Spirit of in­spi­ra­tion

Pilot - - NEWS - Philip White­man, Edi­tor

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.

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