by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When the 25-year old aviator Charles A. Lindbergh completed his epoch-making solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1927, he obviously had no clue what was in store for him in terms of the staggering celebrity status to which he ascended. His rapid rise to worldwide fame may well have been unprecedented and it is hard to imagine anyone being anywhere near adequately prepared for the phenomenon which surrounded the “Long Eagle” in succeeding days, weeks and months.
In September, “Lucky Lindy,” as part of a whirlwind tour of the nation to celebrate his achievement, came to Los Angeles and was accorded the ultimate welcome including a parade through downtown. Naturally, the constant acclaim and attention wore the young hero down and he increasingly sought privacy and respite from the celebrity which grew increasingly burdensome to the shy and retiring figure thrust, generally unwillingly, into the spotlight.
Yet, he, of course, wanted to continue his avocation and his return to greater Los Angeles came in April 1928, during a trip which combined business with rest and relaxation. The rumor mill was turning out its product at full speed, however, including guesses that Lindbergh was on the west coast to plan a solo flight across the Pacific.
The Los Angeles Express of the 2nd addressed this, opining that “if aviation ever is to take the place in the economic sphere that its devotees prophesy, there must be flying from all parts to all parts of the earth, across oceans and across continents, and who so well as Lindbergh is qualified to pioneer?” The paper assumed the aviator would carefully consider the risks and odds appropriately and ended its editorial by observing, “So, let’s leave it to the young colonel—and if he decides to make the try, wish him luck and God’s blessing.”
Other accounts put it out that Lindbergh was heading west for business reasons, with the Los Angeles Times of the same day reporting “the secret of the colonel’s mystery flight is out” because “the cardinal objective of his trip is a conference with persons who want him to head a new manufacturing concern.” Both claims were wrong.
Instead, Lindbergh flew, with as much secrecy as was possible under the cirumstances, to San Diego so he could see and test out a plane custom made for him by Ryan Airline Company, the San Diego firm that built the Spirit of St. Louis which Lindbergh flew to Paris in his famed flight.
The aviator then headed north to Santa Barbara, where he sought seclusion and privacy among friends in tony Montecito, including the stepmother of one his mechanics and with Harry F. Guggenheim, scion of the wealthy mining magnates and who was an aviation enthusiast, becoming president of a foundation for aviation promotion established in 1926 by his father, Daniel. As a local Chamber of Commerce official put it, “the poor boy has been haunted and harassed during the last ten months, he didn’t even feel comfortable in Santa Barbara.”
On landing in that city, an armed guard was immediately deployed around the aviator’s craft, which prompted well-known Times columnist Harry Carr to wonder “why all the melodrama of guards with sawed-off shotguns?” While Carr agreed that the aggrieved aviator deserved and needed a respite, he seemed to be joking when he wrote that “no doubt we shall wake up some morning and find this Santa Barbara estate cluttered with the corpses of kissing young ladies baffled by bullets from their pursuit of Lindy.”
On Saturday, 7 April, Lindbergh tried stealth in venturing north from San Diego in his new Ryan aircraft, stopping in Santa Ana and then driving to Midway City “to inspect the giant Albatross being kept there” by the Zenith Aircraft Corporation, formed by a pair of farm implement manufacturers after Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic jaunt. He spent a half-hour checking out the behemoth, officially the Schofield Albatross, which had had a 90-foot wing span and seated fourteen people and it had the distinction of being the largest airplane in the world.
Though Lindbergh was said to have been quite interested in the craft, there was no market for it and the plane was sold to be used as a crashed German Fokker in a 1928 film. Zenith made a smaller Albatross before the Depression dropped an “albatross” on the company, which ended its aircraft production efforts.
Lindbergh drove back to Santa Ana (rumors that he would return for the dedication of the new airport operated by renowned aviation figure Eddie Martin on the Irvine Ranch between Santa Ana and Newport were unfounded) and continued his trip to Los Angeles, landing at Vail Field, home of Western Air Express at today’s border of Montebello and City of Commerce, in the early afternoon. Despite the precautions and the timing of the weekend for his visit, “to his dismay he found himself confronted with a battery of photographers and supporting corps of reporters” when he landed.
