Ninety-two years ago: From New York to Paris, and then into history

When May 20 rolls around, look to the sky and think of Charles A. Lindbergh. 

Yes, it was 92 years ago that he made his historic flight from New York to Paris. Though there had been successful trans-Atlantic flights, none had been solo, and six others had died trying. It was so risky that the newspapers called him “The Flying Fool.” But with very little sleep the night before and carrying five sandwiches and a quart of water, he managed to fly into history – barely. 

First there was the takeoff. Lindbergh’s airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, was so laden with fuel that it barely cleared telephone lines at the end of the runway. At the 14-hour mark ice began forming on his wings. Then his compass malfunctioned, possibly because of a magnetic storm. Then the thunderstorms he was flying through parted and the weather cleared. 

After Newfoundland, he would be without contact with the world for the next 15 hours. With no social media, no radar and no navigation satellites, the world could only wait with nervous anticipation.

Seventeen hours in, Lindbergh had gone 24 hours without sleep and was in real danger of dozing off. Fortunately, the Spirit of St. Louis was not inherently stable plane. It had to be “flown,” which helped keep him awake. But even that wasn’t enough, so he purposely flew close enough to the ocean for the spray to hit him in the face through the open cockpit. Still, he began having hallucinations and hearing voices, all the time wondering if the storms had blown him off course.

He was actually remarkably close to course, but the trouble wasn’t over when he arrived in Paris. He saw a long strand of lights on the ground that confused him, causing him to initially fly past the airfield. Then he realized it was tens of thousands of cars stuck in traffic trying to get to the airport. 

He landed at 10:24 p.m. Paris time, 33-1/2 hours after taking off, having gone 55 hours without sleep. An estimated 150,000 people were there to greet him, immediately to become the most famous person on Earth.

Lindbergh would go on to enjoy a life that was marked by continued success, tragedy and, after his death, scandal. His 20-month old son was kidnapped and murdered. During World War II at age 42, he flew 50 combat missions and shot down at least one Japanese fighter. Because he had campaigned against intervention before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the military wouldn’t accept him as a pilot. Undeterred, he hired on as a technical representative with United Aircraft and was sent to the South Pacific to test the F4U Corsair and the P-38. Once there, his military friends secretly let him fly combat missions in addition to his civilian duties. In 1953, President Eisenhower belatedly recognized Lindbergh’s military contributions. He restored his commission in the Air Force Reserve and promoted him to Brigadier General.

In 2005, news accounts revealed that Lindbergh had fathered five illegitimate children with two German sisters, Brigitte and Marietta Hesshaimer as well as two children with his secretary. Lindbergh was said to be aware of these children and would visit them and provided for their care. This all became public when his three children by Brigitte Hesshaimer released a book, The Secret Life of Charles A. Lindbergh. 

Lindbergh was also an engineer, scientist, philosopher and Pulitzer Prize winning author. In the latter stage of his life, he devoted his time to environmental causes. He died of cancer in 1974 and was buried in khaki work clothes in a plain wooden coffin in Maui near his winter home.