Even Lindbergh Got Lost

In the 1920s, only one man held the key to aerial navigation.

In May 1928, Navy Lieutenant Commander Philip V.H. Weems took Charles Lindbergh on a series of flights to teach him a new way to navigate. Clockwise from left: Lindbergh’s sun lines of position, plotted from Washington, D.C., to New York to Michigan; Weems’ personal log; the bubble sextant used in Lindbergh’s training; an article in Popular Science that documented the lessons; and Weems’ book on line of position. (Photo by Hugh Talman, Smithsonian National Museum of American History)
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In the year following his historic transatlantic flight to Paris, Charles Lindbergh, flying again in the Spirit of St. Louis, lost his way somewhere between Havana, Cuba, and the southwest coast of Florida. It happened in the middle of the night, and it alarmed Lindbergh enough that years later he recalled the incident in his memoir The Autobiography of Values:

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Over the Straits of Florida my magnetic compass rotated without stopping…. I had no notion whether I was flying north, south, east, or west. A few stars directly overhead were dimly visible through haze, but they formed no constellation I could recognize. I started climbing toward the clear sky that had to exist somewhere above me. If I could see Polaris, that northern point of light, I could navigate by it with reasonable accuracy. But haze thickened as my altitude increased….

Nothing on my map of Florida corresponded with the earth’s features I had seen…where could I be? I unfolded my hydrographic chart [a topographic map of water with coastlines, reefs, wrecks and other structures]…. I had flown at almost a right angle to my proper heading and it…put me close to three hundred miles off route!

Had this occurred nine months earlier, over the Atlantic, the name “Lindbergh” might today be no more than a forgotten bit of aviation trivia. His nearly tragic Caribbean trip, however, turned out to be a critical moment in time, not only for Lindbergh’s understanding of navigation, but also for the advancement of the practice for all aviators. A few months later, the newly famous pilot would meet a young Naval officer, and their collaboration would change the world of flying.

It may be hard to believe Lindbergh didn’t learn to navigate until the year after his nonstop New York-to-Paris flight, but in 1927 the practice was still more art than science. Aviators had attempted to cross the Atlantic with various degrees of success since 1919, but they were still using tools and methods designed for seafaring, and those were proving unsuitable for the skies.

When Navy Commander John Rodgers attempted the first flight from California to Hawaii in 1925, the expedition ended disastrously, illustrating just how unreliable the equipment could be. Though they carried sextants, Rodgers’ crew lacked confidence in the sightings they made from their PN-9 flying boat. Instead, they relied on radio navigation, finding their bearing by determining the direction of signals transmitted by support ships along the route. But the technology behind these ship-based direction finders was still subpar, and combined with operator error, led the PN-9 to miss a refueling ship. Out of fuel, the airplane was forced to land in the ocean hundreds of miles short of Hawaii. The crew spent a valiant 10 days sailing their flying boat to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, in what was perhaps the greatest feat of seamanship ever accomplished by airmen.

By the end of World War I, some pilots were using bubble sextants, which in flight substituted an artificial horizon for the actual horizon on which mariners depended, as well as radio navigation, but Lindbergh decided that for his Paris flight, the devices were both cumbersome and ineffective. The Spirit’s high wing obstructed his view of the sky, making star sightings nearly impossible. Even if he’d had a clear view, it would have been too big of a challenge trying to take sextant measurements with one hand while controlling the unstable Spirit with the other, then scribbling calculations that took a trained mariner 15 minutes, all done by a single pilot forgoing sleep on a 33-hour flight. Radio navigation, the method that sent John Rodgers sailing to Hawaii, was clearly unreliable and the equipment was heavy.

Instead, Lindbergh reasoned that his airplane’s payload was better used for extra fuel that could be consumed to correct any significant deviations from the flight plan once he reached land; Western Europe was, after all, a big target. He relied entirely on dead reckoning, calculating his position from point to point by tracking his airspeed. He used a clock and compass just as he had between checkpoints while flying airmail.

In spite of all of the obstacles, Lindbergh still made landfall in Ireland within three miles of his intended site, an extraordinary feat. Did he possess some kind of superhuman sense of direction? His skill in maintaining a heading while exhausted is an indisputable achievement, but the National Aeronautic Association observer for the flight, John Heinmuller, also noted that the pressure distribution over the Atlantic on the two days of the flight was such that the net wind drift was zero—“the first time such unusual weather conditions have been recorded by weather experts.”

The magnitude of Lindbergh’s accomplishment led many to believe that transoceanic air navigation was simply a matter of determination. At least 15 people died in ocean-crossing attempts through the rest of 1927, leading to calls for federal regulation. While inexperience played a role in many of these accidents, inadequate navigation technology had let nearly everyone down, causing everything from inconvenience to fatalities.

About Roger Connor

Roger Connor is a curator in the Aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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