Disembarking from his Ryan plane, “the Lone Eagle showed annoyance and the famous Lindbergh smile did not make its appearance during the twenty minutes he spent on the field,” as the aviator offered a sullen and morose “no comment” to the assemblage, which included some twenty boys eager to see their vaunted hero. When an over-eager photographer ventured too close to the propeller of the Ryan plane, he was given a lecture by the aviator, who muttered, “you fellows make it awfully hard for me.”
The Long Eagle retreated to the haven of the hangar and spoke to Western Air Express officials and tried to venture out to speak to some of his passengers when the press descended on him again, leading Lindbergh to seek the shelter of his craft with his fellow travelers and off they went.
After a few more days of R&R in Santa Barbara and Montecito, Lindbergh returned to Los Angeles on the 11th, but with a decidedly improved temperament and/or tolerance for the crowds, including the doggedly determined press. Tangentially, the Ryan firm, which had a branch plant at Slauson Avenue and Main Street in south Los Angeles, built a plane named Lone Eagle, with the famed flyer’s blessing, but it was subject to a writ of attachment for an outstanding debt. When deputy sheriffs arrived on the 9th to serve the writ, they were told the craft was seriously damaged in an accident and another craft in construction was attached in its stead.
On his second visit, Lindbergh was accompanied by Harry Hall Knight of St. Louis and who was instrumental in getting the flyer financial backing for his trip across the Atlantic and Fred Harvey, whose restaurants on the Santa Fe rail system made him famous.
Lindbergh returned to Vail Field to try out Western Air Express’ new Lockheed plane, made at the company’s Burbank plant, for speedier air mail delivery. While he gave the craft a spin twice, he permitted Western’s pilot, Jimmie James, to pilot his own Ryan plane, with the Express commenting “it is quite unusual for the colonel to permit anyone else to fly his personal plane,” as James took his family and others for rides.
The Lockheed was considered experimental, but its Pratt & Whitney Wasp reciprocating engine, the first built by that firm (founded in 1925) soon became standard for aircraft. Its speed of about 165 miles per hour meant that the flight time from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City would be trimmed from six hours in the current Douglas craft to about four-and-a-half in the four-passenger Lockheed.
When Western’s publicist asked if he would pose for photos and say a few words to the reporters, “the ace eyed the cameramen and news writers for a moment, grinned and nodded.” He shook hands with the assemblage, thanked them for their kindness and gently requested they refrain from touching his Ryan plane.
He insisted that “I’m just here on a pleasure tour. I’m not talking business,” but was asked for his opinion on a proposed $6 million bond issue to allow Los Angeles to purchase three “landing fields.” He demurred, saying he’d already offered his views on that issue on a previous visit. Asked for more photos, Lindbergh grinned again and stated, “Well, if I must, come over by this new plane,” meaning the Lockheed.
The aviator started the engine and Harvey and Knight climbed aboard, prompting Western’s vice-president to suggest they all put on parachutes because the craft was so new that it was still being tested. Lindbergh at first chose not to, but was persuaded to don the chute.
When he took off, “he pointed its nose in the air and sent it on a steady climb upward for several thousand feet” and, after landing, immediately took off again. After completing the test, he remained in the pilot’s seat discussing the craft with company officials and then inspected the exterior closely, with the conversation continuing at the field’s lunch stand over sandwiches.
Obviously, this 11 April visit went much more smoothly in terms of contact with the public and press than his dour drop-in four days before, but it is amusing to see that the Monrovia Daily News of the 12th offered some election-year advice to the Long Eagle:
If Colonel Lindbergh insists on privacy and obscurity why not run for vice-president?
As for the highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection, this press photograph shows Lindbergh talking to five men near a plane, though whether it was his Ryan or the Lockheed is not known. It is a fine addition to the Homestead’s holdings of transportation-related, specifically those tied to aviation, artifacts showing the dramatic transformation in travel from horse-drawn conveyances to electric streetcars to airplanes during our interpretive era of 1830-1930.
As for Lindbergh, his famed continued through his marriage to Anne Morrow, the horrific tragedy of the kidnapping and murder of their son, and beyond, though his staunch isolationist views as World War II ensued and his associations with Nazi Germany and anti-Semitic views changed the attitudes of many toward him. Increasingly retiring in his later years, the Long Eagle died of lymphoma at age 72 at his remote Maui estate in 1974.