Charles Lindbergh was an American aviator, inventor, and military officer known for making the first non-stop transatlantic flight from North America to mainland Europe and the first transatlantic solo flight. While he was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve, Lindbergh covered alone 5,800 km in 33 ½ hours in a single-engine specially built monoplane, named Spirit of St. Louis. For his extraordinary achievement, Lindbergh received the United States’ Medal of Honor. He also had an exceptional career as an explorer, environmental activist, and author.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born on February 4, 1902, in Detroit, Michigan. His father, Charles August Lindbergh, had Swedish origins while his mother, Evangeline Lodge Land, was from Detroit. The couple moved from Detroit to Little Falls, Minnesota, but later relocated to Washington, D.C. When Charles was only seven years old, his parents decided to go separate ways. After their separation, his father became a U.S. Congressman and spent the next ten years in Congress. His mother Evangeline was a chemistry teacher, first in Detroit and later in Minnesota. Lindbergh attended several schools in Washington and California as he was often forced to move to spent time with both his parents. He graduated in 1918 from the high school where his mother taught.
Aviation Was In His Blood
In 1920, Lindbergh enrolled at University of Wisconsin-Madison to study engineering. However, he dropped out without graduating to follow his dream of flying. He began flight training in Lincoln, Nebraska. As a child, Lindbergh had been fascinated by engines and mechanics, with a special interest in his family’s automobile. Once he started to study mechanical engineering, he discovered flying, which aroused in him a new, troubling fascination. He quit college in February 1922 and joined the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation’s flying school. On April 9, 1922, Lindbergh flew for the first time as a passenger, in a biplane trainer. To save money for his flying lessons, he spent his summers working as a wing walker and parachutist across Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, and Colorado.
After other six months during which he didn’t get the chance to go near an airplane, Lindbergh bought a World War I surplus Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. On May 1923, he had his first solo flight at a former Army flight training field in Americus, Georgia. After a week of practice, he had his first solo cross-country flight, from Americus to Montgomery, Alabama, covering a distance of almost 140 miles. He spent most of 1923 barnstorming and flying mostly as a pilot of his own plane. Shortly after leaving Americus, he had his first night flight in Arkansas.
During the following months, Lindbergh ran several emergency flights for a flooding incident in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. He also flew his father during his campaign for the U.S. Senate. In October, however, he sold the Jenny and began barnstorming with one of his friends, Leon Klink, who had his own biplane. The two pilots parted ways after a few months since Lindbergh had decided to join the United States Army Air Service.
Lindbergh began his military flight training on March 19, 1924. One year later, only a few days before graduation, he had his most severe flying accident. During the usual aerial combat maneuvers, he collided mid-air with another plane and had to bail out. From the 104 cadets that started flight training at the same time with Lindbergh, only 18 graduated. However, Lindbergh had been an excellent student, which earned him a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve Corps. Since the Army had already enough active-duty pilots, Lindbergh turned to civilian aviation, working mostly as a barnstormer and flight instructor. As a reserve officer, he had the chance to run some military flight operations by joining the Missouri National Guard in St. Louis. For his extraordinary merits, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
While he was working as a flight instructor for the Robertson Aircraft Corporation at the Lambert-St. Louis Flying Field in Montana, Lindbergh was hired to serve as a chief pilot for the newly created Contract Air Mail Route 2.
The Orteig Prize and the Spirit of St. Louis
In February 1927, almost a year after executing the Post Office Department’s Oath of Mail Messengers, Lindbergh left for San Diego, California, to devote his time to the designing and building of his own monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis.
After several attempts of crossing the Atlantic by plane, a French-born New York businessman set up an award for the first successful nonstop flight specifically between New York City and Paris, in either direction. The $25,000 prize attracted a lot of highly experienced and famous contenders, yet none of them managed to accomplish the mission. Several famous pilots were killed in the attempt.
Lindbergh wanted to enter the race but since he was not a known figure in the aviation world, attracting sponsorship for the race proved complicated. However, with his earnings from working as a U.S. Air Mail pilot, a significant bank loan, and a small contribution from RAC, he managed to raise $18,000, which was still considerably less than what his rivals had available. He wanted a custom monoplane, and after a thorough research he found the Ryan Aircraft Company from San Diego, which agreed to build him the monoplane for less than $11, 000. The design belonged entirely to Lindbergh and Ryan’s chief engineer Donald A. Hall. Two months after the deal was signed, Spirit of St. Louis flew for the first time. After a series of test flights, Lindbergh eventually reached Roosevelt Field on New York’s Long Island.
