On February 4, 1902, my favorite of all aviation pioneers — Charles Augustus Lindbergh — was born. Nicknamed Lucky Lindy, The Lone Eagle, and Slim, Lindbergh was an American aviator, military officer, author, inventor, explorer, and environmental activist. At age 25 in 1927, he went from obscurity as a U.S. Air Mail pilot to instantaneous world fame by flying across the Atlantic Ocean — from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York, to Paris, France. He covered the 33½-hour, 3,600 statute miles (5,800 km) alone in a single-engine purpose-built Ryan monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis. This was the first solo transatlantic flight and the first non-stop flight between North America and mainland Europe. Lindbergh was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve, and he received the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for the feat.
His achievement spurred interest in both commercial aviation and air mail, and Lindbergh himself devoted much time and effort to promoting such activity. Lindbergh’s historic flight and celebrity status led to tragedy. In March 1932, his infant son, Charles Jr., was kidnapped and murdered in what American media called the “Crime of the Century” and described by H. L. Mencken as “the biggest story since the Resurrection”. The case prompted the United States Congress to establish kidnapping as a federal crime once the kidnapper had crossed state lines with his victim. By late 1935 the hysteria surrounding the case had driven the Lindbergh family into voluntary exile in Europe, from which they returned in 1939.
Before the United States formally entered World War II, some people accused Lindbergh of being a fascist sympathizer. An advocate of non-interventionism, he supported the antiwar America First Committee, which opposed American aid to Britain in its war against Germany, and resigned his commission in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 after President Franklin Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. Nevertheless, he publicly supported the U.S. war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and flew fifty combat missions in the Pacific Theater of World War II as a civilian consultant, though Roosevelt refused to reinstate his Air Corps colonel’s commission. In his later years, Lindbergh became a prolific prize-winning author, international explorer, inventor, and environmentalist.
Lindbergh and his wife, the former Anne Morrow, were the parents of six children. He spent his last years on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he died of lymphoma on August 26, 1974, at age 72. He was buried on the grounds of the Palapala Ho’omau Church in Kipahulu, Maui. His epitaph, on a simple stone following the words “Charles A. Lindbergh Born Michigan 1902 Died Maui 1974”, quotes Psalms 139:9: “… If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea … C.A.L.”
I first became interested in Charles Lindbergh sometime prior to the 50th anniversary of his historic transatlantic flight. I don’t recall which came first: reading Lindbergh’s 1953 book The Sprit of St. Louis about the flight, watching the 1957 movie based on that book starring Jimmy Stewart, or discovering the upcoming U.S. stamp (Scott #1710) through an article in Linn’s Stamp News. I do recall that my mother enrolled me in the Postal Commemorative Society in 1977 and that the Spirit of St. Louis first day cover was the first one I received in the mail. (I’d also affixed a copy of the stamp onto the title page of my paperback copy of the book.) Shortly thereafter, either in the summer of 1977 or that of 1978, my father and I found ourselves camping at Lindbergh State Park in Little Falls, Minnesota, during one of our annual motorcycle trips north from our home in the Kansas City area; I still have a souvenir patch I bought on that trip.
Despite my long-standing interest in Lindbergh, today’s entry is only the second time he has been featured on A Stamp A Day. The first was a stamp-issuer profile on the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe. Since I’d somehow missed the 90th anniversary of the transatlantic flight last year, the mid-June article detailed that event. Today’s post will cover his life leading up to his take-off from Roosevelt Field on May 20, 1927; I plan to use the flight anniversary this coming May to conclude the story including a photo gallery of Lindbergh’s numerous goodwill and airmail flights in 1927-1931, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. the World War II years, and his later life.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 4, 1902, the only child of Charles August Lindbergh and Evangeline Lodge Land of Detroit, Michigan. His father was a congressman from Minnesota from 1907 to 1917, and his grandfather had been secretary to the King of Sweden. Lindbergh’s mother was a chemistry teacher at Cass Technical High School in Detroit and later at Little Falls High School in Minnesota. Charles’ parents separated in 1909 when he was seven.
