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The Untold Story Charles Lindbergh

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
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June 21, 2024 3:00 am

The Untold Story Charles Lindbergh

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 21, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Charles Lindbergh got his start performing in aerial circuses—and as a glorified mailman. He also made the daring decision to fly solo across the Atlantic, despite everyone else choosing to have a wingman. Kirk Higgins of the Bill of Rights Institute tells the story.

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Avoid reprobated by law. See terms and conditions 18 plus. This is Lee Habib and this is our American stories, the show where America is the star and the American people to search for the our American stories podcast. Go to the I heart radio app or wherever you get your podcasts. Up next, the story of a man who had over 200 songs written about him and was the first to fly across the Atlantic. We're talking about Charles Lindbergh. Here to tell the story is Kirk Higgins, the senior director of content at the Bill of Rights Institute. You can check out their great curriculum on American history at my BRI dot org.

That's my BRI dot org. Let's get into the story. Take it away, Kirk. It was the evening of May 19th, 1927 in 25 year old aviator Charles Lindbergh was being hounded by the New York press as he made his way to a Broadway play. Lindbergh hoped that the play would relieve him of some stress, but there's little chance of that. He was preparing a historic attempt to be the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. But the stormy weather across the northern Atlantic hadn't been cooperating lately.

Lindbergh never made it to his Broadway play. Before it even begun, he received one of the most significant meteorological reports of the century. A high pressure system was going to clear out the storms. The moment he'd been waiting for had come. It was time for Charles Lindbergh to head back to his hotel and prepare for one of the most courageous, dangerous, and historic flights ever. Born in Detroit in 1902 and raised in the sleepy town of Little Falls, Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River, Charles Lindbergh was the son of a congressman and a science teacher. And from his earliest years, anything mechanical struck his fancy. He'd tinker with the family car and motorbike in his spare time. It was there in Little Falls that he saw his first airplane. Lindbergh would recall, One day I was playing upstairs in our house on the riverbank. The sound of a distant engine drifted in through an open window.

Suddenly I sat up straight and listened. No automobile engine made that noise. It was approaching too fast.

It was on the wrong side of the house. I ran to the window and climbed out onto the tarry roof. It was an airplane flying upriver below higher branches of trees. A biplane was less than 200 yards away, a frail, complicated structure with the pilot sitting out in front between struts and wires.

I watched it fly quickly out of sight. As more Americans took to the skies, Lindbergh's fascination with aviation would grow. He spent hours at his family farm, lying on his back, looking at the clouds and dreaming of flying. And soon he'd be able to touch those clouds.

He enrolled in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but dropped out by his sophomore year to enroll in flying school out in Nebraska. On April 9th, 1922, he'd take to the skies for the first time, not piloting, but along for the ride. Later, he'd state about that first flight, trees became bushes, barns, toys, cows turn into rabbits as we climb. I lose all conscious connection with the past.

I live only in the moment in this strange, un-mortal space, crowded with beauty, pierced with danger. Needless to say, he was hooked. Flying had become an obsession in his purpose in life.

That obsession soon drew Charles Lindbergh to America's exhilarating and dangerous barnstorming circuit. It wasn't through peace, but war, that the first Americans were trained up on how to fly planes. Almost every single one of them in the Curtiss JN-9 Jenny. And after World War I, almost all of them were sold for a small fraction of their original cost. For $200, you could buy your very own airplane.

That's only a cost of about $3,700 today. So buy them they did, for mail carrying, smuggling, and barnstorming, sometimes all three. Barnstorming, otherwise known as aerial circuses, was very popular in the 1920s. People from all over the country would pay nickels and dimes to see pilots perform astonishing and thrilling acrobatic feats, wing walking, skydiving, even playing tennis between planes.

It was a dangerous business, unregulated and open to all, men and women, white and black. And many great pilots, including Charles Lindbergh, would earn their wings this way, making little to no money in the process. He'd join up with a crew as a wing walker and parachutist, despite never having done either.

