Always a ‘Lone Eagle,’ Lindbergh was a young airmail pilot in 1927 when he ordered and configured a small monoplane to his own design, christened it the Spirit of St. Louis, and then flew it from a rainy airstrip on Long Island to Paris nonstop in 33 1/2 hours. It was a feat that electrified the world and galvanized public acceptance of the airplane and commercial aviation. A month later, Aviation magazine observed: ‘Some deeds are marked by an inherent nobility that lifts them above other feats…. [But] there is something leveling, as well as elevating, about aerial adventure. The substitution of the pilot’s helmet for the diplomat’s high hat, the leather jacket for the frock coat, and the greasy mitten for the kid glove, appear[s] to breed mass camaraderie that tramples down political barriers and official punctilios between nations.’
Before his historic flight, Lindbergh had met Harry Guggenheim, another flyer and head of the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aviation. It was on Guggenheim’s estate that he wrote his autobiographical We before embarking on a goodwill tour of Mexico and Central and South America, during which he met and afterward married Anne Morrow, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. In 1931 the couple flew to the Orient via the great circle route used by airlines today. In 1933 they conducted a pioneering survey flight for Pan American Airways to Greenland, Europe, Russia, Africa, and South America. To one historian, Lindbergh progressed naturally from the ‘hands-on tinkering’ of a mechanic to ‘the incisive methodical research’ of a scientist. After he was hired as technical adviser to Transcontinental Air Transport (forerunner of Trans World Airlines), it quickly became known as ‘the Lindbergh line.’ It was he who prevailed upon twa to require single-engine takeoff power on the DC-1, forerunner of the legendary DC-3. For paa, he supervised the introduction of blind flying as well as the designs for paa’s first transocean clippers. Earlier, he had prevailed upon the Guggenheims to fund research by rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard.
Writer Brendan Gill called Lindbergh ‘a very dark person’ to whom ‘the horror was the fame he had secured by accident.’ The kidnapping and murder of his infant son in 1932 made him even more reclusive, and in 1935 the Lindberghs moved almost secretly to England.
There followed three visits to Nazi Germany, flight-testing of Luftwaffe aircraft, and receipt of a medal from Hermann Goering. After returning to the United States in 1939, Lindbergh became a prominent advocate of American isolationism. But when war came, he secretly flew fifty combat missions in the Far East, shot down a Japanese fighter, and proved that the combat radius and bomb-load capacity of several U.S. fighter aircraft could be increased.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower made Lindbergh a reserve brigadier general in 1954, and Lindbergh thereafter joined in selecting sites for air bases overseas and in the deliberations of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. His commitment to environmentalism came late, but by 1970 he was again a Lone Eagle opposing development of a supersonic transport on environmental grounds.
Two years later, after building a home in a jungle a mile from a missionary church he helped restore on Hawaii, he died of cancer and was buried on a knoll overlooking the Pacific. Today his gravesite continues to draw several hundred visitors daily.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.