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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: The Spirit of St. Louis

Being in St. Louis seemed like an appropriate time to start reading Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis. It is considered a classic, after all, and since I spent 35 out of 50 days there sitting around in a hotel room, I had some spare time. The only thing I didn't like about it was that I didn't read it sooner.

It is not a short read (the paperback version is almost 600 pages, including pictures) but it is a fast read. I thought that perhaps the only reason it won a Pulitzer Prize was because it came out during Lindberghmania, when he was an outright celebrity. But that actually couldn't have been the case, as he spent over a decade crafting this book, and it wouldn't come out until 1952. In that time, the United States had been through World War II and aviation had matured so quickly that it was no longer an incredible novelty.

This book won its Pulitzer on its own merits and beauty, not because of the name attached. His book We, on the other hand, was slapped together quickly to cash in on his overnight fame. We is not a bad book, but the rushed feeling is evident throughout. It lacks the mastery, the compelling tale of the flight itself, and the lyricism that infuse The Spirit of St. Louis.

The first section of the book goes into the story of what it took just to get the project "off the ground". But it does it in an amazingly simple way. It is not a grand "Look at me" story. Instead, he writes about it in such a simple and direct way that it's almost amazing that everyone in the country wasn't trying to do the same thing. It almost sums up to, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if I flew across the Atlantic? What do I need to do to get that done? OK, let's do those things and call it a day."

(This spirit is also evident in the early chapters of Richard Branson's excellent book, Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way, which is definitely worth a read as well. The prologue's title, "Screw it, let's do it", would probably have made Lindbergh nod and smile.)

The entire beginning section is like that, and I mean it in the best possible way. To him, the idea is the simplest thing in the world. It never even occurred to him that it could possibly be hard, and so he doesn't make it hard. He doesn't try to think of 1000 ways it won't work, he doesn't draw up some complicated business proposal, and he doesn't do any of the hundred other things every MBA will tell you just has to be done.

Instead, he just goes around to everyone he knows and asks if they have some money to put toward this flight, which he believes in enough that he's willing to put in 20% of the money for it himself. It's charming in how his whole attitude in this section is so matter-of-fact, so "gee willikers" direct that it is almost childlike in its naiveté. He would get eaten alive on Shark Tank.

Yet reading about how he just did it before Nike made "Just do it" a thing is worth more than a stack any the run-of-the-mill self-help books that are so popular nowadays. YouTube is filled with thousands upon thousands of "motivation" videos, authors get rich pounding out cliched "productivity" advice, and self-help gurus live in mansions built by thousand-dollar seminars on how to live your dream. Yet Lindbergh just goes out and does it as if it was the most natural thing in the world. This section alone makes the book worth reading if you're willing to learn by example instead of paying some consultant to tell you how to Get Things Done(tm).

Eventually, he does get to the flight, though. The change from the planning to the execution section is a bit abrupt, but that's because the flight itself took place so suddenly. Before you know it, he's gone from an unknown aviator trying to find a plane to an unknown aviator taking off on a flight that would make him famous around the world. This abruptness is a result of the directness he's had throughout the book: he was at Roosevelt Field, the plane was there too, and the weather broke, so he took off. Like it was the most natural thing in the world to just hop in and do something that no one had ever done solo before.

With that, we get to the section of the book about the flight itself. He breaks it down into 34 chapters: one for each hour of the flight. I was looking forward to these chapters for the technical aspects, but as it turns out (and what was probably an excellent editorial decision for a book that was aimed at more than just a pilot audience), there is very little hard detail on what he was doing as he was doing it. Aviation is a human story, and instead he tells a human story.

The way the arc of the flight itself is written is so well crafted that the chapters themselves have their own stylistic arc to them. Not only do you get to read about the flight, you can almost feel the flight. Not in the "it's noisy and cramped" kind of feel, but the emotional kind of feel. It starts out bright and excited, as he crosses his first big stretch of water on his way to Newfoundland (being a pilot in the Midwest doesn't exactly lend itself to practicing extended overwater flights) while land and its signs of civilization are still passing below him. His eagerness and freshness are still evident, and he still gets amazed at times that he's even doing what he's doing. He is not a Sky God doing what mere mortals cannot: he is a young man seeing things he's never seen before.

After leaving Newfoundland and entering the ocean, the newness wears off and the physical realities of what he's doing set in. As his attention begins to wander, so do the stories. He begins to flash back days past: some of them flying stories, some of them childhood reminiscences, some of them explaining why the airplane is built the way it is. Some of the stories are repurposed material from We, but most of it is new material. We see what turned "Slim" into a guy alone over the endless ocean, heading somewhere he had never been.

As someone interested in aviation psychology and human factors, this book was intensely enjoyable, as Lindbergh was not afraid to admit mistakes or fess up to weaknesses. In the middle, fatigue begins to catch up with him. He hardly slept the night before leaving, as social engagements and being disturbed by visitors kept him from getting much rest. A solitary soul over a thousand-mile stretch of dreary sea, long before radios that would fit efficiently in an airplane, running on no sleep... The stories turn into mini-dreams. He was unwillingly "microsleeping" long before that was even a thing, and by the twelfth hour and continuing on for half a day more, the Spirit of St. Louis becomes a master's thesis on fatigue and all its effects.

