• U.S.


14 minute read

MAN and moment met at a still point in a changing world. Ten years earlier, it could not have been done at all. Ten years later, it had become routine. But at this particular time, all the world could feel that its hopes, for a few excruciating and exhilarating hours, lay in the hands of one young man. And when Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis on Paris’ Le Bourget field, people everywhere—groundlings with a sudden vision of a boundless future—experienced a leap of the heart.

For he flew alone. And on a single engine. He was the first real hero of the machine age, and in a sense the last. For not only was he in control of his machine, he was its partner; it was still possible to love it. Today’s vast machines, casually performing vastly greater feats, exact service; but they scorn affection. They require large teams to tend them, and dwarf the individual.

Charles Lindbergh’s flight occurred 40 years ago last week, and no one under 50 can fully appreciate what it meant. It became America’s national saga, all the more classic because its hero was to be shadowed by tragedy and did not prove to be free of flaws. “Slim” Lindbergh looked like the original country rube, with cowlick and baggy breeches, and he stirred folk memories; there was about him something of the raggedy fellow at the Sherwood tournament who outshoots the sheriff’s best archers.

“The Flying Fool,” they called him. Where his rivals prepared elaborate rations, Lindbergh bought five sandwiches from a restaurant, remarking: “If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more, and if I don’t get to Paris, I won’t need any more either.” When he was dragged from the plane at Le Bourget 33 hours and 30 minutes later, legend insists that he said: “Well, here we are.” He was mobbed by the public and feted by the great (he had to borrow a suit to meet the President of France). President Calvin Coolidge sent a U.S. Navy cruiser to bring him home, and was waiting for him at the foot of the Washington Monument when he arrived. U.S. Ambassador to France Myron Herrick spoke for most when he declared: “He stood forth amidst clamor and crowds, the very embodiment of fearless, kindly, cultivated American youth—unspoiled, unspoilable. A nation which breeds such boys need never fear for its future.” Young Lindbergh seemed engagingly modest, and remarked that he had merely wanted to prove the possibilities of future air travel and the need for commercial airports.

Man & Legend

From the start, the legend was slightly askew. Lindbergh was no Flying Fool. Even at 25, he was probably the best knockabout flyer in the U.S. He was chief pilot (of three) for a tiny airline with a newly awarded contract to fly airmail between St. Louis and Chicago. Four times, lost in fog, he had been forced to ditch his plane and jump for his life. Lindbergh had left the University of Wisconsin midway through his sophomore year to take a course in flying, bought his first plane (for $500) a year later, and qualified as a pilot in the Army Air Service. As a barnstormer, he walked wings, became a master of every stunt a Jenny could be put through. Landing was just a matter of picking the likeliest-looking pasture; navigation was done by spotting the shape of rivers, or sometimes by swooping low over the railroad station to read the signs.

He was indeed alone. His father, a lawyer and later an obstreperous Populist Congressman, died when Charles was 21, and long before that had become estranged from Charles’s schoolteacher mother. In the strange confraternity of barnstormers, few were really intimate, and none had a home—they met only over coffee in shacks near the local airport, briefly shared rooms in some nearby boardinghouse. In this rough camaraderie of essential strangers, the young Lindbergh was addicted to practical jokes, which for those who lack a sense of real human contact are often a last attempt to communicate. He put snakes in beds, made power dives with passengers given to airsickness. But he never seemed either happy or go-lucky. He cultivated his body as a trust; he not only refused to drink or smoke but also gave up coffee for fear it would spoil his reflexes. He once made up a list of 61 “character factors” in his diary, checked off his score at the end of each day.

And he was not really modest. From the start, he had a sense of being apart, endowed with special purpose. Once he had concluded that somebody could fly nonstop and solo from New York to Paris, he decided that it might as well be he. The whole business of financing and designing his plane seems in retrospect hair-raisingly slapdash. But he knew exactly what he was doing. Examining reports of earlier crashes, he figured that everything had to be subordinated to saving weight; for instance, elaborate equipment for a forced landing, he decided, was not worth the cost in weight, which could be better used for extra fuel. Similarly, he decided to fly a Great Circle course rather than follow the ship lanes, where he might be picked up in case of failure. Everyone else had taken or planned to take a navigator along; Lindbergh figured a navigator was equivalent in weight to 50 gallons of gasoline, and he needed the gasoline more than the navigation.