Lindbergh also attended over a dozen other schools from Washington, D.C., to California, during his childhood and teenage years (none for more than a year or two), including the Force School and Sidwell Friends School while living in Washington with his father, and Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, California, while living there with his mother. He graduated from Little Falls High School on June 5, 1918. Although he enrolled in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in late 1920, Lindbergh dropped out in the middle of his sophomore year and then went to Lincoln, Nebraska, in March 1922 to begin flight training.
From an early age, Lindbergh had exhibited an interest in the mechanics of motorized transportation, including his family’s Saxon Six automobile, and later his Excelsior motorbike. By the time he started college as a mechanical engineering student, he had also become fascinated with flying, though he “had never been close enough to a plane to touch it”. After quitting college in February 1922, Lindbergh enrolled at the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation’s flying school in Lincoln and flew for the first time on April 9, as a passenger in a two-seat Lincoln Standard “Tourabout” biplane trainer piloted by Otto Timm.
A few days later, Lindbergh took his first formal flying lesson in that same machine, though he was never permitted to solo because he could not afford to post the requisite damage bond. To gain flight experience and earn money for further instruction, Lindbergh left Lincoln in June to spend the next few months barnstorming across Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana as a wing walker and parachutist. He also briefly worked as an airplane mechanic at the Billings, Montana, municipal airport.
Lindbergh left flying with the onset of winter and returned to his father’s home in Minnesota. His return to the air and first solo flight did not come until half a year later in May 1923 at Souther Field in Americus, Georgia, a former Army flight training field, where he had come to buy a World War I surplus Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. Though Lindbergh had not touched an airplane in more than six months, he had already secretly decided he was ready to take to the air by himself. After a half-hour of dual time with a pilot who was visiting the field to pick up another surplus JN-4, Lindbergh flew solo for the first time in the Jenny he had just purchased for $500. After spending another week or so at the field to “practice” (thereby acquiring five hours of “pilot in command” time), Lindbergh took off from Americus for Montgomery, Alabama, some 140 miles to the west, for his first solo cross-country flight. He went on to spend much of the rest of 1923 engaged in almost nonstop barnstorming under the name of “Daredevil Lindbergh”. Unlike the previous year, this time Lindbergh flew in his “own ship” as pilot. A few weeks after leaving Americus, the young airman also achieved another key aviation milestone when he made his first flight at night near Lake Village, Arkansas.
While Lindbergh was barnstorming in Lone Rock, Wisconsin, on two occasions he flew a local physician across the Wisconsin River to emergency calls that were otherwise unreachable due to flooding. He broke his propeller several times while landing, and on June 3, 1923 he was grounded for a week when he ran into a ditch in Glencoe, Minnesota while flying his father — then running for the U.S. Senate — to a campaign stop. In October, Lindbergh flew his Jenny to Iowa, where he sold it to a flying student. After selling the Jenny, Lindbergh returned to Lincoln by train. There, he joined Leon Klink and continued to barnstorm through the South for the next few months in Klink’s Curtiss JN-4C “Canuck” (the Canadian version of the Jenny). Lindbergh also “cracked up” this aircraft once when his engine failed shortly after take-off in Pensacola, Florida, but again he managed to repair the damage himself.
Following a few months of barnstorming through the South, the two pilots parted company in San Antonio, Texas, where Lindbergh reported to Brooks Field on March 19, 1924, to begin a year of military flight training with the United States Army Air Service there (and later at nearby Kelly Field). Lindbergh had his most serious flying accident on March 5, 1925, eight days before graduation, when a midair collision with another Army S.E.5 during aerial combat maneuvers forced him to bail out. Only 18 of the 104 cadets who started flight training a year earlier remained when Lindbergh graduated first overall in his class in March 1925, thereby earning his Army pilot’s wings and a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve Corps.
