Chuck Yeager: Rest in Peace – Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?

Chuck Yeager departed this earth on December 7, 2020, at ninety-seven years of age. His now-permanent and not-unfamiliar domain? The high, wild, blue yonder which he often visited during his storied flying career. Chuck Yeager had “the right stuff,” the guts and courage to attempt and to break the storied “sound barrier” of aviation lore flying the Bell X-1 rocket plane on October 14, 1947. Yeager was also a World War II ace with eleven-plus “victories” to his credit in the skies over Europe flying the P-51 Mustang, Glamorous Glen, named after his first wife.

 My absolute favorite movie of all time, a classic, was released in 1983. It is aptly titled, The Right Stuff, and its story centers on Yeager’s storied flight which took place over the dry California desert at an obscure place called Muroc Army Airfield, later re-named Edwards Flight Test Center. Edwards was unknown to the public, a bare-bones government base where gutsy, pioneering test pilots like Yeager risked their necks flying the latest creations from designers at companies like Douglas, Lockheed, and Bell Aerospace. Edwards was a high-risk venture where many test pilots lost their lives while enduring the worst of living conditions…”and nobody knew their names,” as the film aptly states.

It was clear by the early nineteen-forties that propellers driven by powerful piston engines had aerodynamic limitations which capped achievable flying speeds to well under six-hundred miles per hour. By 1947, our earliest jet planes were already being flight-tested at Edwards. At the same time, Bell Aerospace had designed and built a rocket-powered plane called the Bell X-1. Its mission and purpose: to probe the so-called “sound barrier.” It was said that “the demon” lived out there at Mach 1, the technical term for the speed of sound waves traveling through air – nominally, seven hundred and sixty-seven miles per hour.

Many pilots and aeronautical engineers believed, based on theory and practical experience, that the shock-pressure waves which build up around a craft approaching Mach 1 would render the plane un-controllable and possibly tear it to pieces. Chuck Yeager thought otherwise and seized the opportunity in the X-1 to disprove the notion of an impenetrable barrier.  On October 14, 1947, Yeager, his engineer and close friend, Jack Ridley, and the X-1 cradled in the bomb-bay of a modified B-29 bomber, took flight over the wide desert surrounding Edwards. Yeager rode a tiny elevator-shelf down the belly of the bomber and stepped across the open void below into the cockpit of the X-1.

The B-29 released its bright orange cargo when all was ready, and history was made as Yeager ignited his multiple rocket stages and streaked across the skies over Edwards. Approaching Mach 1, the X-1 began to “get squirrely” and shake violently. A very loud BOOM rolled across the desert startling the crew, friends, and well-wishers gathered on the ground. Contrary to being an indication that Yeager and his craft had disastrously “bought the farm,” that (virtually) first sonic boom inserted Chuck Yeager into aviation’s highest pantheon of achievement.

For me, the four greatest milestones in aviation history are (in order of time):

-The first heavier-than-air flight of the Wright Brothers on December 17, 1903.

-The first solo transatlantic crossing by Charles Lindbergh, May 20/21, 1927.

-Breaking the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager on October 14, 1947.

-Jet engine development in England (Frank Whittle) and Germany (Hans Von Ohaim). Their work was largely done during the nineteen-thirties and early forties.

In a strikingly similar situation to that of Charles Lindbergh, the unknown air mail pilot in early 1927, no one knew the names of those test pilots who risked their necks at Edwards “pushing the envelope” of flight. Suddenly, in 1947, Chuck Yeager and the X-1 changed all that, and the new speed and altitude records that began to cascade from Edwards made their way into the newspapers with great coverage. Other names like Scott Crossfield, Bill Bridges, and Robert White became familiar to the public as did their rides: the Douglas Skyrocket and X-15, rocket successors to the X-1. Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1 opened the door to a new age of flight. Nothing was ever quite the same going forward.

