Viewport: A Look Back at Lindbergh
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, May 2002
SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, A QUIET young airmail pilot from the Midwest made history when, on May 21, 1927, he landed his sturdy Ryan monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, at Paris’ Le Bourget airfield. Expecting little fanfare, Charles A. Lindbergh carried several letters of introduction. Upon landing, he was overwhelmed by 150,000 well-wishers, and from that moment on, his life was dominated by this one event.
A year earlier, this son of a Minnesota congressman had been the chief pilot for Robertson Aircraft Corporation, a predecessor of American Airlines. When he learned of the $25,000 prize offered by New York hotel owner and French expatriot Raymond Ortieg for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris, Lindbergh became inspired. Airplane manufacturers rebuffed him until Ryan Airlines, a small company in San Diego, California, agreed to build him an aircraft. In two months Donald Hall and his Ryan team, with significant input from Lindbergh, designed and built the Ryan NYP. The aircraft was christened Spirit of St. Louis in honor of Lindbergh’s friends and associates in Missouri who financed the flight.
Lindbergh planned carefully, and after a 33-and-a-half-hour flight that spanned 3,610 miles, he arrived in Paris. His resulting fame enabled him to promote air travel and science, and his work developing routes for TWA and Pan American Airways was instrumental to the success of both airlines. Through the Guggenheims, a family that promoted aviation, Lindbergh helped rocket pioneer Robert Goddard. With Alexis Carrel, Lindbergh also helped to develop a practical perfusion pump, an early form of an artificial heart.
The Smithsonian Institution is part of the Lindbergh story: The morning after his arrival in Paris, the flier awoke to find a telegram from Smithsonian Secretary Charles G. Abbott requesting the Spirit of St. Louis for the national collection; curator Paul E. Garber composed the message. Lindbergh and his backers eagerly agreed, and, following the completion of successful U.S. and Latin American tours, he sold the Spirit to the Smithsonian—for $1. On April 30, 1928, the aircraft arrived in Washington, and it has remained in our care ever since.
This year the Museum will celebrate Lindbergh’s flight and the 100th anniversary of his birth. On May 23 Reeve Lindbergh will give the annual Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture. The youngest child of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Reeve is a good friend of the Museum, and she will present a reminiscence of her father.
Reeve Lindbergh has also written a foreword to a new book: This month, in cooperation with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., we are publishing Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. Written by Dominick A. Pisano, chairman of the aeronautics department, and F. Robert van der Linden, the curator for the Spirit. Intended for a popular audience, this beautiful book is richly illustrated with original color photography and rare archival images.
It is our hope that in this anniversary year, these events will help the public attain a better understanding of this complicated and accomplished man and his equally famous aircraft.
—J.R. Dailey is the director of the National Air and Space Museum.