Lindbergh later said that this year was critical to his development as both a focused, goal-oriented individual and as an aviator. The Army did not need additional active-duty pilots, however, so immediately following graduation Lindbergh returned to civilian aviation as a barnstormer and flight instructor, although as a reserve officer he also continued to do some part-time military flying by joining the 110th Observation Squadron, 35th Division, Missouri National Guard, in St. Louis. He was soon promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and to captain in July 1926.
In October 1925, Lindbergh was hired by the Robertson Aircraft Corporation (RAC) at the Lambert-St. Louis Flying Field in Anglum, Missouri, where he had been working as a flight instructor. His job was to first lay out and then serve as chief pilot for the newly designated 278-mile (447 km) Contract Air Mail Route #2 (CAM-2) to provide service between St. Louis and Chicago (Maywood Field) with two intermediate stops in Springfield and Peoria, Illinois. Lindbergh and three other RAC pilots, Philip R. Love, Thomas P. Nelson, and Harlan A. “Bud” Gurney, flew the mail over CAM-2 in a fleet of four modified war-surplus de Havilland DH-4 biplanes.
Just before signing on to fly with CAM, Lindbergh had applied to serve as a pilot on Richard E. Byrd’s North Pole expedition, but apparently his bid came too late.
On April 13, 1926, Lindbergh executed the Post Office Department’s Oath of Mail Messengers, and two days later he opened service on the new route. Twice combinations of bad weather, equipment failure, and fuel exhaustion forced him to bail out on night approach to Chicago; both times he reached the ground without serious injury and immediately set about ensuring his cargo was located and sent on with minimum delay. In mid-February 1927, he left for San Diego, California, to oversee design and construction of the Spirit of St. Louis.
The world’s first nonstop transatlantic flight (though at 1,890 miles, or 3,040 km, far shorter than Lindbergh’s 3,600-mile, or 5,800 km, flight) was made eight years earlier by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, in a modified Vickers Vimy IV bomber. They left St. John’s, Newfoundland on June 14, 1919 and arrived in Ireland, the following day.
Around the same time, French-born New York hotelier Raymond Orteig was approached by Augustus Post, secretary of the Aero Club of America, and prompted to put up a $25,000 award for the first successful nonstop transatlantic flight specifically between New York City and Paris (in either direction) within five years after its establishment. When that time limit lapsed in 1924 without a serious attempt, Orteig renewed the offer for another five years, this time attracting a number of well-known, highly experienced, and well-financed contenders — none of whom were successful. On September 21, 1926, World War I French flying ace René Fonck’s Sikorsky S-35 crashed on takeoff from Roosevelt Field in New York. U.S. Naval aviators Noel Davis and Stanton H. Wooster were killed at Langley Field, Virginia on April 26, 1927, while testing their Keystone Pathfinder. On May 8, 1927, French war heroes Charles Nungesser and François Coli departed Paris – Le Bourget Airport in the Levasseur PL 8 seaplane L’Oiseau Blanc; they disappeared over the coast of Ireland.
American air racer Clarence D. Chamberlin and Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd were also in the race. Lindbergh’s challenge came rather late, in February. Lindbergh pursued a risky strategy for the competition; instead of using a tri-motor, as favored by most other groups, he decided on a single-engined aircraft. The decision allowed him to save weight and carry extra fuel as a reserve for detours or emergencies. He also decided to fly the aircraft solo, so avoiding the personality conflicts that helped delay at least one group. To save weight which had contributed to the crashes of other contributors, Lindbergh also dispensed with non-essential equipment like radios, sextant, and a parachute, although he did take an inflatable raft. The final factor in his success was his decision to fly into weather conditions that were clearing but not clear enough for others to consider safe. Lindbergh was quoted as saying “What kind of man would live where there is no danger? I don’t believe in taking foolish chances. But nothing can be accomplished by not taking a chance at all.”
Financing the operation of the historic flight was a challenge due to Lindbergh’s obscurity, but two St. Louis businessmen eventually obtained a $15,000 bank loan. Lindbergh contributed $2,000 ($27,280.45 in 2017) of his own money and another $1,000 was donated by RAC. The total of $18,000 was far less than was available to Lindbergh’s rivals.