The Right Stuff portrays on film the new invaders of flight test centers like Edwards and Langley in Virginia. Among the many “rocket aces” headed for the the desert setting of Edwards (in the film) were a new breed of pilots, would-be astronauts for the new Mercury program to man the space rockets being designed in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Now, everybody knew their names, given the immense publicity program for the Mercury program launched by NASA.

As shocking as the technology of the Russian Sputnik satellite which was put into orbit in 1957, even more shocking to the Pentagon was the demonstrated rocket power and technology required to orbit such a payload (think national defense and inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads).

The Right Stuff  colorfully delivers the sweeping panorama encompassing the Edwards Flight Test Center, Chuck Yeager, and the early Mercury astronauts. While the film is superbly entertaining, it remains accurate (at its core), but only after taking considerable liberties for the sake of story-telling. The cast portraying Yeager, John Glenn, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper, etc. is fabulous and memorable. Few films in history have been both so entertaining and so full of historical fact. Despite the movie’s numerous liberties for entertainment’s sake, the thread of truthful story-telling remains. Chuck Yeager, himself, appears in the film playing a bit-part, and it is apparent that his presence on the set contributed many anecdotes and helped keep the film aligned with fact. It should be mentioned that the movie script’s treatment of astronaut Gus Grissom took excessive liberties in the eyes of many critics. And who could make up such a sweeping story? Author Tom Wolfe first introduced the drama in his book, The Right Stuff.

   “Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?”

In the film version, would-be Mercury astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, one of the new breed of pilots at Edwards and elsewhere who clamor for a reputation like Yeager’s, is fond of asking anyone who will pay heed, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” Recall that all the astronaut candidates were trained fighter/test pilots in their respective services before being chosen for the space program. The answer in Gordo’s mind is obvious to anyone within earshot who can also see his broad grin. In case the listener doesn’t get it, Gordo cheerfully informs, “You’re looking at him!”

In one of my favorite scenes, well into the movie, Gordo, by now well-aware of Chuck Yeager’s skills as the test pilot at Edwards, is asked by a circle of un-initiated news reporters, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw, Gordo?” That ever-present broad grin spreads across his face as he prepares to launch into his trademark response. But he hesitates, and surprisingly melts into serious contemplation while proceeding to relate in a slow, subdued voice, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Well….there is this pilot …” at which point someone interrupts the quiet air of expectation enveloping Cooper and the circle of reporters, prompting the sudden return of Gordo’s smug smile and the blurted-out rejoinder, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Why, you’re looking at him!”

Actor Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of Gordo Cooper throughout the film is first-rate. It is difficult to recall a film character so memorable, even years later.

If you have not seen The Right Stuff, I heartily recommend it for its overall entertainment value and its historical significance – a great real-life adventure, perhaps the greatest ever. Chuck Yeager never had the chance to be one of the original seven Mercury astronauts because a college degree was a pre-requisite for the embryonic space program. Yeager was a farm boy from West Virginia. Like so many early aviation greats, his ultimate accomplishments reflected an innate and insatiable curiosity, intelligence, practicality, and a persistence drive to learn and excel. His opportunities in aviation came thanks to the United States military, a fact which he gratefully acknowledged.

In 2002, on a weekend idyll with my wife in Carmel, California, we came across a downtown shop, no longer there, called “Wings” which catered to all-things aviation, from apparel, to posters, to coffee mugs, even to model airplanes. Like a kid in a candy store, I made my way through the merchandise finally checking out the beautifully sculptured wood models of famous aircraft on display. The one that caught my eye was a model of the Bell X-1, personally signed on the right wing in black sharpie by Chuck Yeager, himself. The $250 price tag was pretty steep for us at that time, but Linda gave me the go-ahead to purchase it.

In recent months, I have added a few more wood-modeled planes of fame to my collection, including my favorite, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

The list is long and their exploits legendary: Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager, Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker, Manfred von Richthofen, R,A, “Bob” Hoover, Clarence “Bud” Anderson and so many men like Lindbergh who flew the treacherous U.S. air mail routes beginning in 1918.

“Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?”

You’re probably looking at him.

