Charles Lindbergh

The Most Famous Aviator in History

Picture of Charles Lindbergh.
American aviator Charles Lindbergh (July 21, 1925). (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Who Was Charles Lindbergh?

Charles Lindbergh completed the first nonstop transatlantic flight on May 21, 1927. This 33-hour trip from New York to Paris forever changed Lindbergh's life and the future of aviation. Hailed as a hero, the shy, young pilot from Minnesota was unwillingly thrust into the public eye. Lindbergh's unwelcome fame would later haunt him when his infant son was kidnapped for ransom and killed in 1932.

Dates: February 4, 1902 -- August 26, 1974

Also Known As: Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Lucky Lindy, The Lone Eagle

Childhood in Minnesota

Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born at the home of his maternal grandparents on February 4, 1902 in Detroit, Michigan to Evangeline Land and Charles August Lindbergh. When Charles was five weeks old, he and his mother moved back to their home in Little Falls, Minnesota. He was the only child the Lindberghs would have, although Charles Lindbergh Sr. had two older daughters from a previous marriage.

C.A., as Lindbergh's father was known, was a successful lawyer in Little Falls. He had been born in Sweden and immigrated with his parents to Minnesota in 1859. Lindbergh's mother, a well-educated woman from a wealthy Detroit family, was a former science teacher.

When Lindbergh was only three years old, the family home, newly-built and located on the banks of the Mississippi River, burned to the ground. The cause of the fire was never determined. The Lindberghs replaced it with a smaller house on the same site.

Lindbergh the Traveler

In 1906, C.A. ran for U.S. Congress and won. His victory meant that his son and wife were displaced, moving to Washington, D.C. while Congress was in session. This resulted in young Lindbergh changing schools frequently and never forming lasting friendships as a child. Lindbergh was quiet and shy even as an adult.

The Lindbergh marriage also suffered from the constant upheaval, but divorce was considered detrimental to a politician's reputation. Charles and his mother lived in a separate apartment from his father in Washington.

C.A. bought the family's first car when Charles was ten years old. Although barely able to reach the pedals, young Lindbergh was soon able to drive the car. He also proved himself a natural mechanic and repaired and maintained the car. In 1916, when C.A. ran for re-election, his 14-year-old son drove him across the state of Minnesota for his campaign tour.

Taking Flight

During World War I, Lindbergh, too young to enlist, became captivated by flying after reading of the exploits of fighter pilots in Europe.

When Lindbergh turned 18, the war was already over, so he entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study engineering. His mother accompanied Lindbergh to Madison and the two shared an apartment off campus.

Bored by the academic life and failing most of his courses, Lindbergh left the university after only three semesters. He enrolled in flight school in Nebraska in April 1922.

Lindbergh quickly learned to pilot a plane and later went on barnstorming tours throughout the mid-west. These were exhibitions in which pilots performed dangerous maneuvers in the air. Once they had gained the attention of a crowd, the pilots made money by taking passengers on short sightseeing tours.

U.S. Army and the Postal Service

Eager to fly more sophisticated airplanes, Lindbergh enlisted in the U.S. Army as an air cadet. After one year of intensive training, he graduated in March 1925 as a second lieutenant. Lindbergh's father did not live to see his son graduate. C.A. died of a brain tumor in May 1924.

Because there was little need for Army pilots during peacetime, Lindbergh sought employment elsewhere. He was hired by a commercial aircraft company to pilot airmail routes for the U.S. government, which would begin airmail service for the first time in 1926.

Lindbergh was proud of his role in the new mail delivery system, but did not have confidence in the flimsy, unreliable planes that were used for airmail service.

The Race for the Ortieg Prize

American hotelier Raymond Orteig, who had been born in France, looked forward to a day when the United States and France would be linked by aviation.

In an effort to facilitate that connection, Orteig proposed a challenge. He would pay $25,000 to the first pilot who could fly nonstop between New York and Paris. The large monetary prize attracted several pilots, but all of the early attempts failed, some ending in injury and even death.

Lindbergh gave serious thought to Ortieg's challenge. He analyzed data from the previous failures and determined that the key to success was an aircraft that was as light as possible, using a single engine and carrying only one pilot. The plane he envisioned would have to be designed and built to Lindbergh's specifications.

He began the search for investors.

The Spirit of St. Louis

After repeated disappointments, Lindbergh finally found backing for his venture. A group of St. Louis businessmen agreed to pay for the plane to be built and even provided Lindbergh with its name -- Spirit of St. Louis.

Work began on his plane in California in March 1927. Lindbergh was anxious for the plane to be completed; he knew that many competitors were also preparing to attempt a transatlantic flight. The plane was finished in two months at a cost of about $10,000.

As Lindbergh was preparing to leave San Diego to fly his plane to New York, he received the news that two French pilots had attempted the flight from Paris to New York on May 8. After take-off, the two were never seen again.

Lindbergh's Historic Flight

On May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off from Long Island, New York at 7:52 a.m. After a night of heavy rain, the weather had cleared. Lindbergh seized the opportunity. A crowd of 500 spectators cheered him on as he lifted off.

