Sunday, February 9, 2014


THC just finished reading One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson's meandering and entertaining tale of events from May through September of that year.  It was an eventful time: starting that spring with the Mississippi River flood, the greatest in American history, with the river at flood stage for 155 days, Babe Ruth chasing his 1921 record of 59 homers in a season, the famous Dempsey-Tunney Heavyweight Title Match (the "Long Count") attended by 150,000 in Chicago, the filming of the first talking movie, The Jazz Singer, the first demonstration of a new technology called television, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti after six years of appeals (accompanied by anarchist bombings in protest) and the start of the sculptures on Mt Rushmore with the dedication attended by President Calvin Coolidge who was in the midst of a three month summer holiday in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Yes, this was an America where the President could take a three month vacation (he only worked five hours a day when at the White House anyway).  Staying at the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park, the accommodation for the President and his wife consisted of a sitting room and a bedroom with a bathroom down the hall.  By all accounts, he had a wonderful summer.
   (Coolidge at Mt Rushmore)
(Coolidge, center, on vacation)
America was rapidly changing in the 1920s becoming more urban, with more leisure time (the average workweek decreasing from 60 to 48 hours during the course of the decade).  Newspapers were the most common media route for news with most cities having three or four papers (New York City had twelve) and commercial radio, which didn't exist at the start of the decade, took off so that by its end almost every household had one.

Bryson's book would only be a string of entertaining anecdotes (and it is inhabited by many more interesting and eccentric characters than just those mentioned above) without the one thread holding it together from start to finish; the adventures of Charles Lindbergh and his fellow aviators and America's reaction.  In 1927 there were no commercial airlines in the United States (though there were many in Europe by that time) and the country's aviation infrastructure was still minimal with major cities like San Francisco and Baltimore without  airfields and most airfields in other cities being rudimentary semi-graded dirt pastures.
Although Lindbergh is often remembered as the first person to fly across the Atlantic non-stop that's incorrect.  In 1919 two English pilots, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, flew from Newfoundland to Ireland, nearly 1900 miles.  They did it in a Vickers Vimy which Bryson describes as "little more than a box kite with a motor", with an open cockpit and flying through weather bad enough that on six occasions  Brown had to crawl out on the wings to clear the air intakes of ice.
(Alcock and Brown arrive in Ireland!)
The following year a $25,000 prize was announced for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris, a distance almost twice that covered by Alcock and Brown in their journey.  The race to win the prize heated up in 1926 and Bryson makes it and other attempts at long-distance flying the backbone of his story.  In doing so we learn just how dangerous flying was and extraordinary the accomplishment of Lindbergh.

THC knew flying was risky in the 1920s but the mortality rate in One Summer is staggering. From the book here's my informal scorecard:

Attempted flight from New York to Paris on September 21, 1926.  Plane crashed on takeoff.  Two dead and two survivors.

In the spring of 1927 there were three teams trying to be the first to complete the route to Paris leaving from New York.  All failed to even reach the starting line:

On April 16 the plane commanded by Richard Byrd, who might have been the first to reach the North Pole by air the prior year, along with a crew of three, crashed on a test flight.  The co-pilot, Floyd Bennett, was severely injured while the others escaped with minor injuries. The plane was demolished.

On April 24 a two-man plane piloted by Clarence Chamberlin crashed on a test flight, again destroying the plane but no one was killed. 

On April 26 the third contender, with Noel Davis and Stanton Webster flying, crashed enroute to New York, killing both.

On May 8, two pilots attempted to fly the reverse route from Paris to New York, considered much more difficult because of prevailing winds.  They were Charles Nungesser (a WWI ace fighter pilot and a national hero) and Francois Coli.  They took off, were spotted leaving the French coast and then never seen again.

The same week, three French airmen attempted a nonstop flight from Senegal across the Atlantic to Brazil.  One hundred twenty miles from the Brazilian coast they sent a radio message announcing their arrival in an hour.  They never showed up. 

