and hop over “like a steeplechaser” before he eventually landed his Curtiss Hawk.
He even became adept at flying low over a person on the ground, cutting the throttle and hollering down for directions. Most famously, on his flight across the Atlantic he came upon some fishing boats. Only 20 feet or so above the deck, he hovered the Spirit of St. Louis overhead and called down to a fisherman, “Which way to Ireland?”
Prior to his record flight, the public had lost much of its original enthusiasm for aviation. The U.S. Government failed to appropriate money for a new generation of aircraft following World War I, as many pioneers in the field had hoped it would. In short, the aircraft industry in this country was teetering, on the verge of collapse.
Then came Lindbergh. The impact of his achievement was explosive: new technologies were financed, interest by the military reawakened, an exciting wave of adventurism launched. Lindbergh became the ambassador of this resilience, traveling widely and promoting ventures into the sky.
On one of these ventures he visited the island of Maui. As with so many visitors here, the island became his special place, his retreat from the turbulences of life. And his turbulences were many—the kidnapping and murder of his son in 1932, his isolationist views about U.S. entry into World War II, his anti-Semitic remarks, his coldness to his wife and his affairs with other women, just to name some.
Much of his popularity deflated toward the end of the 1930s. With war brewing in Europe, he opposed U.S. involvement. The low point may have come after he accepted a medal adorned with swastikas from Hermann Goring, head of Hitler’s air force. This caused an outcry worldwide and confusion among the public at large.
Impressed with the high state of aviation and research there, he refused to give the medal back. He said it would be “an unnecessary insult” to the German government. Some people claimed he was being manipulated by the dictatorship.
While this may have been true, he used his “in” with Nazi officials to gather intelligence on their war machine that later was used to help defeat it.
After Pearl Harbor, he signed onto the U.S. war effort as a technical adviser and even though a “civilian” flew 50 combat missions against the Japanese in the Pacific. But after the war, he never regained the status he once had as a public figure. In the 1960s he became a leader in the environmental movement and championed the preserving of wilderness.
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Eventually, he acquired a modest house in Kipahulu on the “backside” of Maui. He spent most of his final years there. One friend and neighbor there commented, as to why he chose Kipahulu, “Because it’s a hundred-and-some curves south of Hana and a thousand potholes north of anywhere else. He was not a man who had to be around others to be comfortable.”
In 1974, suffering from terminal cancer, he returned to Kipahulu to await the inevitable. He died there on Aug. 26, at the age of 72.
As per his directives, he was placed in his coffin wearing his favorite working clothes. His remains were taken to the Palapala Ho`omau Church in the back of a pickup truck. Just 14 people attended the short service, most of them locals. Admirers were told not to place funeral wreaths about or read messages out loud.
He is buried on the church grounds in the shade of a Java plum tree. The two-line inscription at his gravesite comes from Psalm 139: “If I take wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…”
Appropriately enough, the site overlooks the ocean. You can imagine him walking there in his later years, peering off toward the horizon, reflecting upon journeys made over perilous waters.
“I think my flight to Paris came too soon for the civilizations of the world,” Lindbergh confided to an Air Force general in the early 1950s, apparently not entirely comfortable with his legacy. “They were suddenly thrown together by air and they weren’t quite ready for it.”
Later on, he argued against a lot of supersonic air travel, claiming that it would throw us out of balance and we would one day pay a price for it.
Be that as it may, Charles Lindbergh was one of the greatest catalysts for change ever to live. Call him the avatar of aviation, the prophet of the skies, he zoomed us forward into a new dimension—travel in the air—and humanity has not been the same since. MTW