Before flying around the world was a daily occurrence, aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) made history by becoming the first person to complete a solo transatlantic flight in 1927. The feat made him a national hero, and then he became a tragic figure: The kidnapping of his infant son in 1932 remains one of the most indelible true-crime cases of the 20th century. Check out the following facts for more on Lindbergh’s life in and out of the cockpit.
1. HE GOT HIS START RIDING AIRPLANE WINGS.
Born in Detroit on February 4, 1902, Lindbergh spent his childhood in Washington, D.C., where his father, Charles August Lindbergh, was a congressman, as well as in Little Falls, Minnesota. While in Little Falls, he saw a “barnstormer,” or daredevil pilot, buzz into town. "Afterward, I remember lying in the grass and looking up at the clouds and thinking how much fun it would be to fly up there among those clouds," he later recalled.
The event was thought to have instilled a curiosity about air travel that lasted Lindbergh’s entire life. After dropping out of college at age 20, Lindbergh started working for the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation, which repaired and sold airplanes. While a fellow employee flew aircraft for publicity purposes, Lindbergh would step out onto the plane wing to attract even more attention. He later got his pilot’s license at the Army Air Service, graduating in 1925.
2. DELIVERING MAIL GAVE HIM NERVES OF STEEL.
In the early days of aviation, flying was considered a high-risk proposition. After serving as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Lindbergh took a job delivering airmail between St. Louis and Chicago. The expedited schedule meant Lindbergh and other pilots flew at night with poor visibility, had to push through inclement weather, and suffered from fatigue. Lindbergh learned to deal with many of the dangerous variables of piloting, which prepared him for an audacious goal: making a transatlantic flight solo.
While pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown had made a nonstop transatlantic flight in June 1919 from Newfoundland to Ireland, it was only half the distance of Lindbergh's goal of flying from New York to Paris. A hotel owner named Raymond Orteig had offered a $25,000 prize to the first person to travel that route, but for several years, no one took him up on it—a testament to the fact that few believed it could be done.
3. HE COULDN’T SEE OUT OF HIS HISTORY-MAKING PLANE.
Lindbergh's decision to mount the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 required two elements: guts and technology. Lindbergh had developed the constitution for it, but still needed an aircraft that could make the 3600-mile flight. Financed by the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, Lindbergh commissioned a $15,000 plane, dubbed The Spirit of St. Louis, to be built by the Ryan Airlines Corporation of San Diego. Because the plane needed additional fuel storage, everything extraneous was removed to lessen its weight—no radio, gas gauge, or parachute. Lindbergh even had to dispense with a window in his cockpit: The gas tank took over his front field of vision. He used a periscope to see instead.
The sacrifices were worth it. Lindbergh made the flight, lifting off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island on May 20, 1927, and arriving in Paris after 33.5 hours of uninterrupted flying. The feat captured the public's attention for its boundary-breaking significance, with thousands of people greeting his plane upon landing. Back home, president Calvin Coolidge awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
4. HE STARTED HALLUCINATING, TOO.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean demanded more of Lindbergh than just flying skill or customized aircraft. It required he stay awake for the duration of the solo flight and maintain concentration throughout. Halfway through, fatigue began to set in, and Lindbergh physically forced his eyes to remain open with his fingers. Shortly after that, he began hallucinating ghosts passing through his cockpit. Because he had slept so little the night before taking off, Lindbergh had actually been awake closer to 55 hours.
5. THE FLIGHT MADE HIM A MILLIONAIRE.
Although there was a $25,000 prize involved, Lindbergh’s real wealth came from the public’s mythologizing of the feat. City after city threw him celebratory parades, and he eventually made it to every state in the union to acknowledge their fascination with his achievement. Eager to understand both the pilot and the trip, they made his 1927 autobiography, We, a bestseller. Lindbergh also wrote articles about aviation for The New York Times. Together, the projects were said to have made him a millionaire.
6. PEOPLE MADE SOUVENIRS TO MARK HIS SON’S KIDNAPPING.
No abduction has captured the public’s attention quite like the 1932 taking of Charles Lindbergh III, whom press dubbed “Little Lindy.” The 20-month-old was seized from his second-floor bedroom in the Lindberghs’ home in Hopewell, New Jersey, on March 1. Ransom notes followed, and although Lindbergh paid, the child was never going to return: His body was found May 12, about 4.5 miles from the Lindbergh home. Police determined that he had been killed on the night of the kidnapping. During the trial of alleged perpetrator Bruno Hauptmann, one business decided to offer a morbid souvenir to the attending public: a tiny replica of the ladder Hauptmann used to climb into the baby's window. Author Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) later purchased one. Sendak had long been fascinated with the case, which dominated headlines during his childhood.
7. HE RECEIVED AN AWARD FROM THE NAZIS.
Lindbergh’s feat drew worldwide acclaim and he frequently took up invitations from foreign countries to evaluate their aircraft development. In the late 1930s, Lindbergh made several trips to Nazi Germany, where he was granted access to the Luftwaffe's fleet of combat planes. At one point, Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Goering presented Lindbergh with the Service Cross of the German Eagle to acknowledge his pioneering work in aviation. Lindbergh promptly reported his experiences to U.S. intelligence, which had encouraged Lindbergh to make the visits and inform the American military of German technology.
8. HE WAS OPPOSED TO THE U.S. ENTERING WORLD WAR II.
Despite the continued public adoration, Lindbergh managed to find himself in one major media disaster. He repeatedly voiced concerns over U.S. participation in World War II, believing that his country was ill-prepared to hold its own in European territory. In his most controversial comments, he told a crowd during a speech in Iowa in 1941 that the Jewish population was "pro war" as a result of the atrocities committed by Germans. Though he was prohibited from serving in the military by an irate President Franklin Roosevelt, Lindbergh wound up flying 50 combat missions in the Pacific for a private airplane contractor. The accusations of being pro-German or anti-Semitic followed him for the remainder of his life. In the early 1940s, his idea of American isolationism was even the target of satirical political cartoons by Theodore Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. On a “Lindbergh quarter,” Seuss imagined an ostrich with its head in the ground instead of an eagle.
9. HE REFUSED TO CELEBRATE MOTHER’S DAY.
According to his daughter, Reeve Lindbergh, her father was no fan of manufactured holidays. Both Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, he said, were commercially driven and insincere, and he refused to acknowledge either one in the Lindbergh household. While his children were forced to cede to his wishes while he was present, his frequent trips allowed them to celebrate Mother’s Day in secret if he was away from home.
10. HE INVENTED AN INFLUENTIAL MEDICAL DEVICE.
Lindbergh had an interest in biomechanics, and in 1935, he unveiled his design for a perfusion pump—a glass device that could ostensibly keep organs viable by delivering a blood supply to them while they were outside the body. With collaborator and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Alexis Carrel, he succeeded in perfusing the thyroid gland of a cat. Though his invention never made it to a practical application stage, Lindbergh’s work is credited with helping bridge the gap toward innovations that later allowed surgeons to stop a heart during operations.
11. HE HAD A SECRET FAMILY (OR THREE).
Lindbergh’s travels to Germany were more than just business. In 2003, DNA tests confirmed that he had fathered three children with Munich hat maker Brigitte Hesshaimer beginning in 1957. Neither Hesshaimer nor Lindbergh disclosed that lineage to the children, who knew the man who came to visit them a few times a year as a writer named “Careu Kent.” The trio waited until their mother’s passing in 2001 before pursuing their suspicion that Kent was actually Lindbergh. The aviator was also alleged to have fathered two children with Brigitte’s sister, Marietta, and two with his personal secretary, a woman named Valeska.