Later in the year, Paul Redfern attempted to fly nonstop from Brunswick, Georgia to Rio de Janeiro.  He was last seen flying over the Caribbean near Dutch Guinea. 

Another try was made that fall to make the Atlantic crossing from east to west with a plane taking off from Wiltshire in England with a British pilot and co-pilot and as passenger, the 62 year old Princess Anne of Lowenstein-Wertheim-Fredenburg (an English countess who became a princess by marriage) who had funded the flight and insisted on going along.  The plane disappeared over the Atlantic.

Around the same time, Old Glory, a plane owned by the publisher William Randolph Hearst, took off from Old Orchard Beach, Maine on a planned nonstop trip to Rome with three aboard, including the editor of Hearst's Daily Mirror, never to be seen again.

Two Canadian military pilots attempted to fly from Newfoundland to London and promptly disappeared.

Worst of all was the Dole Pacific Race on August 16.  The Dole pineapple family offered a $25,000 prize to the winner of a race from Oakland to Oahu.  Earlier in the summer, the first nonstop flight on this route had been done by two US Army pilots Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger (they survived), taking 26 hours.  A second successful flight was completed a couple of weeks later although it ended with the plane crashing on Molokai (the two occupants survived).
(Maitland and Hegenberger)
Three race competitors died in crashes flying to get to Oakland for the start of the race.  Another plane crashed in San Francisco Bay on its approach.  Of the eight planes ready for the start of the race, four either never got off the ground or turned back shortly after takeoff.  Of the remaining four, two made it to Hawaii and the other two disappeared.  And one of the pilots searching for the two missing planes also disappeared.  In all ten people died in connection with the race. 

If all this happened today how many Congressional investigations, government enforcement actions, private lawsuits and new regulations would be triggered?

Of all of these attempts, the only solo flight was by Charles Lindbergh, twenty five years old at the time.  Lindbergh flew for the first time in 1922 and within a month he was wing walking and parachuting.  Like most pilots he had some crashes but he walked away from all of them.  Without formal flight training he nonetheless was one of the most experienced pilots in the country by 1927.  He set his sights on winning the race to Paris but his plans to obtain a plane fell through though he had raised $15,000 from backers in St Louis (by comparison, Byrd raised $500,000 for his flight).  Scrambling to find an aviation company that could build a plane from scratch he found Ryan Airlines in San Diego, California and construction began on The Spirit of St Louis on February 23.(from

The plane design was bare bones using mostly proven technology except for a new air-cooled engine.  Because of its design, the pilot had no direct forward view and no brakes or radio.  The cockpit had only eleven gauges, but no fuel gauge and although the plane looked like it had a metallic external skin in fact only the cowling was metal with the rest being metallic-painted pima cotton stretched over a wood and steel skeleton; Bryson likens it to "crossing the ocean in a tent".

The first test flight of The Spirit of St Louis was on April 28.  Now Lindbergh had to get the plane from San Diego to New York, no small feat.  On May 10 he left San Diego for St Louis arriving the next day.  It was the longest solo flight by an American pilot to date and he became the first person to fly through the Rocky Mountains at night.  He then flew on to New York completing the fastest cross-country flight by anyone.

Packing five ham and chicken sandwiches and a quart of drinking water but no lifeboat or emergency supplies, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island on May 20, 1927.   Flying between 10 feet and 10,000 feet along his route, he landed, as planned, at Le Bourget airfield outside of Paris thirty three hours and thirty minutes later.  He'd eaten only one of his sandwiches.
Charles Lindbergh & The Spirit of St. Louis(Lindbergh, Roosevelt Field, May 20 from )
(Spirit of St Louis in Smithsonian)
And that's when the mania started.  Lindbergh expected to have a quiet arrival, wire his mother that he'd arrived, wondering if anyone would speak English, arrange lodgings and for a new set of clothes.  What greeted him that evening were more than 100,000 Parisians, who had been alerted to his arrival when Spirit of St Louis was spotted over Ireland.  The mob rushing to his plane lifted him out of his cockpit and began to carry him off though he finally made his escape with the help of two French aviators and eventually was rescued by the family of the American ambassador who took him to the US embassy.

