Charles Lindbergh was an American aviator who rose to international fame in 1927 after becoming the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean in his monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis. Five years later, Lindbergh’s toddler son was kidnapped and murdered in what many called “the crime of the century.” In the lead-up to World War II, Lindbergh was an outspoken isolationist, opposing American aid to Great Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany. Some accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer. Late in life, Lindbergh became a conservationist, arguing that he would rather have “birds than airplanes.”
Charles A. Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1902. His family moved to Little Falls, Minnesota when he was a toddler, though Lindbergh spent much of his childhood in Washington, D.C., where his father, Charles August Lindbergh was a U.S. Congressman.
Lindbergh learned to fly planes in 1922 after quitting college. He got his start in aviation as a barnstormer. Barnstormers were pilots who traveled the country performing aerobatic stunts and selling airplane rides.
He joined the United States Army Air Service in 1924, but the Army didn’t need active-duty pilots at the time, so Lindbergh soon returned to civilian aviation. He started flying routes between his home in St. Louis and Chicago as an air mail pilot in 1925.
Spirit of St. Louis
Earlier pilots had crossed the Atlantic in stages, but most planes of the era weren’t equipped to carry enough fuel to make the trip without stopping to fuel up.
Lindbergh decided, with the backing of several people in St. Louis, to compete for the Orteig Prize—a $25,000 reward put up by French hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first person to fly an airplane non-stop from New York to Paris.
Ryan Airlines of San Diego retrofitted one of their Ryan M-2 aircraft for Lindbergh’s flight. The customized plane, dubbed a Ryan NYP (for New York-Paris), had a longer fuselage, a longer wingspan and additional struts to accommodate the weight of extra fuel.
The engine powering the plane was a Wright J5-C manufactured by Wright Aeronautical, the aircraft manufacturer founded by the Wright brothers.
Lindbergh had his plane, now named Spirit of St. Louis in honor of his financial backers, custom-built with extra fuel tanks in the plane’s nose and wings.
One gas tank, mounted between the engine and the cockpit, blocked Lindbergh’s view through the windshield. Lindbergh had to use instruments to guide him, including a retractable periscope that he could slide out the left-side window for a limited forward view.
Lindbergh, at the age of 25, and the Spirit of St. Louis took off from a muddy runway at Long Island’s Roosevelt Field on the morning of May 20, 1927.
He left the plane’s side windows open so that cold air and rain would keep him alert on the 33-1/2 hour flight. The sleep-deprived Lindbergh later reported he had hallucinated about ghosts during the flight.
Lindbergh Lands in Paris
Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis landed safely at Paris’ Le Bourget airfield on May 21, 1927. An ecstatic crowd of some 150,000 people had gathered at the French airfield to witness the historic moment.
As the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic—and the first person to make the trip solo—Lindbergh became an instant worldwide celebrity. One wag reportedly said that crowds were “behaving as though Lindbergh had walked on water, not flown over it.”
He was given a ticker tape parade in New York City—an estimated 4 million people came out that day to see the young hero. Lindbergh won several awards and medals of honor from the United States, France and other countries.
For the next several months, Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the United States and Mexico on a goodwill tour.
He donated the plane to the Smithsonian Institution in 1928 where the Spirit of St. Louis remains on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Lindbergh and his wife Anne discovered a ransom note on the nursery windowsill demanding $50,000. A few days later a new ransom note turned up, demanding $70,000.
The abduction captivated the nation. Many called it “the crime of the century.”
When the Lindberghs delivered the money, they were told their baby could be found on a boat named “Nellie,” off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. After an exhaustive search there was no sign of the toddler or the boat.
A truck driver found the Lindbergh baby’s body on May 12, 1932, about four miles from the Lindbergh home in New Jersey. Investigators estimated the child, partially buried and badly decomposed, had been dead for about two months.
German-born carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptman was convicted of the murder in 1935. He was executed in the electric chair the following year.
America First Committee
In the lead-up to World War II, Lindbergh was an outspoken isolationist. He became the leading voice of the America First Committee—a group of some 800,000 members that opposed American entry into World War II.
Lindbergh spoke at several AFC rallies in 1941. The group was characterized by anti-Semitic, pro-fascist rhetoric, leading some to call Lindbergh a Nazi sympathizer.
The American First Committee dissolved in December 1941 in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Lindbergh publicly supported the United States war effort. He went on to fly dozens of combat missions as a civilian contractor in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Lindbergh the Environmentalist
Lindbergh remembered the sky being black with thousands of ducks as he flew over Nova Scotia on his world-famous 1972 transatlantic flight.
As he grew older, Lindbergh became increasingly concerned that modern technology was taking a toll on the world’s animals and plants. He became a staunch conservationist, championing a number of environmental causes.
He campaigned for environmental groups in the 1960s, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. He fought against the disappearance of dozens of endangered species, including blue and humpback whales, tortoises and eagles.
He also lived among tribes in Africa and the Philippines and helped to establish Haleakala National Park in Hawaii.
Lindberg spent the last several years of his life in Hawaii. He died of cancer in 1974 at age 72 and is buried in Kipahulu on the island of Maui.
1927: Charles Lindbergh and the epic flight of the Spirit of St. Louis; USA Today.
Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis; National Air and Space Museum.
Lindbergh Kidnapping: FBI.
‘America First’: From Charles Lindbergh to President Trump; NPR.