Lindbergh, Charles A.

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Charles A. Lindbergh

Born February 4, 1902 (Detroit, Michigan)
Died August 26, 1974 (Maui, Hawaii)


"When I was a child on our Minnesota farm, I spent hours lying on my back . . . staring into the sky. . . . How wonderful it would be, I’d thought, if I had an airplane—wings with which I could fly up to the clouds and explore their caves and canyons. . . . Then, I would ride on the wind and be part of the sky."

One of the most popular heroes of the Roaring Twenties, Charles Lindbergh caught the world's imagination with his flight from New York City to Paris, flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a little less than thirty-four hours. A pioneer in the brand-new field of aviation, Lindbergh helped to transform airplane travel from the realm of daredevil stunt flyers and military pilots to a common mode of transportation for ordinary people. To the people of the 1920s, he seemed to embody both the traditional values of courage and self-reliance and the technological miracles of the future.

A boy in love with airplanes

Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan, but he was raised mostly in Minnesota, where his paternal grandfather had settled after immigrating from Sweden. His father, Charles August Lindbergh, was a farmer and lawyer, and his mother, Evangeline Land, had been a high school science teacher before her marriage. The couple built a home on 110 acres (44.5 hectares) of land near Little Falls, Minnesota, where their only child enjoyed the outdoor life of fishing and hunting.

Lindbergh's father was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1906 and served until 1917, when his strong isolationist stance (someone who believes in staying out of other nations' affairs) on the entry of the United States into World War I (1914–18; the United States entered the war in 1917) finally led to his defeat. The elder Lindberghs were unhappily married, and young Charles spent various periods living with either his father in Washington, D.C., or his mother in Minnesota. Although not particularly interested in school, Lindbergh loved gadgets and scientific experiments. When he was twelve, his father took him to watch some military pilots practicing maneuvers, and he developed a passion for airplanes and flying. It would be another ten years, however, before he took his first flight. Meanwhile, Lindbergh later remembered lying on the ground, looking up at the sky, and thinking, according to Barry Denenberg's An American Hero: The True Story of Charles A. Lindbergh, "how wonderful it would be … if I had an airplane—wings with which I could fly up to the clouds and explore their caves and canyons. … Then, I wouldride on the wind and be part of the sky."

Because of the extra demands on farmers during World War I, Lindbergh left school at sixteen in order to help run his family's farm, and he missed his senior year of high school. But the government began a program that allowed boys who had missed school for this reason to enter college. Lindbergh enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, where he planned to study civil engineering. His solitary manner and lack of interest in girls or parties made him something of a social outcast, although he did enjoy such pursuits as pistol and rifle shooting (at which he excelled) and performing daring feats on his motorbike.

Becoming a stunt and air mail pilot

After three semesters of college, Lindbergh dropped out and headed for Nebraska to take flying lessons. He remembered his first flight, which he took as a passenger on April 9, 1922, as the biggest thrill he had yet experienced. Having finished a mere eight hours of instruction, Lindbergh went to work with a veteran barnstormer named Erold Bahl. These daring pilots from the earliest days of aviation appeared at country fairs and carnivals, performing various stunts and offering short rides. Lindbergh's job was to walk out on the airplane's wing while it was airborne, waving to the crowd below. He also did some parachuting.

Lindbergh's dream, however, was to fly solo, which he would not be able to do without his own plane. In 1923 this dream came true when a five-hundred-dollar loan from his father allowed him to buy a World War I-era airplane called the Jenny. For a while he continued his barnstorming career, but he knew that this was a limited pursuit. Eager for more training, Lindbergh enrolled in 1924 in the Cadet Program offered by the U.S. Army Air Service (there was not yet a separate Air Force). This very difficult program, which took place at an army base in San Antonio, Texas, featured courses in twenty-five subjects. Lindbergh studied aerodynamics, meteorology, and radio communications and received instruction in aviation skills like flying in formation, combat maneuvers, and special takeoffs and landings.

