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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why all the fuss about Lindbergh?

Charles Lindbergh was not the first to fly across the Atlantic. In 1919, 8 years before Lindbergh, the Navy made the first transatlantic voyage, although with a bunch of stops along the way. This was more a technical feat and a test of technology, and was totally impractical for anything else. A couple of weeks later, the British aviators Alcock and Brown were the first to do it nonstop. An airship crossing followed less than a month after them. By the time Lindbergh's trip rolled around, not only was he not the first to do it, he wasn't even the second, or the third or the fourth or... He was nineteenth.

So what made him a household name? When he landed in Paris, the crowd pulled him out of the plane and he involuntarily crowd-surfed the mass of people, such was the excitement. In the meantime, Alcock and Brown are names recognized only by aviation history buffs. Why the difference between him and his 18 predecessors?

(The number is technically 18, but many of them were merely passengers on the airship R34, and there were six crewmembers on the Navy's flight.)

Like the old real estate adage, the important thing is Location, Location, Location. The first practical transatlantic crossing by Alcock and Brown was from a remote location to another remote location (the coast of Newfoundland to an obscure bog near the Irish coast). Lindbergh's flight, however, connected two of the most famous cities in the world: New York and Paris.

This connection is what elevated him to hero status. The heart of aviation, its essence, is connection. Airplanes connect people. That's what they do. Sure, they are fun to look at, to listen to, and to play with, but at the bottom of it lies the connections that airplanes enable. Even when you're flying alone, you're still making a connection with the air, the elements you're surrounded by, the land you're suspended above, but the most important connection you're making is a connection with yourself. That, I believe, is why aviation touches pilots so deeply and why a first solo is something that changes you inside and makes you a different, slightly improved version of yourself: it enables you to connect to a part of you that you didn't know you had.

Aviation is a human story, and by connecting those humans of two of the largest cities in the world together in one flight, he became a legend in his own time.

For that story to take place is an amazing human story all on its own, and this is the second part of the equation that made him famous. We think of Lindbergh as a historical figure and forget that before Lindbergh was "Lucky Lindy", he was an air mail pilot that no one had ever heard of. In fact, the first places he went to when he was trying to buy an airplane for the flight either wouldn't sell a no-name like him one of their esteemed products or wouldn't let a no-name like him fly it if they did.

His grit and belief in himself is what propelled him from the muddy patch called Lambert Field all the way to Le Bourget even more than N-X-211 did. From a farm in rural Minnesota on the banks of Mississippi to pulling off a flight that well-financed and well-known names couldn't accomplish: his is the quintessential "Boy Makes Good" story. He was the very embodiment of good old American values, which made for great newspaper copy.

Would any of the other people who were working hard to attempt the same thing before he did have been as famous had they pulled it off first? Possibly. They would quite likely have been written about a great deal in the newspapers—which were the Internet and TV combined of their day. That notwithstanding, would they still be famous today like Lindbergh is?

My speculation is no. I say this because, among others, there was another man who was also competing with Lindbergh to make the first New York-Paris flight, and who likely would have beaten Lindy had he not crashed on a test flight and had to repair his aircraft. At the time, he was a national hero in his own right, having been the first (along with the other member of his crew) to fly to the North Pole. His fame, unlike Lindbergh's, does not live on to make him a household name today, and I would bet a large sum of money that if I did not tell you, you would not be thinking of Robert Byrd and Floyd Bennett right now.

I think Lindbergh's place in history has endured not just because of what he did, but because of his down home, good old, aw shucks demeanor and his All-American work ethic. He was the perfect representative of everything America dreamed it could be in the Roaring Twenties, with the stock market collapse and the Great Depression still over two years away. He connected with people just as he enabled connections among people.

All of the above is my opinion only. If you have a different opinion, please feel free to share it in the comments. I would love to hear your ideas on the matter. 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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