On Friday, May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off for Paris. During the next 33 ½ hours, both he and his plane went through several crises, especially because of the weather. Lindbergh had to fight icing, to fly blind through the thick fog for hours, and to navigate only by the stars. He landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris on Saturday, May 21. The airfield was not marked on his map, and Lindbergh was initially confused by the miles of bright lights spreading beneath him. He realized later that the lights belonged to the tens of thousands of cars belonging to people who rushed to witness his landing. An estimated 150,000 people were present at the airport. They pulled Lindbergh out of the cockpit and carried him around to celebrate his victory. Many took pieces of the linen on the fuselage to keep as a souvenir. Shortly, Lindbergh and Spirit of St. Louis were taken to safety, escorted by French military fliers and police.
Lindbergh’s historic accomplishment transformed him overnight into one of the most adulated Americans. Crowds gathered at his mother’s house in Detroit while every newspaper, magazine, or radio show was fighting to get hold of him for an interview. Moreover, Lindbergh received countless job offers and invitations to join different projects. The President of France Gaston Doumergue awarded him the French Legion d’honneur. Upon his return to the United States, a fleet of military aircraft and warships escorted the Spirit of St. Louis on its way to Washington Navy Yard where President Calvin Coolidge welcomed Lindbergh and awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
More than four million people saw Lindbergh on June 13, the day of his arrival to New York City. The honors continue to flow for the following days as his achievement was celebrated with public ceremonies attended by thousands of people and private banquets. On June 16, he officially received the check for the Orteig Prize.
On January 2, 1928, Lindbergh appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as the “Man of the Year”. He remains the youngest Man of the Year in the history of Time and was the first person to be offered the distinction. Only two months after Lindbergh’s famous flight, his 318-page autobiography was published. The book’s title We had been chosen by the publisher, George P. Putnam, and the public interpreted it as a reference to the spiritual partnership between the man and his machine. The book was immediately translated to all major languages and sold more than half a million copies in a single year, earning Lindbergh a considerable sum of money. Meanwhile, Lindbergh launched a three-month tour of the United States with Spirit of St. Louis, during which he visited 82 cities all over the country, and delivered countless speeches in front of massive crowds of people. It is estimated that more than 30 million Americans had the chance to see him live during the tour.
Promoter of Aviation
After his journey across the United States, Lindbergh flew to Latin America for another tour, labeled the “Good Will Tour”, during which he visited 16 countries between December 1927 and February 1928. In Mexico, he met and fell in love with Anne Morrow, the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Anne would later become his wife. A year after the historic flight, Spirit of St. Louis found rest at the Smithsonian Institute where it was put on public display, and it remained there ever since. Its history comprises 489 and 28 minutes of flight in over 367 days.
Lindbergh was appointed to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics by President Hoover. He also began a collaboration with Pan American World Airways, in an attempt to implement a new circle air route across Alaska and Siberia to Far East Asia. To test the feasibility of the plan, Lindbergh and his wife flew from New York to Alaska, then Siberia, China, and Japan. Despite their successful journey, the route remained unavailable for commercial service until after World War II because of the problematic geopolitics. The journey was documented in a book written by Anne, North to the Orient, where she also talks about their volunteering work in China, during the Central China flood of 1931.
Lindbergh used his popularity among Americans to become a promoter of the air mail service. He ran special flights during his tour of South America to deliver souvenirs from across the world.
Baby Lindbergh is Kidnapped
In his autobiography, Lindbergh also covered the topic of personal relationships, talking about the need to value stability and long-term commitment, portraying the ideal woman as someone with astute intellect and good health. He also emphasized the importance of strong genes and good heredity. He and his wife Anne met in December 1927 in Mexico City and married on May 27, 1929, in New Jersey. The couple had six children. Anne shared Lindbergh’s fascination with flying and after he taught her how to fly, she became his companion and assistant during his exploration of air routes. Despite the fact that he didn’t spend too much time with his children, Lindbergh was interested in their development.
A devastating event hit the family on the evening of March 1, 1932. Lindbergh’s twenty-month-old son, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was kidnapped from his crib at the family’s rural home in New Jersey. The kidnapper demanded a cash ransom of $50,000. The ransom was paid in gold certificates and bills that had the serial numbers recorded. Despite the efforts to save him, the child’s remains were found in the woods near Lindbergh’s home, on May 12.
The event shocked the entire country and was called “The Crime of the Century”. As a response, Congress passed a new law, making kidnapping a federal offense under specific conditions. On September 19, 1934, Richard Hauptmann, a 34-years-old carpenter, was arrested after using the ransom bills to pay for gasoline. The police found in his home the rest of the ransom money and other incriminating evidence. He was sentenced to death for kidnapping, murder, and extortion.
To protect his family and to escape the relentless public attention caused by the kidnapping and the trial of the murderer, Lindbergh took his wife and three-year-old son Jon and sought refuge in Europe, with diplomatic passports issued through special intervention. The family settled in Kent, where they rented a property. After three years of happiness in Kent, Lindbergh purchased a small four-acre island off the coast of France. The family didn’t spend much time there because in April 1939, they returned to the United States.