Word flashed around the world.  Next day's New York Times devoted its entire first four pages to the flight.  After being awarded the Legion d'Honnor by the President of France, Charles Lindbergh (and his plane) returned to Washington DC on the USS Memphis, a navy cruiser sent for him by President Coolidge.  After a ceremony in Washington with the President, on June 13 Lindbergh borrowed a plane and flew himself up to New York (can you imagine that today?) for the largest ticker tape parade in the history of the city (a record that remains intact to this day) with an estimated four to five million New Yorkers attending. On that day the first sixteen pages of the New York Times were filled with stories about Lindbergh, aviation and the parade and it was not until almost a month later, on July 12, that a Times failed to have an aviation related story on its front page.

Lindbergh agreed to undertake a three month flying trip around the U.S. to promote aviation.  In the Spirit of St Louis he flew 22,350 miles to 82 cities and 125 parades in his honor.  It is estimated he was seen by thirty million people (25% of the population).  It was near-miracle that no one was hurt as Lindbergh was landing blindly with a plane without brakes as crowds would inevitably surge onto the field as he arrived.  As img191Lindbergh flew from city to city the impact was profound as Bryson reports:

Lindbergh repeated these feats day after day, safely, punctually, routinely, without fuss or sweat, as if dropping in by air were the most natural and sensible way in the world to arrive at a place . . . By the end of summer, America was a nation ready to fly - quite a turnaround from four months earlier, when aviation for most people simply meant barnstormers at county fairs and the like, and the United States seemed unlikely to ever catch up with Europe.

But it came at a cost.

From the moment he left his room in the morning, he was touched and jostled and bothered.  Every person on earth who could get near enough wanted to grasp his hand or clap him on the back.  He had no private life anymore.  Shirts he sent to the laundry never came back.  Chicken bones and napkins from his dinner plate were fought over in kitchens.  He could not go for a walk or pop into a bank or drugstore.  If he went into a men's room, people followed . . . No part of his life was normal, and there was no prospect that it ever would be again.

Tough for anyone but worse in Lindbergh's case.  He was shy, taciturn and extremely (some would say obsessively) private by nature.  He was also uninterested in other people and any activities other than flying.  For a person like that to be unable to escape the spotlight was unbearable and eventually left him contemptuous of most other people and hating the press.

For the next few years Charles Lindbergh was the best known person in the world.  It all ended tragically with the kidnapping and death of his infant son in 1932 and the trial of the kidnapper in a circus-like media atmosphere in 1935.  To escape he and his wife moved to Europe where they remained until the outbreak of WWII.

In the later 1930s and early 1940s, Lindbergh became a controversial, and finally a highly unpopular, figure due to his pro-German views, support of isolationism and his flirtation with anti-Semitism. 

But that was all in the future in 1927 and perhaps it's best to end by honoring the magnitude of his accomplishments which Bryson does well:

Maintaining your bearings by means of dead reckoning means taking close note of compass headings, speed of travel, time elapsed since the last calculation, and any deviations from the prescribed route induced by drifting.  Some measure of the difficulty is shown by the fact that the Byrd expedition the following month - despite having a dedicated navigator and radio operator, as well as pilot and copilot - missed their expected landfall by two hundred miles, were often only vaguely aware of where they were, and mistook a lighthouse on the Normandy coast for the lights of Paris [and they crash landed on a Normandy beach].  Lindbergh by contrast hit all his targets exactly - Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland, Cap de la Hague in France, Le Bourget in Paris - and did so while making calculations on his lap while flying an unstable plane.

That achievement alone makes him unquestionably a candidate for greatest pilot of his age, if not all ages.  He was the only pilot that year to land where he said he would.  All the other flights that summer - and there were many - either failed, made forced landings on water, or came down without knowing where they were.  He seemed to think that flying to Le Bourget was the most normal thing in the world.  For him, in fact, it was.

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