On his first jump out of a plane, everything went smoothly up until the second the parachute was supposed to open. Thankfully, it eventually did, but Lindbergh would quip that if I could fly for 10 years before I was killed in the crash, it would be a worthwhile trade for an ordinary lifetime. Deciding skydiving wasn't for him and feeling as if he had watched people pilot planes enough to know how to do so himself, as he hadn't flown solo up until this point, he'd borrow money from his dad to buy his first airplane at Southern Field in Georgia. He'd later write about the experience, quote, everybody at Southern Field took for granted that I was an experienced pilot when I arrived to buy a plane. They didn't ask to see my license because you didn't have to have a license to fly an airplane in 1923. Flying the new plane back to Minnesota would be his first time in the cockpit solo.

He barnstormed all the way back to get enough money to complete the trip. Lindbergh would soon take on a more serious career, the Army Air Service, mostly because he wanted to fly newer, faster planes. He later wrote, Air Service pilots' wings were like a silver passport to the realm of light. With them went the right to fly all military airplanes.

Out of the 103 people in his class, only 19 would graduate. Lindbergh would be at the top. Afterwards, he'd take a job flying air mail on the St. Louis to Chicago route. The man who became America's most famous airman was a former mailman, just with plenty of extra risk. Flying the mail was dangerous work.

He'd be forced to jump from his plane twice, his parachute luckily breaking his fall each time. And you've been listening to the story of a name and man you know, but probably don't know like this. I certainly am learning some things about Lindbergh myself and essentially and especially the part about the role the Army Air Service played in training up, well, all kinds of American pilots, and also the role that these aerial circuses called barnstorming played in the development of our pilots and our talent in the country. When we come back, more of the story of Charles Lindbergh, here on Our American Stories. This is Lee Habib, host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we tell stories of history, faith, business, love, loss, and your stories. Send us your stories, small or large, to email OAS at

That's OAS at We'd love to hear them and put them on the air. Our audience loves them too. And we return to Our American Stories and the final portion of our story on Charles Lindbergh. Telling the story is Kirk Higgins, the Senior Director of Content at the Bill of Rights Institute.

You can check out their phenomenal curriculum on American history at When we last left off, Lindbergh had gotten his wings being an aerial circus performer. Soon, he was about to do and be a lot more than that. Let's return to the story. The events that led to Charles Lindbergh's historic flight in 1927 began with an open letter by a New York hotelier to the Aero Club of America in 1919. Gentlemen, as a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any allied country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris.

All other details in your care. Yours very sincerely, Raymond Orteig. For years, the prize sat unclaimed. Not because people flocked to meet the challenge and failed, but because nobody thought it possible. By 1926 though, attempts were being made. A French fighter ace's attempt failed on the runway, crashing into a ball of flames, too overloaded. Famed Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd also crashed, again, too heavy. Then there was Clarence Chamberlain, another pioneer of aviation. Arguments drove his team apart.

Legal disputes followed. Then Stanton Wooster and his partner, Noel Davis. A crash during a test flight would take their lives. Lindbergh was a late challenger and, different from everyone else, decided to go solo in a single-engine aircraft. A very risky decision. The prize did not demand a solo flight.

Nobody had tried it this way. To many, it seemed just as doomed to fail as those who had gone before him. But to Lindbergh, the challenge seemed possible. He'd discuss his idea with a couple of businessmen and went to work getting himself an airplane he felt would be suited for the job.

Lindbergh's priorities for the plane were simple. First, it had to be efficient. Second, it had to be safe.

And third, it had to be comfortable. But that would come last among everything. He'd leave a parachute and radio behind.

Too heavy. The gas tank would be in front, even though it blocked his sight. He wouldn't need it for most of the trip anyway.

But he and his builders installed a periscope just to be in the clear for takeoff and landing. By April 25, 1927, the metallic bird, dubbed the Spirit of St. Louis, was ready to roll. By the time he landed in St. Louis from California a few days later, he was already breaking records at home. Then, on his flight to New York, another record. The fastest flight across America. Less than a day. 22 hours.

The time had now come. On the morning of May 20, 1927, he climbed into the wicker chair in the cockpit of his airplane. Lindbergh was well aware this flight could be his last.

The plane's two tanks were filled with 450 gallons of fuel each. But, as Lindbergh started the single engine and propeller, they responded somewhat sluggishly because of the humidity. Lindbergh wasn't even sure his plane could clear the telephone wires hanging at the end of Long Island's Roosevelt Field. Even if it could, he still had to fly 3,400 miles across a broad expanse of ocean. But shortly before 8 a.m., Lindbergh turned to his crew with a boyish grin and asked, what do you say?

