It got very little mention, either in the general or aviation news media, but May 20-21 was the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight from New York to Paris.
In May of 1927, and for decades afterward, Lindbergh was mobbed wherever he went and anniversaries of his flight were celebrated, quite literally, in song and story. He was not only America’s greatest hero but the whole world’s. It seems that world has vanished, and certainly not for the better.
“Charles Augustus Lindbergh took off from Long Island’s Roosevelt Field and 33-1/2 hours later landed in the pages of history, the clutches of fate and a legend that is the heritage of every pilot who has flown since,” wrote Peter Garrison on the 50th anniversary of the flight. Lindbergh’s then-extraordinary feat was to change the face of the world.
Much has been written of that flight, most of it by writers knowing little of aviation but much about hyperbole. Not surprisingly, the best account of it is Lindbergh’s own, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” which is well worth reading and re-reading.
There was some luck involved in the navigation, for Lindbergh depended almost entirely on his magnetic compass, able to know nothing of winds; but today’s ferry pilots, who often cross the Atlantic in small planes not much better-equipped than Lindbergh’s, like to say that the E on the compass means Europe. The weather was merciful: Lindbergh had little instrument experience. Reliability of the engine was an act of faith, but one which was well-placed. Lindbergh’s great difficulty, the greatest threat to his success, was fatigue, which he acknowledged and described in tormenting detail in his book.
In the 27th hour of his flight he spotted a fishing boat, flew low over it and called down, “Which way is Ireland?” He couldn’t have known it, but word flashed quickly to millions of people, most of whom knew nothing of flying, but all of whom were waiting anxiously for word of Lindbergh’s fate. By the time he reached Le Bourget, thousands had crowded onto the small airport to greet him. None of them could have imagined the impact of his success.
Lindbergh had a deep and genuine missionary zeal for the gospel of aviation, which he spread far beyond the prevailing barriers of time and space. The consequences of his flight have not yet played out.
It wasn’t because aviation was unknown prior to Lindbergh. “Time” magazine had a regular section devoted to it, by 1927. It wasn’t that he made a significant technical contribution to the science of flight.
It was, and remains today, that in the eyes of millions the greatest man in the world was a pilot.
We should not forget that, as memories of 1927 grow dimmer.