Spirit of inspiration
Ilike to do a bit of flying when on holiday – things like the trip by hired Cessna 172 out to Catalina Island from Torrance, CA stand out in memory – but on the last one the aviation bit was confined to looking at aeroplanes, rather than piloting them.
My wife and I went to Philadelphia (if you go, do pay your respects to the
Moshulu, the mighty ironhull four-master sailing ship that in 1939 won the last Australia to Britain grain race, today a floating restaurant converted by the late aircraft collector David Tallichet’s Speciality Restaurants chain). Then we took the train to Washington DC, which is where the looking at aeroplanes bit happened.
The venue was of course the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, on the Mall not far from the US Capitol. Built in 1976, the Air and Space is one of the greatest museums in the world, and it was to one of its prime exhibits that I made a beeline. I am talking, as you may already have divined from the headline, about the Spirit of St. Louis, the singleengined ‘rag-and-tube’ light aeroplane that Charles Lindbergh flew solo from New York to Paris in May 1927, setting ablaze a craze for flying in the USA that fired up the nation's aviation industry – indeed, not far from the Spirit hangs a 1930s 247, Boeing’s first airliner and grandaddy of the 787 Dreamliner we’d ridden in to Philly.
With hand-painted, rather homely lettering and looking deceptively not much bigger than a Cub, the Spirit – which actually spans 46 feet – has the feeling of something that any experienced tailwheel pilot could fly, despite its mole-blind nose. “Why didn’t it have a windshield?” I heard one visitor ask – because the forward fuselage was taken up with a bloody great fuel tank is the snappy answer. And this is where on further contemplation any idea of flying Lindbergh’s Ryan NYP in earnest begins to make one feel queasy. When he started his takeoff run along Roosevelt Field’s cinder and grass runway, he had 453 gallons of fuel on board – my Cub takes twelve. Not only that, but the weather was poor, Lindbergh had barely slept the night before and, at the Spirit’s cruising speed of 105mph, he had 33 and a half hours of non-stop flying ahead of him. There was of course no GPS or moving-map display then – his most sophisticated navigation aid was a fancy compass, and yet the maximum deviation from his 3,600mile track was just fifteen miles or so.
Would I fancy taking that on that kind of flying? Would you? Only a superlative pilot, someone really special, calculating and brave could have done it.
Charles Lindbergh’s personal reputation may later have been tarnished by accusations of antisemitism and his involvement in the isolationist America First movement, but that he was outstanding in his ability and judgement as a pilot remains beyond doubt. Flying, he wrote, ‘encompassed science, freedom, beauty and adventure – what more could you ask of life?’ Indeed, and how inspiring these words are, over ninety years since his epic solo flight in the Spirit.