The 1918 “Inverted Jenny,” THE Airmail Postage Stamp

The very first United States Airmail postage stamp was issued in 1918. It came in three versions utilizing a common design featuring a Curtiss Jenny bi-plane, the workhorse of early U.S. airmail efforts. The six-cent was printed in orange, the sixteen-cent in green, and the twenty-four cent in a dual color combination of carmine-red and deep blue; that latter issue is where this story begins.

A single “inverted Jenny” stamp sold at auction for $1,593,000 on November 14, 2018. An entire sheet of 100 stamps was erroneously printed in Washington D.C. at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in May of 1918. Printing these stamps was a two-strike process because of the dual coloration. The “mistake” resulted from an inversion between the two engraved and inked plates. In the world of philately, or stamp-collecting, the inverted Jenny occupies the top rung of desirable/valuable stamps. Top valuations in any collecting endeavor result from a high overall ranking in three major categories, namely: desirability, rarity, and condition.

Desirability: The 1918 twenty-four cent airmail Jenny is inherently colorful and attractive. Importantly, the stamp symbolizes the advent of U.S. air mail service. This Post Office driven effort, in turn, led directly to the organization of fledgling “airline” mail carriers and the creation of defined air routes and points of service. These shoestring-operation contract airmail carriers transported small mailbags in the cramped compartments of open-cockpit bi-planes like the Jenny.The formal establishment and operation of those fledgling airmail routes were long “a-work-in-progress” for the Post Office Department (aka the POD). Soon, the struggling contract mail carriers allowed paying passengers to hitch-a-ride among the mailbags, under cramped, uncomfortable conditions. From such inauspicious beginnings, was born today’s vast commercial airline industry. All this future promise was originally and heavily subsidized by the then barely-older air mail enterprise. The air mail service, literally and figuratively, got commercial aviation off the ground in 1918. The history of the United States airmail is both a colorful and important story. The original open-cockpit airmail pilots rightly proclaimed their profession a “suicide club.” There was no more demanding and dangerous occupation than flying the mail at night and in all manner of weather. Beginning in 1925/26, Charles Lindbergh became one of those who earned their flying spurs by carrying the mail – perfect training for his memorable solo trans-Atlantic flight on May 20, 1927. The 1918 Jenny stamp issue symbolizes a monumental event in the progress in this nation, and that only adds to its desirability among collectors.

Rarity: History records that only one sheet of 100 inverted Jenny stamps “escaped” from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and made its way into the public domain. That sheet was purchased on May 14, 1918 at a Post Office just down the street from his New York brokerage office by William T. Robey, a stamp collector/enthusiast. Robey had been informed by a friend of the new stamp issue to be released for sale that day, and when he asked to purchase a sheet of the stamps later that day, the postal clerk at the window reached under the counter and, presumably without noticing its “discrepancy,” produced the famous sheet of Jenny-inverts. One glance, and Robey immediately realized the potential rarity of that sheet and his possible great, good fortune. Without a word to the clerk, he promptly laid down $24 for the sheet and headed out the door. It very quickly became evident that Robey’s sheet of 100 inverts was unique, probably the only one accidentally produced, and, certainly, the only one that managed to escape the scrutiny of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Robey’s potential great good fortune was now fact, given that no other inverted sheets were extant. Word had quickly gotten out about the printing error and the sheet of inverted Jennys. That disclosure undoubtedly had a profound after-effect on the Bureau’s quality control process. Anyone who collects stamps or coins is well-aware of the long-standing efforts taken by the Bureau and the United States Mint to prevent such production errors from getting into circulation. Imagine the temptation of someone on the inside to “accidentally” produce a single sheet of stamps with a similar discrepancy – one with considerable value to collectors!

Condition: Valuations on any rare collectible are much higher for prime specimens. That holds true, in general, for the standard issue, twenty-four cent Jenny stamp today. There is, or course, a premium for unused/uncancelled examples, as well as for more-picky characteristics such as the centering of the printed image on the perforated paper base.