The group tried to buy an “off-the-peg” single or multiengine monoplane from Wright Aeronautical, then Travel Air, and finally the newly formed Columbia Aircraft Corporation, but all insisted on selecting the pilot as a condition of sale. Finally the much smaller Ryan Aircraft Company of San Diego agreed to design and build a custom monoplane for $10,580, and on February 25 a deal was formally closed. Dubbed the Spirit of St. Louis, the fabric-covered, single-seat, single-engine “Ryan NYP” high-wing monoplane was designed jointly by Lindbergh and the Ryan’s chief engineer Donald A. Hall. The Spirit flew for the first time just two months later.
To save design time, the NYP was loosely based on the company’s 1926 Ryan M-2 mailplane with the main difference being the 4,000 mile range of the NYP and, as a non-standard design, the Civil Aviation Board (CAB) assigned it the registration number N-X-211 (for “experimental”). Hall documented his design in “Engineering Data on the Spirit of St. Louis” which he prepared for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and is included as an appendix to Lindbergh’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Spirit of St. Louis.
B.F. “Frank” Mahoney and Claude Ryan had co-founded the company as an airline in 1925 and the latter remained with the company after Mahoney bought out his interest in 1926, although there is some dispute as to how involved Ryan may have been in its management after selling his share. It is known, however, that Hawley Bowlus was the factory manager who oversaw construction of the Ryan NYP, and that Mahoney was the sole owner at the time of Donald A. Hall’s hiring.
The Spirit was designed and built in San Diego. Hall and Ryan Airlines staff worked closely with Lindbergh to design and build the airplane in just 60 days. Although what was actually paid to Ryan Airlines for the project is not clear, Mahoney offered to do it at cost. After first approaching several major aircraft manufacturers without success, in early February 1927, Lindbergh, who as a U.S. Air Mail pilot familiar with the good record of the M-1 with Pacific Air Transport, wired, “Can you construct Whirlwind engine plane capable flying nonstop between New York and Paris …?”
Mahoney was away from the factory, but Ryan answered, “Can build plane similar M-1 but larger wings… delivery about three months.” Lindbergh wired back that due to competition, delivery in less than three months was essential. Many years later, Jon van der Linde, chief mechanic of Ryan Airlines, recalled, “But nothing fazed B.F. Mahoney, the young sportsman who had just bought Ryan.” Mahoney telegraphed Lindbergh back the same day: “Can complete in two months.”
Lindbergh arrived in San Diego on February 23, 1927, and toured the factory with Mahoney meeting factory manager, Bowlus, chief engineer Donald Hall, and sales manager A.J. Edwards. After further discussions between Mahoney, Hall and Lindbergh, Mahoney offered to build the Spirit for $10,580, restating his commitment to deliver it in 60 days. Lindbergh himself contributed $2,000 toward the cost of the Spirit that he had saved from his earnings as an Air Mail pilot for Robertson Aircraft Corporation.
Lindbergh was convinced: “I believe in Hall’s ability; I like Mahoney’s enthusiasm. I have confidence in the character of the workmen I’ve met.” He then went to the airfield to familiarize himself with a Ryan aircraft, either an M-1 or an M-2, then telegraphed his St. Louis backers and recommended the deal, which was quickly approved.
Mahoney lived up to his commitment. Working exclusively on the aircraft and closely with Lindbergh, the staff completed the Spirit of St. Louis 60 days after Lindbergh arrived in San Diego. Powered by a Wright Whirlwind J-5C 223-hp radial engine, it had a 14 m (46-foot) wingspan, 10 feet (3 meters) longer than the M-1, to accommodate the heavy load of 425 gallons (1,610 liters) of fuel. In his 1927 book We, Lindbergh acknowledged the achievement of the builders with a photograph captioned “The Men Who Made the Plane”, identifying: “B. Franklin Mahoney, president, Ryan Airlines”, Bowlus, Hall and Edwards standing with the aviator in front of the completed aircraft.
