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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Charles Lindbergh, American Aviator

February 04, 2011
by Isabel Cowles
Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly a plane non-stop across the Atlantic at age 25. Though he experienced fame and acclamation for his heroism, he also suffered major setbacks, including the kidnapping of his son and accusations of being a Nazi sympathizer.

Charles Lindbergh’s Early Days

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Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born on Feb. 4, 1902, in Detroit and was raised on a farm near Little Falls, Minn. Lindbergh’s father, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Sr., was a successful attorney who became a congressman for the state of Minnesota. Lindbergh’s mother, Evangeline Lodge Land, worked as a chemistry teacher and raised her only son when she and Charles Sr. divorced.

At 18, Lindbergh enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to study engineering, but he had little interest in academia and dropped out during his sophomore year. In 1924, Lindbergh joined the U.S. Army, where he pursued his passion for aviation. He graduated first in his flight-training class a year later and took a job piloting a postal plane from St. Louis to Chicago.

Lindbergh’s Notable Accomplishments

While Lindbergh was in the Army, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first pilot to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. By 1927, no pilot had done it—though several died trying.

Lindbergh was sure he could accomplish the task with the proper equipment. With the financial support of several wealthy St. Louis businessmen, Lindbergh helped design a plane manufactured by Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego. Lindbergh called the airplane “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

After testing the vessel with a record-setting cross-country flight from San Diego to New York City, Lindbergh was ready for his transatlantic journey. Despite his preparation, critics were skeptical. Newspapers called Lindbergh “the flying fool,” as his plane had only one engine and no co-pilot.

The biggest difficulty facing the small plane was takeoff: since the aircraft was so light, the amount of fuel necessary for the long flight weighed it down considerably. But Lindbergh managed his ascent and 33 and a half hours later, he landed in France.

They call me ‘Lucky,’ but luck isn’t enough,” he said soon after landing. “As a matter of fact, I had what I regarded and still regard as the best existing plane to make the flight from New York to Paris. I had what I regard as the best engine, and I was equipped with what were in the circumstances the best possible instruments for making such efforts. I hope I made good use of what I had.”

Lindbergh returned home a national hero: four million Americans flocked to a New York City parade in his honor.

Although Lindbergh is best known for his trans-Atlantic flight, he was also a successful inventor and writer. In 1930, he was inspired by a relative suffering from cardiovascular disease and decided to improve upon medical technology in the field, ultimately developing the first artificial heart. Lindbergh worked in conjunction with Nobel Prize-winning researcher Alexis Carrel to design a functioning pump that could sustain organs from outside the body.

Lindbergh was also an accomplished author. His 1953, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” won the Pulitzer Prize for its extraordinary account of his transatlantic journey.

The Rest of The Story

Lindbergh essentially paved the way for commercial flights worldwide. Following his transatlantic journey, Lindbergh toured the country in “The Spirit of St. Louis,” demonstrating the safety and reliability of air travel and making an indelible mark on the public’s understanding and acceptance of aviation.

Ultimately, the mass media celebrity that Lindbergh earned through his pioneering work had a negative impact on his life.  On March 1, 1932, Lindbergh’s young son was kidnapped from his nursery while Lindbergh and his wife, the author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were at home.

After months of ransom notes and demands, to which the Lindberghs complied, the child, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., was found half buried and badly decomposed near the family property. Authorities determined that the toddler died on the night of his kidnapping, after sustaining massive head injuries.

The Lindberghs were horrified by the relentless attention the case received from the press. At one point, photographers snuck into the morgue to snap photos of the child’s remains. Eventually the family relocated to Europe, in an attempt to remove themselves from the spotlight.

Lindbergh was not entirely liberated from media attention, however. In 1938, when he and his family were living abroad, Lindbergh attended a diplomatic dinner with Nazi official Hermann Goering. Goering awarded the pilot a medal for his accomplishments. Lindbergh felt obliged to accept it, although his wife instinctively shunned the medal when he brought it home.

Weeks later, after the Nazis organized the Kristallnacht riots against the Jews, Lindbergh was criticized by the American press and people, who accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer for accepting and keeping the medal. His patriotism and heroism were questioned, especially as he maintained a firm isolationist stance at the start of World War II.

When the war ended, Lindbergh traveled abroad and witnessed the destruction of battle. Profoundly disturbed by the environmental ramifications of technology, he spent the remainder of his life dedicated to the conservationist movement.

Lindbergh also engaged in affairs with several women while in Germany. In 2003, it was revealed that he fathered five children with two German sisters, Brigitte and Marietta Hesshaimer. A 2005 book alleged that he had two other children with a German secretary.

Lindbergh died of lymphoma on August 26, 1974. He is buried in Maui, where the Lindberghs owned a home.
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