Why Lindbergh's spirit endures, 75 years on
As his grandson re-creates his historic flight 75 years later, Charles Lindbergh's legacy still enthralls America.
CHESTERFIELD, MO. — The crowd at Spirit of St. Louis airport roared as the young Lindbergh, flying solo in a single engine plane, lifted off the runway into a misty, leaden sky.
The noisy crowd here on a recent weekend didn't seem to mind that the pilot's first name was Erik, not Charles.
Dubbed "Young Lindy," Erik Lindbergh has been recreating the journey of his grandfather from San Diego, where he took delivery of the Spirit of St. Louis in April 1927, to Missouri, where his financial backers were located, then on to New York, where he departed on a flight nonstop to Paris and to eternal fame.
Tomorrow, 20 days shy of the 75th anniversary of that flight, Erik Linbergh will retrace the epic transatlantic flight which remains one of America's most enduring cultural touchstones, echoing in history alongside the moon landing and the Mayflower.
The frenzied public response when Charles Lindbergh stepped out of his plane after doing, in 33- 1/2 hours, what no pilot had done before was a media milestone a harbinger of the superstardom that was to follow for the likes of the Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, and Muhammad Ali.
The flight also helped mark the divide between America's agrarian past and its technological future. Lindbergh's aerial skills, after all, had been honed as a mechanized pony- express rider over the cornfields of St. Louis to Chicago.
But more than anything else, Lindbergh captured instant and enduring fascination by fulfilling that most primal of American ideals: the singular, lone conquest over incalculable odds.
Given the roster of accomplishments and firsts that cover the past century, many are at a loss to explain why Lindbergh's feat endures as a feat that still captures imaginations.
"Even my father never quite understood it," says Reeve Lindbergh, the daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow and president of their namesake foundation. "His achievement seemingly spoke to something in all Americans."
As the 75th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's solo flight on May 20 approaches, "the Lone Eagle's" lasting fame is showing a similar ability to stay aloft.
The occasion will be marked by TV specials, new books, and a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis which will make appearances around the country (the original is still one of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian.)
Interest in the anniversary is particularly acute in St. Louis, where a new museum exhibit of Lindbergh artifacts will open, a gala dinner is planned, and even a new opera based on the lives of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh will première. It was here that Lindbergh, fresh out of flight school in Texas, decided to drop in on St. Louis. He stayed on as an airmail pilot, went on to survive two plane crashes by parachuting to safety, and soon met the men who would finance his transatlantic dare.
In a city still smarting from the recent loss of TWA and the swallowing of famed McDonnell-Douglas by Boeing several years ago, the Lindbergh anniversary is a balm, a reminder of St. Louis's glorious role in aviation history. The local media has followed Erik Lindbergh's every move.
"I'm not trying to duplicate what my Grandfather did," says Erik Lindbergh, a commercial pilot, certified flight instructor, and woodworker. "This is a celebration. I'm honoring his accomplishment."
Some suggest Lindbergh's persistent fame is due in part to how perfectly arrayed are the elements of his story. The challenge was clear: Cross the Atlantic from New York to Paris nonstop. There was cash: the Orteig Prize for the first crossing was $25,000, a considerable sum. And there was danger: lives had been lost in failed attempts.
Although America may not have a copyright on the iconography of pilots the way it does on that of cowboys, barnstorming aviators in the '20s were nothing if not latter-day cowboys. Lindbergh captured the American ideal of the singular conqueror against incalculable odds, the lone cowboy riding off into the sunset or in Lindbergh's case, taking off into a dangerous brew of spring storms over the North Atlantic riding a flying fuel tank with no radio.
When Lindbergh rolled to a stop at Le Bourget airport outside Paris, he was mobbed by 100,000 people. While Lindbergh's flight is widely remembered as the beginning of a new age in transportation, "the bigger point may be that it marked a new age of communication," says A. Scott Berg, Lindbergh's Pulitzer prize-winning biographer. "Lindbergh became the first media superstar."
By 1927, radio and newspaper syndicates could spread news instantly and photos could be cabled. It was almost as if the world was poised for its first media celebrity to drop out of the sky. Indeed, newsreels of Lindbergh taking off from Long Island in New York were the very first motion pictures with sound attached to them, according to Berg. The next day Americans were venturing into movie houses to both see and hear Lindbergh's plane taking off even before he landed in Paris. He was Time magazine's first Man of the Year.
When it comes to the lasting nature of Lindbergh's fame, historians say there is one other crucial element Lindbergh. Some suggest the impact of his milestone might have slipped over time if someone had popped out of the cockpit in Paris other than the strapping six-footer with blonde hair, blue eyes, sterling reputation, and modest mien the grown-up all-American Boy Scout with a professed love for his mother who stole America's heart.
"To me, an even greater act than Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic is the way he comported himself in the months and years after that," says Berg. "Here was a man who turned down millions of dollars in product endorsements, who could easily have rested on his laurels the rest of his life or become a media hound, and yet he reserved his celebrity for the betterment of the world at large."
"People also forget he was an underdog," says Dan Clemons, a San Diego-based collector of Lindbergh memorabilia and a pilot himself. There were at least six planes being readied to make the flight all with better- known pilots. But on May 20, only Lindbergh was ready to go. "He was a 25-year-old kid with a dream, and that's something everyone could relate to and still can," says Clemons.