Monday, May 27, 2013

Remembering "Lucky Lindy"

By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

I guess if I want to blame anyone, I could blame Richard Miranda. The dates of May 20-21 probably would have past without a thought from me if he hadn't made note here of the failure of anyone to mention Casey Jones as part of a 'On this day in History.' With just a touch of "My hero is better than your hero," I would have expected to hear about the anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic on one of those days, but the days of his flight came and went without mention. Without Richard's article, I wouldn't have thought to be shocked, as I am.

What a great childhood hero 'Lucky Lindy' would turn out to be. One of my big early morning activities for a Catholic school holiday (Only we were off) was to ride down to Fullerton airport at the crack of dawn to see planes landing. This was a time when Hughes aircraft had a facility a few blocks away, some of these people flew to work from other parts of the state. I had it all figured out that aviation was a big part of my future. Lindbergh actually warned otherwise, pointing out the problem that stood in my way. I could be caught reading much about flying when I was in grade school, in Lindbergh's 'The Spirit of St. Louis' he talked much about the problem of having money to get in the air. I was still young enough to think that wasn't going to be a problem for me. Afterall, Lindbergh had found a way.

He had just turned 20 when he started flying lessons, never actually getting to solo because he couldn't post a bond to cover the airplane if he crashed it. He went to work as a barnstorming wing walker and mechanic, a year later he picked up his own Curtis Jenny, a World War I surplus aircraft often sold for pennies on the dollar from the original $5,000 price. Trying to fly around the country getting people to pay him $5 to be taken up in his plane was a struggle, finally he accepted an offer to sell his plane while in a fortuitous location, the city of St. Louis. Shortly after he had a stint with the Army Air Force reserve, which employed few fulltime pilots and limited those to just 50 hours of flying a year.

As he left for his reserve training, he was promised a job when he returned, at least if the company won a contract to fly the airmail. The pieces were falling in place for an unlikely appointment with history for the son of a late politician who'd grown up and run for office under an assumed name, whose grandfather had fled justice in Europe to come to America. Whose revelation at the age of 24 that his life was going nowhere would include the statement: "And I stepped off (Literally) into darkness. . . ."

Lindbergh had been in crashes, hard landings, had bailed out to escape the crash, suffered a dislocated shoulder. In late 1926 he was flying the mail overnight in hopes of saving just a few hours in the shipping which might make a connection that could take a day or more out of the time it took for the letter to reach its' recipient. The fog can sneak up on you in the dark, especially at a time when there was so little light even when you flew over cities. He dropped a flare hoping to see a stretch of flat land to set down his plane, but unable to see anything while his engine was coughing, he was forced to jump without any idea if he could reach the ground safely even then. "And I stepped off into darkness. . . ."

As he'd been searching for a break in the fog, he'd considered what he might do to escape his high risk yet impoverished life. His only thought was that if he could win the Orteig Prize, for the first to fly across the Atlantic between the cities of New York and Paris, he might emerge from the small crowd of pilots who, although accomplished, had nowhere to go even in a country where flying so captured the imagination that a man might offer up a days pay just to spend a few minutes in the passenger seat as the plane flew over the community. Oh, how he underestimated his chances if he accomplished this.

And as his parachute carried him to the ground, as he watched helplessly when the abandoned plane circled and passed close to him several times, he was thinking of what he would say so many times, in so many ways. The most well known quotes of Charles Lindbergh all mean about the same thing: 'This country wasn't built by those who dwell in fear.' By the time he put his feet on the ground he had already heard his plane crash; he had also made up his mind he was flying across the Atlantic as well.

Once you know about just who Charles Lindbergh was, you get the idea the Atlantic flight might not have felt so risky afterall. He had seen pilots killed in aviation accidents similar to those he had experienced. He had watched as parts broke away from the plane and a fellow wingwalker fell, one even seeming to hold up his hands and shrug his shoulders in the last seconds of his life before impact. He had come up with ways of dealing with these potential dangers in the past and continued, this was what would carry him though the challenge of his life which had already claimed several lives.

The Orteig Prize was a $25,000 challenge by hotel magnate Raymond Orteig, who probably saw higher speed travel across the ocean as good business for his accommodations business, but nonetheless was a true lover of progress. His original five year offer had expired in 1924 without a serious challenge, yet he extended it another 5 years. At last he gained the attention of such legendary European pilots as Rene Fonck and Ludwik Idzikowski, while American Navy pilot Richard Byrd used his fame from his controversial North Pole flight to gain backing for his own attempt. As the obscure Lindberghs name was advanced as a new challenger, he was dubbed 'The Flying Fool' for even considering himself equal to the task.