Lindbergh graduated first in his class and emerged as a second lieutenant in the Air Service Reserve. He was soon hired to fly the airmail route between St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. At this point in the history of aviation, such work was extremely dangerous. Landing strips were few and often in bad condition, weather reports were unreliable, and many airplanes were not up to the job. Scores of airmail pilots were killed in crashes, and Lindbergh himself had many close calls; he even set a record by making four emergency jumps out of airplanes. It was during this period that he began to earn the nickname by which he would long be known: "Lucky Lindy."

Taking a chance on a transatlantic crossing

In the fall of 1926 Lindbergh heard about the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 award that had been offered by New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig to the first pilot to succeed in flying from a major U.S. city to a major European city. Several unsuccessful attempts had already been made, and several lives had been lost in the process. Lindbergh thought that those pilots had failed because their planes had been too weighed down with extra crew members and supplies. He believed that only a light, single-engine plane carrying a lone pilot could make the trip.

Overcoming his natural shyness, Lindbergh persuaded a group of nine St. Louis businessmen to back him in a try for the Orteig Prize. Hoping to make their city a center of aviation, they agreed to fund the airplane that Lindbergh had in mind, which would be built by Ryan Airlines of San Diego, California. Lindbergh went to San Diego to assist in the design and construction of his airplane, which he named the Spirit of St. Louis in honor of his sponsors. Construction took six months.

Pioneering Woman Aviator Amelia Earhart

Charles Lindbergh was one of the most celebrated heroes of the Roaring Twenties. Another such innovator, and an inspiration to subsequent generations of women, was pilot Amelia Earhart. She set several aviation records of her own in the 1920s, and went on to even greater fame before her life ended mysteriously in the late 1930s.

Born in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, Earhart's interest in aviation was sparked at the age of eighteen when she attended a military airplane exhibition. Though she worked to support herself at various jobs over the course of her life, from volunteer nurse's aide to social worker, flying was Earhart's passion. She signed up for flying lessons after experiencing a joyride at an air show. With a loan from her mother and income from her job at a telephone company, Earhart soon purchased a small plane. In 1922 she made her first solo flight, setting an altitude record by flying at 14,000 feet.

In April 1928 she received an offer to become the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane. She made the trip in June, flying aboard the Friendship with a male pilot and navigator. The story of Earhart's flight made international headlines.

Eager to cross the Atlantic as a pilot rather than a passenger, Earhart took off from Newfoundland, Canada, in May 1932 and headed for France. A variety of problems caused an early landing in Northern Ireland, but Earhart had made it safely across the ocean. When she returned to New York, she was greeted with a parade and enthusiastic fans.

Over the next several years, Earhart pursued and achieved several other firsts in aviation history, and she was always looking for a new challenge. In February 1937 Earhart announced that she planned to fly around the world at or near the Equator. She left from San Francisco, California, on March 17, making the trip to Hawaii in a record sixteen hours. When she tried to take off from Hawaii, her plane crashed. After a five-week delay, she decided to fly from west to east, and was accompanied by a new navigator, Fred Noonan. Earhart left Miami, Florida, on June 1,1937. She flew toward Brazil, then headed east over the Atlantic, flying over Africa, parts of the Middle East, Pakistan, India, and Burma.

Earhart's plane reached New Zealand on June 30. She soon took off again, with plans to land on tiny Howland Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Earhart and Noonan never arrived at their destination, and no trace of them or their airplane was ever found. Some people have speculated that Earhart may have been captured by the Japanese, who believed she was a spy. This theory has never been proven, and their disappearance remains a mystery.

The result was a compact plane a little more than 9 feet (2.7 meters) high and 28 feet (8 meters) long, with a 46-foot wingspan. It weighed only 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) without fuel, but 5,200 pounds (2359 kilograms) with a full tank. To increase the plane's fuel capacity, Lindbergh had stripped it of all equipment that was not absolutely necessary, so that it had no radio, parachute, navigational lights, or gas gauge. It also had no windshield, only side windows, so that Lindbergh had to use a special periscope to see what was directly in front of him. Lacking many navigational instruments, Lindbergh would depend on maps, geological landmarks, and the stars in the sky to find his way across the Atlantic. To prepare for the long flight, he practiced going without sleep.