Despite his busy life, Lindbergh always remained interested in science and technology. He developed a navigation watch for pilots which is still produced today. He also became a good friend and supporter of inventor and rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, helping him expand his research and finding him sponsorship. Lindbergh was also interested in medical studies, especially surgery. While living in France, he studied with Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Dr. Alexis Carrel. Lindbergh made a remarkable contribution to medicine by inventing a glass perfusion pump that made heart surgery possible. His invention was further developed and eventually led to new extraordinary medical achievements.
After sharing a simple and happy life in Europe with his family for a couple of years, Lindbergh decided to return to America in response to the personal request of General H.H. Arnold, the chief of the United States Army Air Corps. Arnold asked Lindbergh to return to active military duty and to help the Air Corps prepare for the emerging war.
Before and during World War II, Lindbergh was involved in the international political scene, often expressing publicly his views and fears, which came off as controversial in the United States. By the end of 1940, he became an official voice of the isolationist America First Committee, talking about how the United States had no reason to attack Germany and how defeating Hitler would lead to the destruction of Europe under the invasion of the Soviets. Criticized by President Franklin Roosevelt, Lindbergh resigned his commission as a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps, considering it the only honorable response to the accusation of disloyalty.
Lindbergh’s public speeches on the need to keep the United States out of the war brought him accusations of antisemitism and Nazism, with pamphlets ridiculing him. He was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer. Even though he saw Hitler as a fanatic, Lindbergh was interested in eugenics and clearly expressed his belief on the need to protect the white race. He would have preferred to see the United States ally with Nazi Germany rather than Soviet Russia because for him, race was more important than ideological affiliation.
During the war, Lindbergh attempted to be recommissioned in the Army Air Corps, but his requests were declined. With no possibility to have an active military role, Lindbergh became a consultant and technical adviser with Ford. One year later, he became involved with United Aircraft and flew over 50 combat missions as a civilian. The pilots praised him for his courage, patriotism and knack for technical innovation. When the war ended, Lindbergh settled in Darien, Connecticut, where he took a position as consultant to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. He also resumed his collaboration with the Pan American World Airways. In 1954, he became brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
Besides his autobiographical book We, Lindbergh wrote several other books, covering different topics such as science, nature, technology, war, and nationalism: The Spirit of St. Louis, The Culture of Organs (co-author with Dr. Alexis Carrel), Of Flight and Life, and others.
Death and Double-Life
During his last years, Lindbergh lived in Maui, Hawaii. On August 26, 1974, he died of lymphoma. He was 72 years old. Long after Lindbergh and his wife died, it has been discovered that during the time he spent in Europe, Lindbergh led a double life, engaging in lengthy extra-marital affairs with three different women. He fathered three children with a Bavarian hat maker and two children with her sister, a painter living in a nearby town. Moreover, he had a son and a daughter with a Prussian aristocrat living in Baden-Baden. All seven children were born between 1958 and 1967.
Lindbergh demanded absolute secrecy from his mistresses, who never married and kept his name hidden even from their children. The children saw their father only on brief visits once or twice a year, and they knew him by an alias name. Around the mid-1980s, one of Lindbergh’s illegitimate daughters, Brigitte, discovered the truth by putting together pieces of information. After both her mother and Anne Lindbergh died, Brigitte ran DNA tests to check the accuracy of her findings. It was proved that Lindbergh had indeed fathered seven children outside his marriage.
Aviator Lindbergh fathered children with mistresses" .The Telegraph. May 29, 2005. Accessed May 16, 2017
Charles Lindbergh's First Solo Flight & First Plane. Charles Lindbergh official Site. Accessed May 17, 2017
Charles Lindbergh: An American Aviator. Charles Lindbergh Official Site. Accessed May 17, 2017
How Lindbergh gave a lift to rocketry. Life, October 4, 1963, pp. 115–127. Accessed May 16, 2017
Lindbergh given check by Orteig. The Gettysburg Times. June 17, 1927, p. 2. Accessed May 16, 2017
Is Lindbergh a Nazi? Charles Lindbergh Official Site. Accessed May 16, 2017
West, Doug. Charles Lindbergh: A Short Biography: Famed Aviator and Environmentalist. C&D Publications. 2017.
Nathan M from Tucson on January 11, 2019:
Charles Lindbergh led an interesting life, and seemed to deal with the crushing fame that followed him most of his adult life, rather well. It's fun to read about all the twists and turns he went through during his life.
Mary Wickison from Brazil on April 03, 2018:
Fascinating article, there was so much I didn't know about him.
He certainly left his mark on the world.
Well written and researched.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on May 25, 2017:
Interesting historical overview.