Collectors are averse to images which touch the perforations on the stamp. Even faint traces on the gum side of the stamp indicating it was carefully hinged (archivally mounted) in a collector’s album has a negative effect on value in comparison to mint condition, never-hinged, examples. Experienced collectors in any venue fully realize it is always wise to “buy the best condition” you can possibly afford. The added premium at the time of purchase will invariably appreciate tremendously as time passes and the time comes to sell. Today, the twenty-four cent Jenny stamp in very fine or mint condition will sell for between twenty-five dollars and sixty dollars for the better specimens – not bad for an original investment of twenty-four cents in 1918.

A Fascinating “Centering” Corollary re: the Twenty-four Cent Jenny

We have just discussed the importance to valuation of good image centering relative to a stamp’s perforations. Here is a weird corollary to that concept which pertains only to the twenty-four cent duo-color stamp. When the blue Jenny image is struck on the sheet slightly offset from the carmine-red frame produced by the initial plate-strike, this results in a “fast” Jenny, a “slow” Jenny, a “low” Jenny, or a “high” Jenny stamp. Somewhat surprising is the fact that these stamps, which result from poorly aligned engraved plate strikes, are much preferred by collectors over perfect examples. I suppose this counter-intuitive situation is best explained by the argument that the famous inverted Jenny is but an extreme example of engraving plate misalignment. Welcome to the wacky world of collecting…anything. I prefer the Jenny image well centered and flying “nominally,” although I would love to have an inverted example!

The following two pictures illustrate how a slight plate misalignment (the second example) can produce a sightly “fast” and noticeably “high” flying Jenny image. The image offset corresponds exactly to the misalignment of the red/blue alignment markers at the top. The greater the misalignment, the greater the price premium the stamps will fetch from collectors!

A few final comments and observations:

-William Robey was aware that the Post Office was planning to issue this new air mail stamp within a few days. He wrote to a fellow stamp collector: “It might interest you to know that there are two parts to the design [of the twenty-four cent stamp], one an insert into the other, like the Pan American issues. I think it would pay to be on the lookout for inverts on account of this.” How prescient can one be? Four days later, Robey had his superb rarity – a lone sheet of 100 inverts.

-After purchasing the invert sheet at the postal window, Robey asked to see several more sheets. Those that the clerk produced were all normally printed, and at this point, Robey disclosed to the clerk the error on his purchased sheet. The clerk hastily excused himself to make a telephone call – undoubtedly to report the error sheet to authorities. Later that day, Robey was visited by two postal inspectors who attempted to confiscate the invert sheet. Robey refused their demands, arguing that he purchased the sheet fair-and-square. If there were any more inverts printed, they never made it beyond the Post Office. Extreme rarity of this variation was thus virtually insured, a very fortunate fact, indeed, for Mr. Robey – and for stamp collecting.

-William Robey quickly sold his sheet of one hundred inverts on May 20 for $15,000, a lot of money back in 1918. By the end of that same day, the sheet had already changed hands, yet again, for the price of $20,000 to a Colonel Edward Green. For the early holders of these 100 inverted Jennys, there was a tricky gambit to negotiate. On one hand, it would be prudent to take the time necessary to shop for a buyer willing to pay top dollar (remember: no rapid internet listings, back then). On the other hand, if one waited too long to sell, additional inverted sheets might be discovered, greatly blunting the rarity and value of the 100 stamps! The third owner (in a single day) of the precious sheet of stamps, Colonel Green, felt little such angst to quickly make a decision, given that he had inherited fabulous stock market wealth from his mother. Green proceeded to “subdivide” the sheet of 100 inverts into blocks of various sizes leaving many individual stamps for the remainder of sales. This was done to optimize the overall value of the sheet of 100. Green was not a careful custodian of his treasure-trove: some of the inverted Jennys were badly compromised through poor handling and storage over the years prior to the later disbursal of his collection in the early nineteen-forties.

I hope this post has provided an informative peek for you, my readers, into one of the most interesting and colorful episodes in the entire universe of collecting!