Most of us have been up all night for one reason or another. We can relate to what it feels like to be sleepy. However, we usually get a chance to sleep eventually, and we're not flying an airplane that had no autopilot and was not very stable. (This was in large part by design, as Lindbergh thought that by being forced to keep the plane from straying, he would have to stay engaged. This is also why the seat was made of uncomfortable wicker instead of being plush and padded.) We may have had to take an exam after pulling an all-nighter, then could head to bed after class. We did not have to remain vigilant in order to keep from dying.

We all know how fatigue dulls us and makes us feel slow. While these are bad problems to have in an aircraft, possibly one of the most dangerous effects of extreme fatigue is apathy. Not only are we performing poorly, we no longer care that we're performing poorly. For the first 20 hours, Lindbergh keeps a meticulous log of the weather, his heading, the engine parameters, and so on. On the 21st hour, Lindbergh no longer has the energy to care about those things anymore. He just makes a scratch mark for whichever tank he was burning fuel from that hour and calls it enough.

He tries all sorts of things to wake himself up: putting his hand out the window to bring in the cold air, stomping his feet in the cramped confines of his streamlined cockpit, not eating in order to let hunger keep him awake, and many more. At one point he discovers that there are ammonia smelling salts in his small first aid kit. He breaks one open and although they are supposed to revive someone who has fainted, even those do nothing!

He relates how his consciousness seemed to fragment into two separate parts, later to be joined by a third. His body was something he was simply watching from afar as he flew on "manual autopilot". One part of his consciousness simply kept him from dying; the rest was dead wood. During the 22nd hour, he begins hallucinating, thinking he was hearing voices from unseen friendly beings who were riding along with him on the flight:

While I'm staring at the instruments, during an unearthly age of time, both conscious and asleep, the fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences--vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane. I feel no surprise at their coming...

These phantoms speak with human voices--friendly, vapor-like shapes, without substance, able to vanish or appear at will, to pass in and out through the walls of the fuselage as though no walls were there...

[These were] familiar voices, conversing and advising on my flight, discussing problems of my navigation, reassuring me, giving me messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life.

As we all know, he managed to make it through these conditions despite his more-than-extreme sleep deprivation. (In fact, this book is an excellent read for psychologists who want to understand the effects of such deprivation because no research lab would be permitted to subject people to those conditions to study them.) Eventually he does reach land. The end of the ocean ordeal means the end of the flight is finally in sight, and his energy level shoots up. The voices disappear once he sights the fishing boats that are a sign that the coastline won't be far ahead.

He has reconnected with the earth as he leaves the endless sea behind. Now he can put the distance into a scale more comprehensible to him. It is just a normal shift on the airmail route now. He has good weather ahead, and finding Paris is no problem. Like the United States, there were beacon lights along important aerial routes in France at the time. He followed it, did a circle around the Eiffel Tower just to celebrate (imagine trying that nowadays!) and then headed for Le Bourget. Which, by the way, he didn't know the location of. It wasn't on the map he had, so he just flew northeast, since that was the general direction it was supposed to be in.

Nighttime made the airport very hard to locate, especially for an out-of-towner. One of the funnier things I've ever read was his worries over whether anyone would be at the airport to help him put the plane in a hangar, since it was so late at night. He honestly thought that no one would expect him there since he was so far ahead of schedule. He can't locate the airport because it's dark, but there's a dark patch among a long line of factory lights that looks like it could be an airport, and it's somewhat close to where he's expecting an airport to be, so that's close enough. He heads for it, and after flying by it a bit to get the feel of it, he lands. Every FAA inspector who just read that had their head explode, but such was life in the Roaring Twenties!

It turns out that it was the right airport, so he guessed right: "The Spirit of St. Louis swings around and stops rolling, resting on the solidness of earth, in the center of Le Bourget." He guessed wrong on the factory lights, though: those lights were actually a massive traffic jam of people trying to see him at the airport! The last line of the book proper paints the scene: "I start to taxi back toward the floodlights and hangars--But the entire field ahead is covered with running figures!"

The book ends there, but there is a 6-page afterword to close it out. He tells how he was pulled out of the plane and carried on the cheering crowd until two French pilots come to his rescue. One of them took Lindy's helmet off and put it onto a reporter that was standing nearby and called out, "There is Lindbergh!" to distract attention away from him so he could make his way out of the crowd. He gives very little space to the long line of speeches and banquets in his honor that would take place for the rest of the year; almost as soon as the flight ends, so does the book. However, We, which came out only a month after the flight while people were dying to buy a Lindbergh book, goes into excruciating detail over his reception both in Europe and the United States.

The writing style is absolutely lush and gorgeous. I had originally planned to have many examples of it throughout this post, but due to this one's already-too-long nature, I'm going to make the excerpts from it next week's post. See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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