Whilst Lindbergh was not actually the first man to cross the Atlantic, his famous journey inspired generations of aviators and many will argue that it changed the way people viewed aviation.
As my family have been involved in aviation for the past 75 years, I have always been fascinated in the development of the industry. I used to listen intently at my grandfather’s stories of flying Handley-Page Halifax’s during the second world war, dropping parachutists over occupied Europe, how they used to navigate the aircraft and the dangers they faced. My mother, worked for British Aerospace & my father, worked his way up from being a loadmaster of cargo aircraft around Africa to running one of the biggest aircraft charter companies in the world.
As a result, I have been surrounded by fascinating aviation stories all my life. Not a family Christmas went by without a new story of an adventure that only aviation could provide. These stories inspired me to work in the aviation industry and try and live up to the family legacy.
Coming from this background, Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St Louis, are names that I can’t remember ever not knowing. They are names that are as ingrained in aviation history as George Washington is to American history or Winston Churchill to British.
I am lucky enough to know Charles Lindbergh’s grandson Erik, who is now an ambassador for Air Charter Service. Having always listened in awe of my own family’s history, listening to his was on a completely different level.
Whilst Charles was not the first person to cross the Atlantic, a title taken by British Aviators John Alcock & Arthur Brown in 1919, his flight was quite a monumental achievement. His journey in the Spirit of St Louis from New York to Paris was nearly twice as far as Alcock & Browns, and not only that, he did it solo, in the days before autopilot which meant that even for just the flight, Lindbergh was awake for the entire 33hour 30 min journey. For navigation he used a compass, the stars and even the direction of the waves to make the 3600 statute mile trip to Paris le Bourget airport, now one of the busiest private jet destinations in the world.
Upon arrival he was mobbed by a crowd of over 150,000 spectators, and he almost instantly became not only one of the most respected aviators and pioneers in the world, he became one of the most famous people on the planet.
To give you some idea of the respect which he held within the aviation community, in May 2012, I went to a dinner which commemorated the 35th anniversary of the Lindbergh foundation and the 85th Anniversary of his famous flight. Speaking at this intimate event in New York’s Explorers’ Club that night were Jim Lovell, member of the Apollo 8 mission which was the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit as well as being Captain of the famous Apollo 13, Eugene Cernan, captain of Apollo 17 and the last man to have stepped on the moon, & the late Neil Armstrong, who needs no introduction.
What amazed me about their speeches was the reverence they all displayed for Lindbergh. These were men who had been further away from Earth than any other human beings. Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on another planet yet he spoke about Lindbergh like a boy speaks about his hero. These great men all seemed to feel that Lindbergh’s achievement was different in that whilst they were part of a team of hundreds of thousands of people making sure that every conceivable detail was covered, he was on his own. It was his mental and physical strength that lead to him succeeding where so many others had failed.
Sure, later in life, Lindbergh courted controversy, as well as experiencing tragedy due to his new found fame, when his baby was kidnapped and was tragically killed. However, he continued to work tirelessly in his passion for the improvement of humanity. He was credited with key early work leading to the development of the artificial heart, and tirelessly fought for his belief that “The human future depends on our ability to combine the knowledge of science with the wisdom of wildness.”
With a family legacy like Erik Lindbergh’s, I often wonder what I would do. How do you live up to a man who has achieved so much and influenced so many. Well in Erik I see the answer. He has quietly overcome adversity, with a surprising focus to continue his grandfather’s legacy. But the legacy was not his fame. It was his belief in the progress of humanity. He flew the Atlantic not just to win the Orteig Prize, but because it hadn’t been done. It was progress.
In 2002 on the 75th anniversary of Charles’s flight, Erik Lindbergh recreated the Transatlantic crossing by flying solo from New York to Paris in a small single engine aircraft. Like his grandfather, there was a higher purpose to the flight. He made the flight to support the X-Prize Foundation, a modern equivalent of the Orteig Prize, which offered a $10m reward for the first commercial organisation to build the first private re-usable spacecraft. This prize was won, and we now sit close to the beginning of the age of commercial space travel. Since then he developed the Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize and has worked closely with the Lindbergh Foundation which promotes progress through sustainable technology by giving grants to people and organisations researching technologies that will help to progress humanity without damaging the environment.
I have often thought that whilst his flight in the Spirit of St Louis was a phenomenal personal feat, it was only a matter of time before someone flew from New York to Paris. Unlike Neil Armstrong’s giant leap it was, in my view, only a small step for mankind compared to the “giant leap” of his first steps on the moon. I believe his real legacy was the people he inspired. Not only his grandson Erik, but countless people in all walks of life who believe in progress and innovation and went that extra mile because of his example.