Sunday, May 20, 2012

The First Time

Eighty–five years ago, I suppose Charles Lindbergh may have been the most unlikely of the world's qualified pilots to complete the first nonstop transatlantic flight.

Lindbergh was virtually unknown, even though his father had represented Minnesota in the U.S. House for 10 years.

He flew for the first time — as a passenger — about five years before he flew from New York to Paris. Shortly thereafter he took his first flying lesson, but he would not be allowed to solo because he could not afford to post a bond that he was required to provide in case he damaged the airplane — it was the flying school's only one, you see.

Eventually, of course, he did solo, and that opened the door to his career.

Lindbergh delivered mail by air until a few months before his historic flight, when he went to California to oversee the production of the plane he would fly to Paris, the Spirit of St. Louis. He had been drawn into an international competition for the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 prize that had been offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig to the first person to complete a nonstop transatlantic flight.

It really was the great race of its day, but you couldn't tell that initially. Most of the contenders' planes had trouble getting airborne; the first that did, less than two weeks before Lindbergh's flight, made it from France to Ireland, but contact was lost, and no one ever heard from the pilot or his navigator again.

Half a dozen pilots, consequently, had perished in the attempt by the time Lindbergh was ready to take his shot, and he took off shortly before 8 a.m. on May 20, 1927. He had anticipated that his flight, if successful, would take about 40 hours; he completed it in 33½ — in spite of fog, storm clouds, icing and having to navigate by the stars when they were visible (and by dead reckoning if they weren't).

Lindbergh was an American pioneer. He didn't take on the challenge of flying nonstop across the Atlantic for the fame it would bring; he did it for the same reason other pioneers climb mountains that have never been climbed.

But it did bring him fame, as well as the Orteig Prize, and he used that fame to do things he probably never dreamed he would be able to do. He became a writer, an explorer, an inventor, a proponent of environmental causes.

It also brought some unwanted attention — in particular, from an immigrant named Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted of the 1932 abduction and murder of Lindbergh's infant son and sentenced to death. Between the time of Hauptmann's conviction and execution, Lindbergh, his wife and their second son left America for Europe and remained there for the rest of the 1930s.

As I say, Lindbergh was a pioneer, but pioneers are people, and they have their flaws. Lindbergh is admired for his accomplishments in aviation, but he was far from perfect. His statements and writings suggested that he was a racist, and it was revealed, after not only Lindbergh but also his wife had died, that he had long–term affairs with three women, producing seven children.

Heroes have their weaknesses, all right, but they seldom take anything away from what a pioneer, mostly through courage, has achieved. And Lindbergh's weaknesses certainly don't take anything from what he accomplished 85 years ago today.

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