To keep the plane as light as possible, Lindbergh flew without a radio, navigational lights, gas gauges, or parachutes. He carried only a compass, a sextant, his maps of the area, and several fuel tanks. He had even replaced the pilot's chair with a lightweight wicker seat.

Lindbergh flew through several storms in the North Atlantic. When darkness fell and exhaustion set in, Lindbergh brought the plane up to a higher elevation so that he could see the stars, keeping himself oriented. As fatigue swept over him, he stamped his feet, sang aloud, and even slapped his own face.

After flying through the night and the following day, Lindbergh finally spotted fishing boats and Ireland's rugged coastline. He had made it to Europe.

At 10:24 p.m. on May 21, 1927, Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris and was stunned to find 150,000 people waiting to celebrate his remarkable accomplishment. Thirty-three and a half hours had passed since he had taken off from New York.

The Hero Returns

Lindbergh climbed out of the plane and was immediately swept up by the crowd and carried away. He was soon rescued and his plane secured, but only after spectators had torn pieces from the fuselage for souvenirs.

Lindbergh was celebrated and honored throughout Europe. He sailed home in June, arriving in Washington D.C. Lindbergh was honored with a parade and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by President Coolidge. He was also promoted to the rank of colonel in the Officer's Reserve Corps.

That celebration was followed by four days of festivities in New York City, including a ticker tape parade. Lindbergh met Raymond Ortieg and was presented with his $25,000 check.

Lindbergh Meets Anne Morrow

The media followed Lindbergh's every move. Uncomfortable in the spotlight, Lindbergh sought refuge in the only place he could be alone -- the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis. He toured the U.S., landing in each of the 48 continental states.

Extending his tour into Latin America, Lindbergh met with American ambassador Dwight Morrow in Mexico City. He spent Christmas 1927 with the Morrow family, becoming acquainted with Morrow's 21-year old daughter, Anne. The two became close, spending time together over the next year as Lindbergh taught Anne how to fly. They married on May 27, 1929.

The Lindberghs made several important flights together and collected critical information that would help to plot international flight routes. They set a record for flying across the United States in just over 14 hours and were the first aviators to fly from America to China.

Parenthood, Then Tragedy

The Lindberghs became parents on June 22, 1930 with the birth of Charles, Jr. Seeking privacy, they bought a home in a secluded part of Hopewell, New Jersey.

On the evening of February 28, 1932, 20-month-old Charles was kidnapped from his crib. Police found a ladder outside the nursery window and a ransom note in the child's room. The kidnapper demanded $50,000 for the return of the child.

The ransom was paid, but the Lindbergh child was not returned to his parents. In May 1932, the baby's body was found a few miles from the family home. Investigators concluded that the kidnapper had dropped the baby while descending the ladder on the night of the abduction, killing him instantly.

After more than two years, an arrest was made. German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried and convicted in what was called "the crime of the century." He was executed in April 1936.

The Lindberghs' second son Jon was born in August 1932. Unable to avoid constant public scrutiny and fearing for the safety of their second son, the Lindberghs left the country, moving to England in 1935. The Lindbergh family grew to include two daughters and two more sons.

Lindbergh Visits Germany

In 1936, Lindbergh was invited by high-ranking Nazi official Hermann Goering to visit his country for a tour of its aircraft facilities.

Impressed by what he saw, Lindbergh -- possibly overstating Germany's military assets -- reported that Germany's air power was far superior to that of other European nations. Lindbergh's reports worried European leaders and might have contributed to British and French policies of appeasement to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler early in the war.

On a return visit to Germany in 1938, Lindbergh received the German Service Cross from Goering and was photographed wearing it. The public reaction was one of outrage that Lindbergh had accepted an award from the Nazi regime.

Fallen Hero

With war in Europe looming, the Lindberghs returned to the U.S. in spring of 1939. Colonel Lindbergh was pressed into duty inspecting aircraft manufacturing facilities across the U.S.

Lindbergh began speaking out publicly on the war in Europe. He was opposed to any American involvement in the war, which he viewed as a battle for balance of power in Europe. One speech in particular, given in 1941, was widely criticized as anti-Semitic and racist.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, even Lindbergh had to concede that Americans had no choice but to enter the war. He volunteered to serve as an aviator during World War II, but President Franklin Roosevelt refused his offer.

Return to Grace

Lindbergh used his expertise to provide help in the private sector, consulting on the production of B-24 bombers and Corsair fighter planes.

He went to the South Pacific as a civilian to train pilots and provide technical assistance. Later, with the approval of General Douglas MacArthur, Lindbergh took part in bombing runs on Japanese bases, flying 50 missions over a four-month period.

In 1954, Lindbergh was honored with the rank of brigadier general. The same year, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir The Spirit of St. Louis.

Lindbergh became involved in environmental causes later in life and was the spokesman for both the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy. He lobbied against the production of supersonic passenger jets, citing the noise and air pollution they created.

Diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1972, Lindbergh chose to live out his remaining days at his home in Maui. He died on August 26, 1974 and was buried in Hawaii in a simple ceremony.