A long and dangerous flight

On May 10, 1927, Lindbergh set off from San Diego to St. Louis, flying at a then-amazing speed of more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) per hour. Continuing on to Long Island, New York, where he landed after a total flight of twenty-one hours and twenty minutes, he set a record for the fastest transcontinental flight to date. From there Lindbergh planned to fly to Le Bourget field in Paris, France. He spent about a week making final preparations and nervously waiting for good weather. On the evening of May 19, indications seemed to be good for a takeoff the next morning. That night, Lindbergh got hardly any sleep.

May 20 was a rainy day in New York, but Lindbergh was ready to go. Having packed only five sandwiches and some water to sustain him during his trip, he took off at 7:52 am. The runway was muddy and there was a strong wind blowing, and the Spirit of St. Louis nearly clipped a tractor and some overhead wires as it lifted into the air. Lindbergh flew north, following the coast of New England to Nova Scotia. After crossing the easternmost tip of Newfoundland, he headed out over the Atlantic Ocean, knowing that he would not see land again until he reached the coast of Ireland. By this time he had already been in the air for eleven hours.

Crossing the ocean was by far the most dangerous part of Lindbergh's journey. He had to fight storms, fog, and ice, but his worst enemy was his own fatigue, which caused him to hallucinate and to worry that he could not possibly make it to his destination. At times his plane dipped dangerously close to the ocean's surface. After twenty-eight hours Lindbergh spotted the Irish coast. Now he knew that he was on course. He flew south, crossing the English Channel (which separates England and France) and followed the River Seine to Paris. When he reached the city, he circled the Eiffel Tower (one of the most famous landmarks in Paris) and headed for Le Bourget field.

An international hero

Lindbergh had no idea that many well-wishers had been following his progress since his plane was spotted over Ireland. Thousands of people streamed toward his intended landing spot, causing the biggest traffic jam in French history. As the shy, handsome pilot, a slim twenty-five-year-old with a modest manner, emerged from the Spirit of St. Louis, he was initially bewildered by the crowd and wondered if something had gone wrong. Lindbergh soon realized that all the people were there to greet him and express their joy in his success. They quickly grabbed him and carried him around the field on their shoulders.

At a time in which people were wild about celebrities and the press eager to publish every detail about them, Lindbergh immediately became an international hero. In the days following the flight, he made appearances around Europe and received several medals. Although Lindbergh had planned to continue flying, President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29; see entry) persuaded him to put himself and his airplane aboard the U.S.S. Memphis (a U.S. Navy ship) and come back to the United States. In Washington, D.C., Coolidge presented Lindbergh with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

In New York City, he was the center of the largest ticker-tape parade (a term that refers to the long, narrow strips of paper from counting machines that people threw into the air during these events) ever held, during which he was cheered by an estimated four million people. The nation simply could not get enough of Lindbergh. His image appeared on an airmail stamp and parks, schools, streets, and countless babies were named after him. Within a few weeks of his famous flight, he wrote a brief account of the adventure, called We (1927), in reference to himself and his airplane, that was an instant best-seller.

Marriage, a family, and more flying

Lindbergh's next project was an extensive flying tour of the United States. He made appearances in more than seventy-five cities, promoting to the millions of spectators who flocked to see him the notion of air travel as safe and reliable. He is credited with sparking the increased use of airmail and the big boom in airport construction that soon began. Indeed, airplane travel would become so popular that, by 1930, a variety of airlines would transport passengers more than 73 million miles (more than 117 million kilometers) per year.

Having traveled around the United States, Lindbergh accepted the invitation of Mexico's president and made a twenty-seven-hour, nonstop flight to that country. There he attended a reception in the home of the U.S. ambassador, Dwight Morrow, where he met Morrow's daughter Anne. A romance began, and the two were married on May 27, 1929. Anne Morrow Lindbergh soon learned how to pilot and navigate an airplane so that she could accompany her husband on his flights. In fact, the couple set a new transcontinental record when Anne was seven months pregnant with their first child.

Charles Lindbergh Jr. was born in June 1930. About a year later the Lindberghs left their baby with Anne's parents and flew across the Arctic to China in order to investigate possible commercial airline routes and also to assist flood victims there. They returned to the United States when they received news of the death of Anne's father. Anne was again pregnant, and, hoping to shield his family from the public's intense curiosity, Lindbergh bought a home in isolated Hopewell, New Jersey. He began work as a technical adviser to several new airlines.