Dad’s Toolbox: Long-Silent Reminder of a Master Craftsman

My wife and I recently tackled the imposing and long-overdue task of a major garage clean-up and re-organization (see my recent post). Every trip out to the garage had become, over many years, an exercise of frustration and/or a danger to our health. If we could find what we were looking for, we usually could not get to it. “Getting to it” meant endangering our health vis-à-vis tripping over things, falling off ladders, etc. After weeks of dedicated hard work, I am pleased to inform that we have met our most ambitious goals for the garage!

I have a lot of tools – pretty much everything I have ever needed over the years, or ever will need. I also have my father’s personal Kennedy tool chest which dates way back to the nineteen forties and his early years at United Airlines. Our garage efforts forced me to decide what to do with the chest and the tools it contained. The classic, heavy-gauge steel Kennedy toolbox and its contents are formidably heavy. The Kennedy chest contains tools that were personal to Dad, going way back. Since his passing in 1992, other, more “recent” tools from his garage had long since been merged over the years with my own acquisitions. Dad’s personal toolbox remained on our garage floor, out of the way and mostly undisturbed these past twenty-eight years. The big question: what to do with it and its contents. Why would I keep it after all these years? I already have most of these tools.

I decided to empty the chest, drawer-by-drawer and see what was worth keeping. I also decided to do a photo survey of the contents, drawer-by-drawer to document it all before proceeding. The box and its contents refreshed many boyhood memories. It took little time for me to conclude that I could not bear to dispose of any of this: I have too many memories of my father, his Kennedy toolbox, and his prized tools. As I was entering my teen years, Dad gave me permission to use his tools for building model airplanes and numerous other “projects” of mine. I felt proud that I had earned his trust…and that was not necessarily automatic with age!

I still vividly recall the reverence in Dad’s demeanor that day in my boyhood when he first told me about his two precision Brown and Sharpe micrometers, capable of precision measurements down to a thousandth of an inch! As I went through the drawers of the toolbox, I found little to discard, deciding to keep most everything after vacuuming the drawers of loose dirt and debris. And, so it is.

Today, the toolbox rests, close by my workbench, on a pair of two-by-four “risers” to keep it off the concrete garage floor, and there it will remain until I am gone – a reminder of my father, Alfred C. Kubitz – the finest craftsman I ever saw. Dad had a love of tools and a deep respect for them. He was guided by his personal instinct that it was important to have the right tool for the right job; it was equally desirable to have that tool readily available in the toolbox when it was needed!

Indeed, Dad’s influence took root and shaped my own attitude toward tools and their care. I have much the same philosophy when it comes to books in my library which, today, is comprised of numerous volumes spanning many categories: aviation, science, science history, general history, music/jazz, technology, silicon valley history, and many of the professional texts I used during my electrical engineering career. It would be impossible to read them all, and equally impossible to dispose of any of these books. One never knows when the need will arise for the specific knowledge contained between its covers! A full set of tools enables its owner to build and repair “things.” A fine library of books enables its owner to acquire knowledge which, in turn, becomes the foundation of a healthy perspective – and wisdom. Is it not wonderful to know that answers to your questions reside on the shelves of one’s own library – silently waiting to be summoned?

The Leather-Punch: A Bittersweet Vindication of Dad’s “Tool Philosophy”

I will relate to you a bittersweet incident relating to my father’s personal “tool philosophy,” namely, the importance of being prepared with the right tool for the job at hand. Sometime in the early nineteen-eighties, I believe it was, my parents and our family of four were downtown in nearby Los Altos, California. We were strolling past various shops when we came upon the “riding and saddlery” store which back then had long catered to local equestrians (shop long-gone). For some inexplicable reason at the time, Dad ducked in there while the rest of us moved on down the street; he purchased a heavy-duty leather punch, similar to a paper hole-punch only suitable for leather bridles and harnesses. When he soon rejoined us down the street, we asked him why he went in there and why, in the world, would he need a heavy-duty leather punch. His reply: he did not have a tool like that and, some day it might come in handy! Years, later, in 1989, my mother passed-away, leaving my father very lonely after a happy marriage of one week short of fifty years. Months later, he met a lady whose company he enjoyed. After a scheduled surgery for him to have a heart-valve replacement, they planned a wedding.