But at the age of 24, Lindbergh thought he possessed enough flying knowledge to challenge the thinking of the socalled greater experts of aviation. With his boss instantly handing him $1,000 upon learning of the plan, (Days after he'd bailed out of the plane) and his mother offering up another $2,000, Lindbergh was discovering that there were a lot of people believing in him. That did NOT include the Fokker Aircraft representative who passed through St Louis at the time. Lindbergh's assertion that the large, expensive 3 engined plane that Fokker was championing for the flight was counter intuitive to the task brought the brusque response that Fokker would not be interested in selling him a plane. Similarly Wright Bellanca, whose lone WB-2 developmental aircraft was Lindbergh's first choice of a plane to make the trip, tried to hustle him out of the $15,000 loan that a group of local businessmen had cosigned for at the risk of repaying it themselves if he disappeared over the ocean.

As Guiseppe Bellanca spun off a separate company from Wright Aeronautical, he lured Lindbergh to New York to discuss selling the only existing plane Lindbergh believed capable of the flight. Bellanca then attempted to take Lindbergh's money without giving him the plane, telling him they would send their own crew on the flight as Lindbergh stayed behind. An angry Lindbergh was left to find someone willing to build a plane to his specifications, without any special development work that would drive up the cost. His remaining hope was that Travel Air, the company started by those three general aviation legends Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman, would be willing to put a larger engine into their existing Travel Air 5000. The company refused.

Enter Ryan Airlines. The small San Diego company was building its' own light cargo planes of a style that Lindbergh favored, but they were too small. He would find it refreshing that, for considerably less than anyone would have sold him one of their planes had they been willing to, they were ready to listen to what sort of plane he wanted to fly, he being the customer and pilot. Lindbergh would explain he dismissed the large trimotored aircraft so many claimed were the only safe plane to attempt the flight with as being actually far more dangerous. Three engines meant three times the potential for mechanical failure, ultimately it would be decided that indeed a single engine quitting had caused a good number of crashes of trimotors. The additional fuel created an additional requirement that all three engines be working, as two would be unable to keep the overly heavy plane aloft. In addition, the first deaths and injuries associated with the Orteig Prize had been when the landing gear had collapsed during the takeoff run, causing fuel explosions.

The single engine version of the Ryan M1-M2 that Lindbergh sought would use considerably less fuel. The wingspan would be increased by 10 feet to provide additional takeoff lift for the increased fuel load to keep the plane aloft for over 40 hours, yet it would be considerably lighter than a trimotored plane. At Lindbergh's insistence that he wanted one of the fuel tanks added in front of the pilot they covered the area of the front windscreen. This suited Lindbergh, who said most of his needed visibility was to the side anyway and he could look out sideways to see forward, the better aerodynamics would increase speed and decrease fuel use, greatly improving his survival odds moreso than having the forward view.

So much of this logic went against the thinking of others on building a safe plane. It's doubtful that Lindbergh ever considered how much he would influence future aviation with his decisions for this one flight. He chose to forego the use of a sextant, the device that led to so much calculating and recalculating during Byrd's North Pole flight and caused many to doubt he really knew where he was and if he really made it over the North Pole. Lindbergh reasoned that the speed and instability of the plane in flight would indeed prevent accurate readings. He instead chose to work with great circle navigation, the way ships at sea correct for the curvature of the Earth. Thinking the Navy pilots would know more about this than his fellow Army Air Force, he was surprised in his visit to the San Diego Naval base that naval aviators were not versed in the skill. Yet a navy pilot at the time would only fly short distances.

He was convinced only the Wright J5 Whirlwind engine was capable of surviving the flight, as it was self lubricating beyond other engines of the day. Others had adaptations to allow manual lubrication in flight. It is said that the Wright Aeronautical technician assigned to the engine was openly disappointed at being stuck with the unknown, when people such as Byrd and Clarence Chamberlain were attempting the flight.

There wasn't time for a redesign of the Ryan control surfaces for the new plane. When told it would take 3 months to build the plane he asked if there wasn't some way they could finish it in two, surely his competitors would use the extra month to beat him if they didn't. So the now undersized tail section was unchanged, as was the exits to the Ryan Airline factory - They struggled to bring the larger wing out for assembly. There also wasn't time for much test flying, once it proved he could keep the plane in the air he had to be underway flying cross country, the only proof flight the now christened 'Spirit of St. Louis' would get. With the press claiming he'd nearly had a midair collision with a navy plane he'd flown in formation with, he discovered his entry to the Orteig competition had brought him much unwanted attention, as well as the nickname 'The Flying Fool.'