Tragedy strikes

The Lindberghs' quiet life was shattered in March 1932 by a tragedy that seemed to affect the entire nation. Their two-yearold son was kidnapped from his bedroom by someone who left a crudely written ransom note demanding fifty thousand dollars for his safe return. Lindbergh paid the ransom, and a wide array of law enforcement officers and private citizens worked to find the child, but no clues were uncovered. Seventy-two days after the child had disappeared, his body was found in a wooded area not far from the Lindbergh home. It seemed likely that he had been killed soon after the kidnapping.

A German immigrant and unemployed carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann (1899–1936) was arrested and charged with the kidnapping. He was convicted, and, in April 1936, he was executed for the murder. Hauptmann maintained his innocence to the end, and some thought that the evidence against him had been unconvincing. Regardless, the Lindbergh case, which was one of several dubbed the "Crime of the Century" during the 1920s, led to the passage of a law that made kidnapping a federal offense.

Fearing for the safety of his family (which would eventually include five children), Lindbergh moved them to Europe in late 1935. They settled first in the English countryside, but after two years they moved to an island off the coast of France. There Lindbergh worked with French scientist Alexis Carrel (1873–1944) on the development of a device that would pump life-giving fluids through the heart during surgery.

Unpopular views

In the late 1930s Lindbergh was invited to visit Germany to evaluate that nation's newly developed air force, called the Luftwaffe. He was very impressed and warned that Germany was much better equipped militarily than England or France. In October 1938 Lindbergh received the Service Cross of the German Eagle from Hermann Goering (1893–1946), a highranking official of the Nazi government. Many U.S. critics felt he should return the medal, particularly after the public began to learn about the brutal crimes committed by the Nazis against Jews. Lindbergh refused, leading many to assume that he was an anti-Semite (someone who has prejudice against Jews).

Lindbergh's reputation suffered even more when, like his own father in the period leading up to the first World War, he began speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War II (1939–45). Lindbergh became a major spokesperson for a group called the America First Committee, a group of isolationists. Once the United States entered the war, however, Lindbergh tried to volunteer to serve with the Army Air Corps. His offer was refused due to the controversial statements he had previously made.

In the end Lindbergh did contribute to the war effort. He helped to design the B24 Liberator bomber airplane at industrialist Henry Ford's (1863–1947; see entry) manufacturing plant at Willow Run, Michigan. In 1944 he also went to the Pacific region of war activity, supposedly as a civilian observer; secretly, however, Lindbergh flew a number of combat missions.

An improving reputation

In the years following the war, Lindbergh served as an adviser to the U.S. Air Force and to various commercial airlines, testing new airplanes and helping to design the Boeing 747. He had long been interested in the possibility of space travel. In 1928, in fact, he had persuaded the Guggenheim Foundation to fund the work of physicist Robert Goddard (1882–1945), who was developing rockets, and he would closely follow the progress of this area of exploration over the next several decades.

Lindbergh's reputation with the U.S. public improved gradually over the years. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) made him a brigadier general in the Air Force in 1954, the same year his autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis (1953), won a Pulitzer Prize.

In the 1960s Lindbergh became interested in and involved with a number of environmental issues. He worked to preserve endangered whales and birds, for example, and he opposed the use of supersonic jets (aircraft that move at a speed faster than that of sound), which he believed were too damaging to the environment. In 1972 Lindbergh was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. He returned to his family's winter home on the island of Maui in Hawaii. He died there in August 1974 and was buried in a simple grave.

For More Information


Berg, Scott. Lindbergh. New York: Putnam, 1998.

Crouch, Tom D., ed. Charles A. Lindbergh: An American Life. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1977.

Denenberg, Barry. An American Hero: The True Story of Charles A. Lindbergh. New York: Putnam, 1998.

Kent, Zachary. Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2001.

Milton, Joyce. Loss of Eden: A Biography of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Randolph, Blythe. Charles Lindbergh. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Web Sites

Charles Lindbergh Biography. Available online at Accessed on June 24, 2005.

"Charles Lindbergh Biography." Charles Lindbergh: An American Aviator. Available online at Accessed on June 24, 2005.