Medicine & War

After a week of waiting in New York for a stubborn spring storm to lift, he was on his way to see a musical comedy when he learned that the weather was improving. At midnight, he went to bed to try to catch two hours’ sleep. He could not sleep, rose at 2:15, and watched his plane being gassed up and trundled into position on the runway at Roosevelt Field (when he finally touched down, he had been without sleep for roughly 54 hours). Several men pushed frantically on the struts to get him started, lumbering through mud puddles. He cleared a tractor (who left a tractor just there?) by 15 feet, the telephone wires by 20, and was off.

How does one survive Lindbergh’s kind of triumph? If he was condemned to a permanent sense of anticlimax, he gave no sign of it. In the aftermath of the flight, Lindbergh earnestly devoted himself to exploiting his fame for the sake of developing aviation. And aviation needed it. In 1927, in all the U.S., fewer than 9,000 people went aloft as passengers on scheduled airlines (compared with 109 million last year). Between accepting medals, he flew the Spirit of St. Louis to every state in the Union, pleading the future of aviation in a high, reedy Midwestern voice. Though he turned down million-dollar contracts for movies and cigarette endorsements, he accepted offers from Pan Am and Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc. (later TWA), to become a consultant. Stock options made him a millionaire almost overnight. The Minnesota farm boy and barnstorming pilot moved more and more in the ambiance of the very rich. Among them he found his wife—Anne Morrow, daughter of ex-Morgan Partner Dwight Morrow, who was then ambassador to Mexico, where Lindbergh had been sent on a good-will mission.

By this time, Lindbergh had become thoroughly bored with the press and publicity. Time and again, crowds would break through police lines to swarm up to his plane; more than once he swung the plane around to drive them back with the blast of his prop wash. In the four years after his marriage, he embarked on two world-swinging trips to explore aviation routes, the first across Canada and Alaska to Japan and China to dramatize the Great Circle course to the Far East (written up by Anne in North to the Orient), and the second across the North Atlantic to Europe and back across the South Atlantic (again recorded by Anne in Listen, the Wind!). The report he submitted to Pan Am embodied the same pragmatic realism he had shown in equipping the Spirit of St. Louis, and helped change the shape of airplanes. He argued that it was more important to design an airplane to stay aloft and fly over or out of danger than to add intricate, heavy features that might or might not help in a forced landing. This is general airline doctrine today.

For a time, the tragedy of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnaping (in March 1932) blotted out all other concerns, but fanned his hatred of the press. Lindbergh plainly felt that the merciless mob of newspapermen descending on his Hopewell, N.J., farmhouse had scared the kidnapers out of their wits and perhaps panicked them into killing his son. After the long ordeal of the trial, he secretly loaded his family on a freighter and fled to England, where they settled on the estate of Author-Critic Harold Nicolson.

Thus began the period in Lindbergh’s life in which he tried to be a political prophet—with results that shocked and saddened most of his countrymen.

Waves of the Future

For a time, he devoted himself chiefly to his latter-day interest in the medical experiments of Dr. Alexis Carrel, the famed French scientist, then working on the problem of keeping human organs alive outside the body. To help Carrel, Lindbergh had used his magical mechanical ingenuity to devise a “perfusion pump” that kept the thyroid gland of a cat alive for 18 days. Gradually, the sickly state of the world drew his attention away from medicine. The Nazis were pushing ahead with their development of an air force, and the U.S. military attache in Berlin figured that they might show Lindbergh things they would not show him. He helped arrange Lindbergh’s invitation to Germany.

In three visits over the next three years, Lindbergh was feted, decorated by Göring, shown the Nazis’ biggest assembly lines and best planes. He came back convinced that Germany’s air force could obliterate any city in Europe and defeat the combined power of any conceivable collection of allies. He also acquired a sneaking admiration for Nazi efficiency. Lindbergh’s almost pathological loathing for publicity, suggested Nicolson, had taken on political overtones. “He identified the outrage to his private life first with the popular press and then . . . with freedom of speech and then almost, with freedom. . . . His self-confidence thickened into arrogance. . . . His mind had been sharpened by fame and tragedy until it had become as hard as metal and as narrow as a chisel.” On the side, Dr. Carrel may have filled him with his own ideas of superior men, his doctrine being: “The only way to obviate the disastrous predominance of the weak is to develop the strong.”