But after his overnight flight from San Diego to St. Louis, he was reminded there were a good many people who did believe in him. Cheering throngs turned out for his arrival. From the time the community first discovered his effort, those who knew him were offering whatever support they could. It was remarked that through all the dismissal of him by those who didn't know him, those who actually did were expecting that he would be the first to fly the Atlantic.

He would say that the realization that there really was the possibility he might never see these people again made him wish to stay a bit, attend the banquets they wished to throw for him, say goodbye to everyone. But any delay was a risk, he immediately pushed on for New York.

As Lindbergh was finding his way, a landing gear failure injured Byrd and two crewmen as well as damaging his plane. Days later two U.S. naval aviators testing a plane they intended for the flight were killed in another landing gear collapse during takeoff. Two weeks later a French plane was sighted approaching the Newfoundland area, Lindbergh was left to consider his other options with his plane, such as entering the Dole Pineapple sponsored Air Race and being the first to fly from Oakland to Hawaii. The French plane never arrived, creating an aviation mystery almost as big as that of Amelia Earhart.

Dismissed as he was, the other competitors were still friendly with Lindbergh. Byrd's well funded effort had exclusively leased the long runaway of Roosevelt field, allowing extra room for a plane overloaded with fuel to take off. Lindbergh was invited to move his effort there. With the disappearance of the French plane, the backers of the Byrd effort temporarily grounded him while awaiting an explanation for their disappearance. The Bellanca effort suffered yet another landing gear collapse and injuries, followed by such squabbling that the fight wound up in court with an injunction against flying. This brought another advantage of Lindbergh's approach: Working alone, there was no one to dispute his decisions.

At last it had become a day to day decision on when to take off. Lindbergh wanted to use the first day of reasonably clear weather. Climate prediction had a long way to go at the time, one could only guess what the next few days would bring from the time of year. So it was guessed on May 19th that he had reached his first window of opportunity for the next day, the crew went to work readying his plane. Wanting a full nights sleep before leaving, his own involvement in the preparations dragged into the night, until he thought he'd only get three hours sleep. Eventually he unable to sleep at all. This would become his final enemy.

Not wanting to wait and let the others catch up, Lindbergh took the opportunity to set forth. It was his first takeoff with the full 450 gallons of fuel, a 2,700 pound load. He had forgone a parachute, reasoning there was no point in dropping himself into the near freezing Atlantic in the middle of nowhere. While he did carry a raft in case he successfully ditched the plane, he was guessing there was absolutely no chance he'd be found, as he was flying far from the shipping lanes. If he went down, no one would know where in the over 3,000 mile ocean course to look.

And after the first few hours of excitement after the takeoff, Lindbergh had his first confrontation with his lack of sleep. He'd gone several days without sleep while working on several occasions in the past, but suddenly the seated position of the plane allowed him to begin "Resting his eyes." He'd recall such moments as he was caught in a blizzard in Minnesota, when he fell and just wanted to rest a moment. The realization that if he fell asleep he'd never wake up put him on his feet again.

With that Lindbergh realized he would have to remain awake, really awake, for a full day still to go. Flying as low as 100 feet over the ocean, he didn't have much time to react if the plane slipped into a gradual descent. There was the constant need for course correction both because of compass error in the northern latitude and the wind that is always carrying a plane off course. Because his Great Circle Navigation required that he fly at a curve to simulate the straight line on a map, he would have only his sense of the movement of the plane to estimate if he remained at the right latitude, there is no compass to determine east and west. And after many hours of flying with no landmarks over the sea, he would have to judge how close to his course he'd maintained by the sight of the coast of Ireland, if he'd remained near enough on course. What if he saw land and it wasn't Ireland at all?

Back in the U.S., the competition to fly the Atlantic continued. The differences in the Bellanca effort were settled if not resolved. They had tried to get their faster plane in the air to chase Lindbergh, but they hadn't completed the proper paperwork with the airport because they hadn't been in agreement. Byrd's group had a christening of their plane, believed to be literally as Lindbergh was reaching France. It's hard to say just how many assumed he was dead by then, after flying over 3,600 miles across 6 timezones he had flown all day and through the night and then another day. He would have to land in the dark in a time when airfields were not lit. As a barnstorming pilot, the crowds at airshows could be depended on to line up cars to turn on headlights. The unassuming Lindbergh thought he would land as he had flown - alone.

