On a recent trip to Georgia in the USA I ventured to a spot just outside of Americus (coolest name for a town I have come across in a while!) where I discovered a unique snippet of history. At the towns airport there is a memorial to “The Lone Eagle“, famous aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902 – 1974). In the middle of Georgia and given Lindy was from the mid west, it seems such an unlikely place for this to have happened, but this was the location where he completed his first ever solo flight in early May 1923 at was then known as Souther Field.
In 1909 in Minnesota the young Lindbergh saw an aeroplane fly over for the first time. This ignited his imagination but it was not until April 1922 at age 20 that he enrolled in a flight school in Lincoln, Nebraska. On April 9th, 1922 as a passenger he went on his first ever flight and a few days later started his own flight training with an instructor. During his time at the school he did not get the chance to fly solo, simply because he did not have enough money to afford to pay the bond that was required in case he damaged the schools one and only training aircraft! This was not going to do for the young Lindy though. With 20 hours of flying time under his belt, he had the aviation bug and was not going to be deterred. He set off to make some money by becoming a wing walker with some mid west barnstorming aviators and also spent time as an aviation mechanic in Billings, Montana.
By May 1923 Lindbergh found himself in Americus where he had come to purchase a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplane aircraft that was surplus at the former World War One training centre. He paid $500 for the aircraft.
Lindbergh had not flown an aircraft for about 6 months but after 30 minutes flying with another pilot at Souther Field he decided it was time to fly solo. He spent the rest of the week practicing taking off and landing and clocked up 5 hours of solo flight time. Satisfied that he had mastered the aircraft he spent the rest of the year travelling around doing barnstorming shows under the name “Daredevil Lindbergh“! His JN-4 suffered some damage during this time and by October 1923 he had sold it and spent the next few months flying another barnstormers JN-4 instead. The memorial in Americus is an ode to Lindbergh’s barnstorming days, showing him standing out on a wing with his scarf billowing in the wind.
This period of barnstorming kicked off an incredible aviation career for Lindbergh in which he flew with the United States Army Air Service (1924-1925), continued barnstorming, became a flight instructor in 1925, flew as a US Mail pilot (1925-1927) and then became world-famous on May 20th to 21st, 1927 as the first person to complete non stop the flight from New York to Paris in his custom-built Ryan monoplane aircraft Spirit of St. Louis (at the time he lived in St. Louis and had a lot of supporters there). The flight of approximately 5,800 km (3,600 miles) took 33.5 hours and he claimed the $25,000 Orteig Prize in doing so. Tens of thousands of people were there to see him land at Le Bourget in Paris! Later Lindbergh was presented a the highest US military award, the Medal of Honour for the achievement (he was still an active military reserve pilot). This was all just four years after that first solo flight in Americus, Georgia!
Following this successful transatlantic flight Lindbergh and Spirit of St. Louis were returned to the United States aboard USS Memphis to a heroes welcome on June 11th, 1927. He then took the aircraft on a tour of the country from July 20th to October 23rd, 1927. On December 13th, 1927 he took off in the Spirit of St. Louis on a nonstop flight from Washington D.C. to Mexico City then through Central America, down to Colombia, Venezuela and across to Puerto Rico and Cuba, From Havana, Cuba he flew nonstop back to the United States to his aircrafts namesake, the city St. Louis. Flags of the countries he visited were painted on both sides of the cowling of Spirit of St. Louis. The final flight of the aircraft was made in on April 30th, 1928 when it was flown from St. Louis to Washington D.C. to be donated to the Smithsonian where it resides to this day.
Lindbergh’s fame also brought tragedy when in 1932 his 20 month old son, Charles Lindbergh Jr. was kidnapped and despite the payment of a ransom, was murdered. This led to a number of years in exile in Europe for the Lindbergh family to escape all the media attention and grieve in private.
World War Two
Although initially against the United States being involved in the fighting of World War Two by the time Japan had attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941 he had changed his mind and tried to be re-commissioned in the USAAF (in April 1941 following some public disputes with the government and President Roosevelt following congress hearings where he was asked about his visits to Germany before the war – during that time he had met Nazi leaders such as Hermann Göring and also had made numerous controversial statements, he had resigned from his Army Air Corps commission over what he saw as a personal insult). The White House gave instructions to deny his application to be re-commissioned!
As such, so he could still assist in the war effort, Lindbergh approached Aviation companies instead. Given his situation with the government, many did not want to be involved with him as it may have risked their government contracts. In 1942 he worked with Henry Ford (who was his friend) as a consultant to assist with manufacturing issues in the construction of Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers. On a side note, it seems that Henry Ford wasn’t much for flying in aircraft and only flew three times in his life (“Airplanes belong to another generation.”) but he was in safe hands on his first and second flight in 1927 with the one and only Lindbergh at the controls of the Spirit of St. Louis!
By 1943 deciding he would be better value to the war effort elsewhere, Lindy worked as an engineering consultant and test pilot for Chance Vought flying the F4U Corsair fighter. In January 1944 he was given permission to survey US Marine Corps (USMC) Corsair operations in the Pacific theatre of World War Two. In June 1944 he spent time with the USAAF 475th Fighter Group flying the Lockheed P-38 Lighting where he was instrumental in developing techniques that impressed General Douglas MacArthur and were adopted by the USAAF to improve the fuel economy and range of the P-38 which was critical in the long distances flown across the Pacific theatre. In September 1944 he returned to flying with the USMC.
Despite being a civilian consultant to the military, he would fly 50 Pacific theatre combat missions (bomber escort and fighter-bomber missions flying both the F4U Corsair and P-38 Lightning). During one of these missions on July 28th, 1944 flying a P-38 over New Guinea he claimed an air victory, shooting down an Imperial Japanese Army Mitsubishi Ki-51 Sonia reconnaissance aircraft in an extremely close, head on pass (Lindbergh wrote in his diary afterwards “By how much did we miss? Ten feet? Probably less than that.”). The Sonia was flown by Captain Saburo Shimada, the commanding officer of the 73rd Independent Chutai, who up until that point had done a skillful job in avoiding P-38’s from another USAAF squadron. In mid 1945 Lindbergh returned to Europe to assist in the study of advanced German aircraft.
Following the war Lindy worked as a consultant to the Chief of Staff of the USAF and Pan American World Airways. In 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower reinstated his commission in the USAF and promoted him to Brigadier General. In his later life Charles Lindbergh became an author, explorer, supporter of environmental causes and more. At 72 years of age he passed away on August 26th, 1974 in Maui, Hawaii. Quite the life!
Lindbergh, Charles, A., The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh (1970); Berg, A. Scott, Lindbergh (1998).