On May 20, 1927, 25-year-old pilot Charles Lindbergh strapped into his famous airplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” and took off on the first ever non-stop flight from New York to Paris. The 33.5-hour crossing vaulted Lindbergh to international stardom, but he was later visited by tragedy in 1932, when his 20-month-old son was kidnapped and murdered in what was dubbed “the Crime of the Century.” Below, learn 10 surprising facts about the heroic and controversial life of the aviator known as “The Lone Eagle.”
When Lindbergh was four years old, Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District elected his father, Charles August Lindbergh, to the U.S. House of Representatives. The elder Lindbergh would serve five terms in Congress, where he won a reputation for his independent stances and fierce opposition to the Federal Reserve System. Congressman Lindbergh was among the few members of the House to speak out against U.S. involvement in World War I, and was later censored and accused of sedition after writing an anti-war pamphlet called “Why is Your Country at War?”
After learning to fly at the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation in Lincoln, Lindbergh spent two years years as an itinerant stuntman and aerial daredevil. During “barnstorming” excursions through the American heartland, the young aviator wowed audiences with daring displays of wing-walking, parachuting and mid-air plane changes. After purchasing his own plane, he became one of the nation’s top stunt pilots, often twisting his machine into complicated loops and spins or killing the engine at 3,000 feet and gliding to ground. Despite the hazardous nature of stunt flying, “Lucky Lindy’s” closest brushes with death would come during his time as a U.S. Army flier, test pilot and airmail pilot, when he survived a record four plane crashes by bailing out and parachuting to safety.
In the years before Charles Lindbergh’s New York to Paris flight, dozens of other pioneering aviators completed airborne crossings of the Atlantic. Most made the journey in multiple stages or used lighter-than-air dirigibles, but in 1919, British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown famously flew nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland in a Vickers Vimy biplane before crash landing in a bog. Lindbergh’s major achievement was not that he was the first person to cross the Atlantic by airplane, but rather that he did it alone and between two major international cities.
Along with the perils of navigating the foggy Atlantic, Lindbergh’s biggest challenge during his transatlantic flight was simply staying awake. Between his pre-flight preparations and the 33.5-hour journey itself, he went some 55 hours without sleep. Lindbergh went so far as to buzz the surface of the ocean in the hope that the chilly sea spray would help keep him awake, but 24 hours into the journey, he became delirious from lack of rest. He later wrote of mirage-like “fog islands” forming in the sea below, and of seeing “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane.” Lindbergh even claimed the apparitions spoke to him and offered words of wisdom for his journey. The hallucinations eventually faded, and only a few hours later, the exhausted aviator landed in Paris to a crowd of more than 150,000 jubilant spectators.
Lindbergh’s transcontinental crossing made him one of the most famous men in the world. He received millions of letters from adoring fans, rode in more than a thousand miles of parades and was even given the Medal of Honor. Still, it wasn’t long before the “The Lone Eagle” took back to the skies on another ambitious journey. In December 1927, he piloted “The Spirit of St. Louis” on a solo, non-stop flight from Washington D.C. to Mexico City as part of a goodwill tour of Latin America. While in Mexico, Lindbergh met Anne Morrow, the daughter of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow, and the two married only a few months later. Anne later became Lindbergh’s trusted copilot and radio operator, and the couple made several groundbreaking flights, including a 1931 trip from the United States to Japan and China.
On March 1, 1932, Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son, Charles Lindbergh, Jr., was mysteriously kidnapped from his home in New Jersey. The family received thousands of offers of assistance, including one from none other than “Scarface” himself—Al Capone. While waiting to be transferred to prison on charges of tax evasion, Capone released a statement offering the Lindberghs his condolences, saying, “I know how Mrs. Capone and I would feel if our son were kidnapped.” The gangster put up a $10,000 reward for information that would lead to the arrest of the perpetrators, and even proposed to use his criminal connections to help find the kidnappers in exchange for his release from jail. Lindbergh didn’t accept the offer, but he did work with other underworld figures who claimed they had information on the crime. The search would ultimately end in tragedy in May 1932, when the body of the murdered Lindbergh baby was found only a few miles from the family home.
Lindbergh was a famous proponent of early air travel, but he also helped sow the seeds of the space program through his work with Robert Goddard, the so-called “father of modern rocketry.” Lindbergh first learned about Goddard’s experiments with liquid-fueled rockets in late-1929, and the two soon struck up a lifelong friendship. Convinced that Goddard’s work might one day facilitate a trip to the moon, Lindbergh became the physicist’s greatest champion and even persuaded philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim to give him $100,000 in funding. Goddard’s breakthroughs would later prove invaluable in the development of early missiles and space travel. When Apollo 8 became the first manned space mission to orbit the moon in 1968, Lindbergh sent the astronauts a message saying, “You have turned into reality the dream of Robert Goddard.”
Lindbergh was known for his hands-on approach to repairing and prepping his aircraft, and he later turned his mechanical wizardry toward biology. Inspired by his sister-in-law Elisabeth’s battle with heart disease, he teamed with Nobel Prize-winning French surgeon Alexis Carrel and spent much of the early 1930s working on a method for keeping organs alive outside the body. By 1935, Lindbergh had developed a perfusion pump made of Pyrex glass that was capable of moving air and life-giving fluids through excised organs to keep them working and infection-free. The pump was hailed as a medical breakthrough, and helped pave the way for the development of the first true artificial organs. Lindbergh and Carrel later collaborated on a 1938 book on the subject called “The Culture of Organs.”
In the late-1930s and early 1940s, Lindbergh’s ironclad reputation took a serious hit for his opposition to World War II and his apparent fascination with Nazi Germany. The aviator had made several trips to Germany in the 1930s to inspect its air force, and returned home convinced that the Luftwaffe was capable of overpowering the rest of Europe. He became one of the most vocal opponents of American involvement in the conflict, and gave dozens of public speeches and radio addresses criticizing President Franklin Roosevelt and Jewish-run newspapers and arguing in favor of isolationism. As the United States edged closer to war, many began to denounce the former hero as an anti-Semite and a traitor. Lindbergh gave up his crusade and tried to win a commission in the military after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but President Roosevelt—who privately called the aviator a Nazi—barred him from serving. Lindbergh later spent time as a test pilot and aviation advisor before travelling to the war’s Pacific Theater as an observer. Though officially a civilian, he eventually flew around 50 combat missions and even shot down a Japanese fighter plane.
Lindbergh traveled widely after World War II, and later claimed that his wanderings had made him acutely aware of the toll modern civilization was taking on animal and plant life. Arguing that he would rather have “birds than airplanes,” in the 1960s, Lindbergh threw his support behind the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. He used his travels to lobby for environmental causes, and fought against the disappearance of dozens of endangered species including blue and humpback whales, tortoises, tamaraws and eagles. Before his death in 1974, he also lived among indigenous tribes in Africa and the Philippines and helped procure land for the formation of Haleakala National Park in Hawaii.