The surgery did not go well, and my father found himself with a compromised heart which could not allow a full recovery, given his shortness of breath. He lost considerable weight over the weeks that followed, but the wedding was still on. I was his best man that day, and as I helped him get ready that morning, we discovered that his dress trousers were now too loose for his belt to accommodate.

Dad had just the right tool for the occasion – his leather punch purchased years earlier which I used to put an extra hole in his belt, and that saved the day! It was shortly after the wedding that we lost him. My father’s various intuitions proved quite amazing in so many similarly unexpected ways! His secret: always cultivate knowledge and wisdom from each-and-every hard-earned, real-life experience, and do not make the same mistake twice.

My Father’s “Engineering Mentality”

Dad had what I have long referred-to as a true “engineering mentality.” What, pray-tell, is that you might ask! An engineering mentality encompasses two qualities: first, a firm belief in the scientific nature of cause-and-effect. The invariable laws of nature, of physics, and even, to a certain degree, of human endeavor, dictate that, for every “action” (cause), there is a “reaction” (effect). Engineers and scientists acknowledge that fact, respect that fact, and learn from it. In a related sense, the second quality at play renders good engineers to be notoriously aware of what can possibly go wrong in any given engineering design – or life-situation. Dad’s reaction? In keeping with his innate spirit of engineering anticipation, Dad believed in a well-stocked toolbox and a bevy of good books to meet any challenge. As my father’s son, I get that.

This was Dad’s original collection of miscellaneous nuts, bolts, and screws – along with the same antique Hills Bros. coffee can that housed them over many decades. As a boy, I learned from him how to spill the contents onto folded sheets of newspaper in order to sort through the pile to find what I needed. It was then easy to dump the remainder back in the can using the fold. I did that countless times over the decades as I am sure he did, as well. Great and wonderful memories, all!

Toolbox Pictures and Other Special Tools

Dad’s Venerable Two-Speed, North Bros. “Yankee” Hand Drill

“Yankee” Spiral-Ratchet Screw Driver – “Like New” in the Box

“Old Friends”

Charles Lindbergh: New York to Paris, 1927 – and the World Was Never the Same

On May 20, 1927, in the early morning dawn, a young air mail pilot, heretofore unknown, departed a damp, drizzly, and muddy Roosevelt Field in Long Island flying a tiny, single-engine plane. He was headed across the vast Atlantic Ocean for Paris, France. His name was Charles Augustus Lindbergh, but, given his audacity, he was just now being called “The Flying Fool,” embarked on a suicide mission most people thought. Crossing the Atlantic in a giant leap from North America to the European Continent had never been done before. The public was closely following the intense competition underway at the time to be first to do it.

The next day, some thirty-six hours later, a small silver airplane was spotted flying low over Dingle Bay, Ireland. The N-X -211 markings on its wings were unmistakably the registration assigned to Lindbergh’s small plane, The Spirit of St. Louis. Radios across the ocean, from America to Europe were tuning-in to catch any news of young Lindbergh’s audacious attempt. Word that his plane had been sighted over Ireland spread like wildfire throughout Western Europe by radio.