Let's try it. As roughly 500 spectators held their breath, the wheels of the Spirit of St. Louis rolled down the wet runway and bounced twice before the plane lifted Lindbergh into the sky. Cheers of joy and relief erupted from the crowd. But Lindbergh's journey was just beginning, and he understood the perils. He would write, I'm giving up the continent and heading out to sea in the most fragile vehicle ever devised by man. Lindbergh followed the New England coast to the northeast and, after four hours in the air, was flying over Nova Scotia in Canada. That's when Lindbergh was faced with another serious and potentially deadly challenge, deep fatigue. Lindbergh had been unable to sleep the night before and had been awake for more than 30 hours. He wrote, My whole body agrees dully that nothing, nothing life can attain is quite as desirable as sleep.

My mind is losing resolution and control. After eleven hours in the cockpit, flying at 100 miles per hour, Lindbergh passed over Newfoundland at dusk. He buzzed a fishing town that contained the last humans he would see for nearly two thousand miles. With his fatigue mounting, Lindbergh had a decision to make. He could easily have landed and tried again when he was more fully rested. Lindbergh knew that falling asleep over the Atlantic meant certain death, but he resolved to continue and flew alone eastward into a very dark and stormy night over the vast expanse of ocean. Lindbergh flew around thunderstorms and squalls as he fought off sleep. When he climbed near ten thousand feet so that the brisk air would keep him awake, ice built up on the wings and threatened to down the plane. Finally, the skies cleared and the moon rose to guide Lindbergh relentlessly to the east. But Lindbergh didn't know exactly where he was. With little modern instrumentation or markers in the Atlantic, he used dead reckoning to estimate his position. You can imagine Lindbergh's relief when, 27 hours after taking off from New York and flying slow over the Atlantic waves, he spotted his first sign of life since leaving the coast of Newfoundland.

A porpoise. Then, seagulls. Then the unmistakable cliffs of Ireland and boats full of surprised fishermen dotting the waters. Lindbergh was ecstatic. He was only three miles off course and, on top of that, a favorable tailwind had shaved a few hours off its flight. Things were going great and he noted that time was no longer endless as it had seemed while he was flying over the vast ocean where no land was visible in any direction. Giddy with success, Lindbergh considered extending his record flight by flying all the way to Rome.

But, with good sense and humility, he reined in these impulsive thoughts. He still had 600 miles ahead of him and the sun was setting yet again. He crossed the comparatively narrow English Channel and entered France on his way to Paris. When he arrived over the city, Lindbergh flew around the Eiffel Tower and searched out Le Bourget Airfield. That's when he noticed something amazing and, for a time, confusing. Thousands of lights guided him toward the airport in the darkness. These lights were coming from a massive traffic jam of excited Parisians heading to the airfield. When Lindbergh finally landed at 10.24 pm local time on May 21st, as many as 150,000 onlookers gathered to catch a glimpse of the historic plane and the heroic pilot who flew it. The massive crowd gathered around the Spirit of St. Louis and began to tear at the plane, desperate for a souvenir. They carried him on their shoulders before he was whisked away by police to the American Embassy for a steak dinner and a well-earned night of sleep after 33 and a half hours airborne.

He'd been awake for 66 hours. Lindbergh had done something seemingly impossible, which so many others had tried and failed to do, and he'd made a name for himself to boot. He was, at that moment in time, the most famous man, not just in America, but the world. Marriage proposals were sent, thousands of gifts poured in, and over 200 songs were written about him after his flight. For his remarkable courage, he was honored in America with a ticker tape parade, an appearance before Congress in Washington where 250,000 people greeted him, and awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award in the land. On top of this, he became Colonel Lindbergh, having been promoted by President Calvin Coolidge himself. Coolidge remarked that Lindbergh's success was the same story of valor and victory by a son of the people that shines through every page of American history. The world was Lindbergh's oyster at this moment. He could have had any job he wanted.

His choice was to continue his course, much as he had done over the Atlantic. He'd go on to state that whatever does not mean help to aviation will not interest me at all. And my goodness, choosing to fly solo, this becomes the difference maker. And in the end, what a crazy proposition, but no one had put it forth before.

The story of Charles Lindbergh, here on Our American Stories. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-06-21 04:20:07 / 2024-06-21 04:28:04 / 8

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