Lindbergh believed that multiple engines resulted in a greater risk of failure while a single engine design would give him greater range. To increase fuel efficiency, the Spirit of St. Louis was also one of the most advanced and aerodynamically streamlined designs of its era.
Lindbergh believed that a flight made in a single-seat monoplane designed around the dependable Wright J-5C “Whirlwind” radial engine provided the best chance of success. The Ryan NYP had a total fuel capacity of 450 U.S. gallons (1,700 L; 370 imp gal) or 2,710 pounds (1,230 kg) of gasoline, which was necessary in order to have the range to make the anticipated flight non-stop. The fuel was stored in five fuel tanks, a forward tank (88 gallons), the main (209 gallons), and three wing tanks with a total of 153 gallons. Lindbergh modified the design of the plane’s “trombone struts” attached to the landing gear to provide a wider wheel base in order to accommodate the weight of the fuel.
At Lindbergh’s request, the large main and forward fuel tanks were placed in the forward section of the fuselage, in front of the pilot, with the oil tank acting as a firewall. This arrangement improved the center of gravity and reduced the risk of the pilot being crushed to death between the main tank and the engine in the event of a crash. This design decision meant that there could be no front windshield, and that forward visibility would be limited to the side windows. This did not concern Lindbergh as he was used to flying in the rear cockpit of mail planes with mail bags in the front. When he wanted to see forward, he would slightly yaw the aircraft and look out the side. To provide some forward vision as a precaution against hitting ship masts, trees, or structures while flying at low altitude, a Ryan employee who had served in the submarine service installed a periscope which Lindbergh helped design. It is unclear whether the periscope was used during the flight.
The instrument panel housed fuel pressure, oil pressure and temperature gauges, a clock, altimeter, tachometer, airspeed indicator, bank and turn indicator, and a liquid magnetic compass. The main compass was mounted behind Lindbergh in the cockpit, and he read it using the mirror from a women’s makeup case which was mounted to the ceiling using chewing gum. Lindbergh also installed a newly developed Earth Inductor Compass made by the Pioneer Instrument Company which allowed him to more accurately navigate while taking account of the magnetic declination of the earth. Lindbergh’s ultimate arrival over Ireland deviated from his flight plan by just a few miles.
Lindbergh sat in a cramped cockpit which was 36 inches wide, 32 inches long and 51 inches high (94 cm x 81 cm x 130 cm). The cockpit was so small, Lindbergh could not stretch his legs. The Spirit of St. Louis was powered by a 223-horsepower (166 kW), air-cooled, nine-cylinder Wright J-5C “Whirlwind” radial engine. The engine was rated for a maximum operating time of 9,000 hours (more than one year if operated continuously), and had a special mechanism that could keep it clean for the entire New York-to-Paris flight. It was also, for its day, very fuel-efficient, enabling longer flights carrying less fuel weight for given distances. Another key feature of the Whirlwind radial engine was that it was rated to self-lubricate the engine’s valves for 40 hours continuously. Lubricating, or “greasing,” the moving external engine parts was a necessity most aeronautical engines of the day required, to be done manually by the pilot or ground crew prior to every flight and would have been otherwise required somehow to be done during the long flight.
The engine was built at Wright Aeronautical in Paterson, New Jersey by a 24-year-old engine builder, Tom Rutledge, who was disappointed that he was assigned to the unknown aviator, Lindbergh. Four days after the flight, he received a letter of congratulations from the Wright management.
The race to win the prize required time-saving design compromises, Donald A. Hall decided that the empennage (tail assembly) and wing control surfaces would not be altered from his original Ryan M-2 design, thus minimizing redesign time that was not available without delaying the flight. The result was less aerodynamic stability; nevertheless, the experienced Lindbergh approved the unaltered design. This setup resulted in a negatively stable design that tended to randomly introduce unanticipated pitch, yaw, and bank (roll) elements into its overall flight characteristics. There is dispute regarding whether Hall and Lindbergh also preferred this design because they anticipated that the continuous corrections to the random movements of the aircraft would help to keep Lindbergh awake during the estimated 40-hour flight. Whether or not the unstable design was deliberately retained to help fight fatigue, Lindbergh did later write how these random unanticipated movements helped keep him awake at various times during the flight. The stiff wicker seat in the cockpit was also purposely uncomfortable, although custom fitted to Lindbergh’s tall and lanky frame.
