“If I take the wings of the morning, and
dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…”
-Psalms 139:9; used in Lindbergh’s epitaph
In 1927 an unknown young pilot with skimpy financial backing and only five years’ worth of flight experience won the Orteig Prize, offered by a wealthy French-born hotelier to the person or people who would first travel across the Atlantic non-stop. Although another crew had flown across the Atlantic, the flight length was much shorter than the route that Lindbergh picked. The son of immigrants received his life’s dream from another immigrant.
Remember that it has been almost a hundred years. Engine technology was nowhere close to what we have. In the five years of experience that Lindbergh acquired before his fateful flight he crashed numerous times. Twice he had to bail out of his plane. Consistently he repaired his plane on his own. He barnstormed through the country sky diving, and walking on wingtips, and performing daring stunts, all of this done so that he could make money to support himself and save some for investing on his own plane.
He was a man of unusual intelligence and creativity. Very focused. He saw the potential for airplanes long before most people, and he worked literally nonstop in order to get his point across.
During the Spirit of St. Louis voyage he had to go over clouds 10,000 feet high; he also had to fly barely ten feet above the waves. For hours he could not see where he was headed due to fog. His crew had to filter all of his fuel, then refilter it in order to eliminate sediment that may have clogged his fuel lines. Because he had to carry so much weight in gas he barely cleared (OK; a few feet) some telephone lines across from the airfield that he used in order to take off. When he got to Paris he almost mistook the airport for a large industrial site. This is because tens of thousands of cars with their headlights on were waiting for him to land. Once he hit the ground he was lucky to survive the onslaught of thousands of Parisians who mobbed him and carried him on their shoulders for a half hour. His plane was looted by people who were looking for souvenirs. French police and military were finally able to usher him and his plane to safety in an unused hangar.
As crazy as this scene was, it did not compare to what happened afterwards. A commentator, moved by the extraordinary reception that this 25-year old man was getting, said that Lindbergh was being treated as if he had walked on water, not flown over it. An accurate reflection. The adulation gave him the notoriety that he needed in order to promote aviation. It also led to many unfortunate consequences that he was not prepared for.
One of his sons was kidnapped and murdered. He self-exiled himself and his family to Europe for three years until some of the commotion died down. He espoused a firm stance against the US getting involved in WWII. He made many statements which in today’s light ring as clearly Anti-Semitic. Years after his death it came to light that he had three families in Europe; three women who bore him children (two of them were sisters).
A brilliant, courageous, determined man. Deeply flawed like all of us. We cannot, should not try to diminish the importance of what he did because of the mistakes that he made later on. We should, however, take his life as a lesson. Our heroes are people. Whatever it is that they do to achieve their fame, whether it’s running for a winning touchdown with five seconds left in the game, or discovering a cure for a rare disease, doesn’t make these people authorities on life. Success on one sphere makes no guarantee of infallibility on another.
We should expect our public figures to fail. At least be open to that possibility. We should not hand unlimited power to anyone, no matter the credentials they have or the promises they make; no matter how sublime the outcome they promise. A flawed democracy is always the preferred alternative to a benign autocracy. We should never forget.