A final picture over North America: from a chase plane after take-off

Caution reigned, however, since France had lost two aviators just two weeks earlier in their attempt to fly the reverse route, non-stop from Paris to New York. There were late sightings of their white, single-engine bi-plane over the coast of Maine. Indeed, in the face of these reassuring reports, all of France had begun to celebrate their countrymen’s stunning achievement. But Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli never made an appearance in North America. Once their fuel supply was surely exhausted, it was apparent that the North American sightings were merely wishful thinking – literally mental mirages. The two flyers had likely met their end somewhere in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Now, there was a second Lindbergh sighting off the coast of Cornwall, England, and the citizens of Paris, France began to stir. An important tennis match was underway on the afternoon of May 21, at the Roland Garros tennis stadium in Paris. Reports of the Lindbergh sightings began to filter into the stadium and raised a palpable stir among the spectators in the stands. Before long, stadium seats began to empty in the middle of the exciting match as people headed for the exits, bent on either getting home to be by their radios or heading for Le Bourget Airport on the outskirts of the city. By dusk, half of Paris seemed mobilized in one direction or the other by the news reports. Now, cars filled with Parisians jammed the roads leading to the airport. Airport police were busy erecting makeshift fences along the field to contain the anticipated multitudes, many of whom were arriving early for a prime view of the field.

Charles Lindbergh had no idea of what awaited him that evening at Le Bourget. In naïve, but typically thorough Lindbergh fashion, he had made a list for himself of things he would need if-and-when he safely arrived in Paris. Among his top priorities were to get some (local) cash and to purchase some street clothing for the trip back home. Charles scrupulously avoided carrying any unnecessary weight on the trip – and that included a change of clothes from his flight suit. Less weight meant more fuel – his virtual lifeline.

By dusk that evening, immense throngs of people had packed Le Bourget, waiting restlessly in the deepening darkness, anxious for any development, Searchlights scanned the dark skies above the airport for any visible sign. Meanwhile, Lindbergh was busy in the cockpit, on visual approach to the airport after sighting several Parisian landmarks along the way – including the Eiffel tower, its lights plainly visible from the air, twinkling in the night sky – just as if this were any other evening.

Then, the crowd heard faint sounds of an airplane engine, slowly growing louder and louder. Out of the night sky swooped the lone eagle in his Spirit of St. Louis. As he touched down on the runway, with a rush and a roar the now delirious crowd broke through the makeshift fencing intended to restrain them and stormed the field heading for the taxiing plane. Lindbergh quickly cut the engine to avoid any possible carnage at the spinning propeller. Now, The Spirit of St. Louis was surrounded by a sea of people on all sides, and Lindbergh was literally dragged from the cockpit and hoisted overhead by the crowd of wild Parisians.

In the confusion and chaos, someone, reportedly an official or policeman, grabbed Lindbergh’s leather flying helmet, quickly transferring it to someone else’s head. The helmeted figure was carried overhead by the surging sea of people toward the airport administration building. When the Lindbergh substitute finally showed officials a press pass which proved to everyone that he was not Lindbergh, he was set free. In the meantime, the real Lindbergh had been hustled away to safety and a police cordon was established around The Spirit of St. Louis to protect it. Already an engine fitting had been taken and several swatches of silver-coated fabric had been ripped from the fuselage before the crowd around the airplane was controlled. Sadly, Lindbergh’s precious log-book of the flight was taken from the cockpit and never recovered.

The scene that occurred at Le Bourget that night could not possibly have had historical precedent. Within moments after touching down and seeing the sea of humanity rushing across the field toward him through an eerie darkness punctuated by piercing searchlight beams, Charles Lindbergh must have instantly realized that his life would never be the same. And that premonition proved to be so true over the years. He suddenly had become the most famous person in the world. For better and for worse, many aspects of life on this planet would also never be the same, thanks to Lindbergh. Anyone who thought that the dawn of tomorrow’s morning light would mean celebratory hangovers would soon subside, and it would be back to business, as usual, just did not comprehend the reality.

The 1927 transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh was THE watershed event that veered aviation from the heretofore entertaining realm of adventurers, barnstormers, daredevils, and wing-walkers in the early/mid-twenties to the age we have lived in ever since. Soon, after Lindbergh, came the advent of great technological innovations in airframes, engines, and navigation, all of which led to the birth of U.S. commercial aviation. Within months of Lindbergh’s flight, a young entrepreneur named Juan Trippe began to visualize and dream about the prospects of trans-oceanic passenger flights. In 1929, he became founder and president of Pan American Airways, and within seven years, his airline was flying paying passengers across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Honolulu, Hawaii, and, from there, to points further east all the way to the Philippines and the Orient. Pan American World Airways quickly came to represent Lindbergh’s legacy – in spades. Pan American soon spanned the globe, becoming the greatest airline in history, a position held over several decades.