Early in 1939, Lindbergh returned to the U.S. with a message: The real threat lay in the East, and Germany “is as essential as England or France, for she alone can either dam the Asiatic horde or form the spearhead of their penetration into Europe.” Anne published a book called The Wave of the Future, in which she argued that Germany, Italy and Russia had all somehow leaped onto that wave and never mind the concentration camps. As Anne put it: “The evils we deplore in these systems are not in themselves the future; they are scum on the waves of the future.”

So set was Lindbergh against U.S. entry into World War II that he raised the specter of an interventionist conspiracy composed of “the British, the Jews and the Roosevelt Administration,” adding remarks about Jewish influence in communications and Government. Naturally, such talk got him into deeper trouble. TWA stopped billing itself as “the Lindbergh Line.” President Franklin Roosevelt compared him to a “copperhead.” Lindbergh resigned from the Army Air Corps Reserve. His attitude may have been a kind of proud echo. Twenty-four years before, his own Congressman father had denounced World War I with equal vigor (on the ground that it was a conspiracy of the “money trust” ruled by Eastern bankers) and had been similarly reviled. After Pearl Harbor, old rancors seemed lost in the community of defense, but Roosevelt refused to give him back his commission (“You can’t have an officer who thinks we are licked before we start,” said a White House aide). Lindbergh had to get into the war some other way, was taken on as a technical consultant for Ford and later United Aircraft. By 1944. he had wangled his way to the Pacific, and though as a “technical consultant” he was not eligible to fly in combat, squadron commanders generally had an extra plane warmed up on the line for him. Though old at 42, he flew some 50 combat missions. Perhaps more important, he brought his old genius for engineering to bear on the planes he flew, remarkably improving their effectiveness; by fiddling with the throttle settings and prop angle of the P-38s, he was able to extend their range 500 miles.

Since then, Lindbergh has slowly been restored to official favor. Eisenhower formally reinstated him into the Air Force, and promoted him to brigadier general. In his longtime association with Pan Am, he has flown every one of the planes the company has bought, and many it did not buy, on his advice. He has surveyed and helped lay out most of the routes Pan Am flies, functions as President Juan Trippe’s confidant and top corporate ambassador. Only two weeks ago, he was in Saigon trying to smooth out Pan Am’s mounting troubles with South Viet Nam’s Premier Ky.

With the coming of the atom bomb and the rocket, Lindbergh has undergone a sea change of spirit. He obviously misses the simple machines of his youth, when “flying was an art which required the use of the body and all its senses,” when the pilot sitting in an open cockpit “felt the freshness of rain, and pulling stubborn engines through kept his muscles in condition.” In this new age, Lindbergh wrote, “I have felt the godlike power man derives from his machines . . . the immortal viewpoint of the higher air … But I have seen the science I worshipped, and the aircraft I loved destroying the civilization I expected them to serve . . . To progress, even to survive, we must learn to apply the truths of God to the direction of our science.”

In this new humility, Lindbergh has rediscovered a reverence for wildlife that traces back to his farm boyhood in Minnesota. He has become a director of the World Wild Life Fund, works at fund raising and even writes his own pulling letters (“Let us not be a generation recorded in future histories as destroying the irreplaceable inheritance of life formed through eons past”). He continues his interest in medicine, spends a lot of his time in a laboratory at the Navy’s medical-research center in Bethesda, Md., working on new equipment with patience and precision.

The Frozen Moment

Lindbergh is still almost pathological about guarding his privacy, though age and a receding hairline have made him almost indistinguishable from other commuters in Darien, Conn., where he has lived in recent years. He has five grown children (three sons, two daughters). Occasionally he appears in Washington’s Smithsonian Institution and gazes up at the Spirit of St. Louis, dangling there, fragile but painstakingly guarded against rust and oblivion. He is seldom recognized. Yet any associate or friend who talks to a reporter about him is deprived of the light of his countenance. Typically, he refused to have any part in ceremonies celebrating the 40th anniversary of his flight. As a replica of the Spirit rose from Le Bourget, Charles A. Lindbergh was beyond radio contact or telephone in a game preserve in Java, hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare species of rhino.

A difficult man. A gifted man. Probably a great man. But certainly a hero. The usual fate of heroes is to be frozen in history at the moment of their triumph. At 65, Lindbergh may find the 25-year-old boy as awkwardly remote as would any other aging hero facing his youth. Yet it is significant that he was able to move on to do other things, live other lives—to be active, useful and himself. The quiet foreground formed by his recent years renders the memory all the brighter: the memory of the youth with the world’s imagination in his hands, showing what man is and can become—on his own.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com