Lindbergh also insisted that unnecessary weight be eliminated, even going so far as to cut the top and bottom off of his flight map. He carried no radio in order to save weight and because the radios of the period were unreliable and difficult to use while flying solo. Also, although he was an airmail pilot, he refused to carry souvenir letters on the transatlantic journey, insisting that every spare ounce be devoted to fuel. The fuselage was made of treated fabric over a metal tube frame, while the wings were made of fabric over a wood frame. The plywood material that was used to build most of Lindbergh’s plane was made at the Haskelite Manufacturing Corporation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
A small, left-facing Indian-style swastika was painted on the inside of the original propeller spinner of the Spirit of St. Louis along with the names of all the Ryan Aircraft employees who designed and built it. It was meant as a message of good luck prior to Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic crossing as the symbol was often used as a popular good luck charm with early aviators and others. The inside of the original propeller spinner can be viewed at the National Air and Space Museum. This propeller spinner was found to be cracked when Lindbergh arrived at New York prior to his transatlantic flight. The propeller spinner that is on the Spirit of St. Louis now was hastily made in New York to replace the cracked original and was on the aircraft during the transatlantic flight.
The Sprit of St. Louis made its first flight on April 28. After a series of test flights, Lindbergh took off from San Diego on May 10. He went first to St. Louis, then on to Roosevelt Field on New York’s Long Island. Early in the morning of Friday, May 20, 1927, Charles Augustus Lindbergh — with his monoplane loaded with 450 U.S. gallons (1,704 liters) of fuel and weighing about 2,710 pounds (1,230 kg) — slowly began taxiing the aircraft down the muddy, rain-soaked runway. Takeoff was at 7:32 a.m. with the Spirit clearing telephone lines at the far end of the field “by about twenty feet [six meters] with a fair reserve of flying speed”. Next stop…Paris.
Lindbergh and the Spirit have been honored by a vast number of postage stamps over the last eight decades, the first of which was issued less than three weeks after the flight. The U.S. Post Office Department issued a 10-cent airmail stamp (Scott #C10) on June 11, 1927 — the date the aviator and his monoplane arrived back in the United States aboard the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Memphis (CL-13). A fleet of warships and multiple flights of military aircraft escorted him up the Potomac River to the Washington Navy Yard, where President Calvin Coolidge awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross. The stamp, bearing engraved illustrations of both the Spirit of St. Louis and a map of its route from New York to Paris, was the first U.S. stamp to bear the name of a living person. A half-century later, a 13-cent commemorative stamp (Scott #1710) depicting the Spirit flying low over the Atlantic Ocean was issued on May 20, 1977, the 50th anniversary of the flight from Roosevelt Field.
On May 28, 1998, the United States Postal Service issued the Celebrate The Century: 1920s souvenir sheet in Chicago, Illinois (Scott #3184). The sheet featured subjects from the following categories representing the 1920s: People and Events, Arts and Entertainment, Lifestyle, Sports, and Science and Technology. The fifteen commemorative stamps in this sheet were titled Babe Ruth, The Gatsby Style, Prohibition Enforced, Electric Toy Trains, 19th Amendment, Emily Post’s Etiquette, Margaret Mead – Anthropologist, Flappers Do The Charleston, Radio Entertains America, Art Deco Style, Jazz Flourishes, Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, Lindbergh Flies Atlantic, American Realism, and Stock Market Crash 1929. The 32-cent with the legend “Lindbergh Flies Atlantic” depicting Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis was given the Scott catalogue number 3184m.
Designed by Carl Herrman of Laguna Niguel, California, and illustrated by Davis Meltzer of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, the stamps were issued and printed by Ashton-Potter USA in the offset/intaglio process. There were 12,533,000 copies of the sheet printed, perforated 11½.