One of Trippe’s prescient, initial moves as he laid the plans for his airline in 1929 was to partner with Charles Lindbergh as aviation consultant to the new airline. Lindberg had married the former Anne Morrow on May 27, 1929, and shortly thereafter, the couple laid plans for yet another grand flying adventure – this time to map possible northern air routes around the globe for Trippe and Pan American. Lindbergh had purchased a specially designed, pontoon-equipped, single-engine, dual cockpit, Lockheed Sirius airplane for the trip. Anne quickly learned to fly while tackling the intricacies of radio navigation, and she occupied the rear cockpit of the Sirius as they traveled the globe.

They departed in late July, 1931 from the harbor near her parents’ summer home at North Haven Island, Maine. They set compass for Ottawa and from there, north to the orient. North to the Orient became the title of Anne’s book account of their long odyssey which was published in 1935. The book was the first of many best-sellers Anne would publish throughout her life. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a very gifted writer, thankfully, for her marriage to Charles Lindbergh was one momentous adventure after another, and she left behind a fine record of it all.

My previous blog post in this space focused on Pan American’s storied China Clipper and the advent of transpacific passenger service in the mid-nineteen-thirties. The year 1927 seemed marked by destiny as the right time for the right man, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, possessing the “right stuff,” to open the gate to our aviation future. And that is precisely what happened. Tackling the complete story of the China Clipper recently opened my eyes still wider.

Those of you who read my blog have likely concluded, from the breadth of my post topics, that there is little in this world of ours that does not interest me to some significant degree. You would also realize that aviation is one of my great loves – a legacy from my father’s example. In a cascading chain-reaction of mental connections, too numerous to recount, I was recently led to the story of Pan Am’s China Clipper. From there, I felt powerfully drawn to add to my knowledge base on Charles Lindbergh, and for that I am thankful: there is so much there, there.

I have approached writing this post on Lindbergh with conflicted feelings. There is too little space, here, and attention spans do have their limits. Lindbergh was many things besides an aviation legend. Few individuals have left as many footprints upon this earth, both literally and figuratively, as Lindbergh. Few were as heroic and, ultimately, as controversial as he later became because of his political and social views. Certainly, no one accomplished the seemingly impossible and left such a lasting an impression on the world as he did in 1927.

The more I learn, in depth – the details of his transatlantic flight – the more heroic and praiseworthy that accomplishment becomes in my mind. Buried in the Lindbergh legend are countless, increasingly divergent paths which emerge at every turn, all begging further study. Lindbergh is akin to intellectual flypaper, once touched. I began to write this Lindbergh post a while back and found myself starting not a blog post, but a book on the subject. Accordingly, I will end my post here, leaving you, the reader, with merely a preface to the story. I have barely touched upon Lindbergh’s personal life and marriage to the gifted writer, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Perhaps a book will emerge somewhere along the line: I do have much more to say, but not here. Perhaps a series of follow-up posts.

I leave you with this:

Recently, I turned eighty years of age. That is plenty of lifetime to have witnessed significant history, first-hand, and plenty of time to indulge my passion for the study of history – the great events of times past. I often ask myself, “What historic event would I most like to have witnessed, in-person?”

The trans-Atlantic flight of Charles A. Lindbergh in 1927 is the singular event that lights my fire more than all the rest. For sheer wonder and excitement and impact on our world, that flight seems to me the greatest adventure of them all. I wish I could have been among the sparse crowd of a few hundred people who turned out at New York’s Roosevelt Field in the drizzle-laden early morning hours of May 20, 1927. Those who were there witnessed something special as Charles Lindbergh (AKA “The Flying Fool”) and his fuel-laden, single-engine airplane barely made it off the ground en-route to a rendezvous with history.

Roosevelt Field, May 20, 1927 – taxi to the runway for takeoff!