And here is one of the most unique things about Lindbergh. He really didn't expect anyone to care he was becoming a legend. This was a man who had nothing visibly special to offer, he'd done only what a good many pilots of his time had done in a relatively short 5 year flying career. Others expected it would take an already larger than life figure such as Byrd or Fonck to successfully fly across the Atlantic. Lindbergh was just going to have to go to you in person to convince you he was for real.

When you read his writing on the subject, he seems almost surprised he was able to convince anyone to help him. While another of his much restated expressions of 'If a man is not arrogant he can do anything the Gods don't reserve for themselves' defy a direct quote, he plainly didn't see himself as challenging the Welkin in their own home and beating them. When he asked "Do Gods retire?" he wasn't inferring that he, personally, was putting them out to pasture.

So you can imagine the effect that reading the second of his two autobiographies on the flight had on this particular 12 year old. Dad had already started calling me 'Dauntless,' a play on Douglas in his Texas drawl that reflected the way, no matter how scary it seemed, I still went ahead and did it. As Lindbergh said, 'Who wants to live in a place without fear? I'm not one for unnecessary chances, but. . . .' I lacked the wrecklessness of two of my brothers, both of whom have managed quite a number of disasters. Avoiding disaster, I certainly think I've still accomplished more.

Search parties looking for the wreckage of the lost French plane call themselves 'Midnight Ghosts' after Lindbergh referred to the crew of the plane as ". . . .Disappearing as ghosts at midnight." Telltale plane parts and an engine of a metal used not by North American planes but by the French was found in Maine. Even if this is from their plane, there's no explanation for what went wrong. With an engine almost three times as powerful as Lindbergh's Wright Whirlwind J5, it had carried 3 times as much fuel. If it had flown against headwinds the entire journey it would have been using more fuel over a longer period of flight. The tailwinds that Lindbergh flew with caused him to use less fuel and to arrive in a shorter period of time than expected.

The Bellanca effort would quit their squabbling to at last fly across the Atlantic a few weeks later, too late for recognition. Once there, the fighting would resume. They couldn't even bring the plane home. The WB2, redubbed 'Miss Columbia,' would make more disputed flights in a short time before being destroyed. The production model Bellanca had envisioned would follow winning the Orteig prize never came about.

Byrd would still attempt a cross Atlantic flight in June, but flew into fog as he reached France and wound up going down in the ocean. All these efforts had spent considerably more than the $25,000 to be won in a successful effort. It is said that Lindbergh spent less than $10,000 to win.

Shortly after Travel Air declined to build the 5000 to Lindbergh's specifications, National Air Transport placed an order for a number of the planes with the requirements that they use the same Whirlwind J5 engine that he had demanded. One such plane won the Dole Air Derby that Lindbergh had considered as an alternative, but ten people died in the race. By 1929 the company had ceased operations, though some of their designs were bought and produced by Curtis Wright, but the 5000 was not one of them.

The Spirit of St. Louis would return to America by ship, though it would do a small amount of flying around the country before being retired to the Smithsonian Institute. Lindbergh would do much with his fame, including speaking out in opposition to the approaching World War II, as his father had concerning World War I. He would become the victim of a character assassination by none other than President F.D. Roosevelt, accusing him of being a Nazi sympathizer even as Lindbergh was possibly the most important prewar spy America had.

For what German military base could turn their back on Charles Lindbergh? If he wanted to see your most advanced planes, fly them, ask intimate questions about them, who could deny Charles Lindbergh? Even as you KNEW this active reserve military pilot was going to have to go home and report on everything he learned. In spite of the abuse he suffered for his antiwar stance, as a civilian once the war started he still flew combat missions in the Pacific theater.

It's hard to picture Lindbergh even daydreaming of any of this. He claims to have wondered what to do with the plane after the flight. He talked of his expectations of returning to his job as an airmail pilot. This is just not a man who could consider himself becoming the rock star of aviation. Here he was expecting to go unnoticed as he figured out where he might set down in the blind night, possibly in an open field rather than an airdrome.

Suddenly there was a spotlight. Then another. The sky seemed to light up. The ground too, except not the runway. It turned out the French were waiting for him. What was he really thinking was going to happen when he landed? Could he have guessed that there would be a fight to keep the Spirit of St. Louis from being ripped apart by souvenir seekers? To keep HIMSELF from being ripped apart, as well? Charles Lindbergh was arriving. REALLY arriving. . . .

No comments: