The Magic of Flight
The Lindberghs’ fate lay in the winds and the light of the moon. On the night of December 5, 1933, high above the horizon over Bathurst, Gambia, a reddish moon would wane to a sliver only. Without moonlight they couldn’t launch their Lockheed Sirius seaplane from the British outpost on the west coast of Africa, the start of a nonstop flight across the South Atlantic Ocean to Natal, Brazil--a distance of 1,875 miles. During the previous week the single-engine seaplane had floundered like a sated gull on its long runs along the muddy Gambia River. But now it was 200 pounds lighter: Charles had removed its excess weight, snipping out an extra fuel tank with tin cutters and throwing nonessentials overboard. Still, the heavy plane needed a headwind to help loosen its floats from the river’s grip, and the winds had withered during the day.
As the dead calm daylight hours came to a close at Bathurst, Anne walked alone to the pier, holding a rumpled handkerchief. Waiting and watching, she searched the sky for telltale signs, listening for the wind. Then a breeze rustled through the palms, blowing gently across the river. Out of breath, she rushed to tell her husband, “The wind has changed. There’s enough to lift a handkerchief!”
In the darkness, working by the dim light of swinging lanterns, Anne and Charles prepared the Sirius for takeoff. They packed the cabin, pumped water out of the pontoons, and preflighted, using written checklists. Their survival mandated careful scrutiny and precaution. Many pilots had gone down in the drink, after they became lost over the Atlantic or their machines failed them, never to be seen alive again.
Ready to board, Anne jumped onto a silver pontoon, then onto a wing before she climbed the fuselage into her rear cockpit--her “little room,” as she called it. Once settled in her cushioned seat, she stowed sandwiches and then worked the flight controls, checking for free movement. She pushed on the rudder pedals and worked the stick sideways, forward, and aft, seeing that the aileron and elevator control wires were unobstructed. Her cockpit check complete, she put on goggles, fastened her cotton flying helmet, and cinched tight her seat belt. Looking out, she watched palms swaying in the rising wind, barely lit by the moon. Above in the tropical sky stars twinkled, like guideposts in the dark.
In the front cockpit, Charles flipped the master switch, started the engine, and watched the wingtip lights flicker--green on the starboard side, red on the port. He advanced the throttle, the engine growling, the gauges flickering. The plane plowed through the river on a downwind sweep while he searched for debris on the takeoff path. After he swung the nose into the wind, he turned to Anne: “All set?”
“Yes. All right.”
He gunned the throttle, the 710-horsepower engine roaring as he eased back on the stick, the pontoons spanking the river, spray sluicing across the windshield and wings. Faster, faster . . . the airspeed inched higher and the pontoons skimmed above the water. Suddenly, the river released its grip and the Sirius leaped aloft over Bathurst. Charles pivoted the plane to a 224-degree true course toward Natal, an ocean away.
Anne slid back the rear canopy, shutting out the noise and wind, and put on her headphones. She was the sole radio operator on board, giving position reports to the outside world and obtaining weather conditions and landing information in Morse code. Across the Atlantic, up and down the South American coast, Pan American Airways’s radio operators listened for KHCAL, the Sirius’s call sign. For a week, they had been on alert around the clock, waiting for the Lindbergh launch.
Working by touch alone in her rear cockpit, Anne pressed coils into their sockets in the radio transmitter box, switched on the receiver, and released the antenna’s brake. Springing loose with a whir, the copper antenna unwound through the floorboards to trail more than 100 feet below the plane. Anne tapped out the takeoff time--2:00 GMT, midnight at Bathurst--for her first transmission, the start of hourly reports to Pan Am. For two hours she sat hunched over the radio dials, trying to hear through the static in her headphones while she changed coils. At the third hour she reported light overcast skies at 2,000 feet, unlimited visibility, and a slight tailwind of 10 knots at 030 degrees. The Sirius, meantime, streaked through the air at 100 knots, only 1,200 feet above the seas. An hour later the plane bounced in turbulence. They flew blind, in and out of pitch-black clouds and through thunderstorms, relying only on their instruments. Anne fought a rising trepidation but remembered that all transoceanic pilots had gone through this.
Six hours into the flight, the storms ended, a salmon-pink dawn draped the horizon, and the Sirius scooted under patches of pale-blue sky. A long message came in from a Pan Am operator at PVJ, the Rio de Janeiro station, explaining where to land at Natal. The transmission buoyed Anne’s spirits--it was as if she had already linked the continents. A little later, via station WCC in Chatham, Massachusetts, nearly 4,000 miles away, the Boston Herald requested a radio interview. Astonished and annoyed, Anne tapped back that she was busy getting weather from PVJ.
A few hours later, beneath the dome of a slate gray sky dappled with high cirrus clouds, whitecaps scuffed the great ocean’s surface. Charles continued to fly, steering the craft by hand--strenuous work over long distances--while Anne maintained constant radio contact, her eyes closed, her body exhausted. She shook herself to stay awake, nibbled at a sandwich, daubed her face with water from a canteen. Her back ached from bending over the radio key, her ears hurt from the headphones’ tight clamp, and her thumb and index finger were sore from pressing the key. But when Charles passed back a note asking her to fly while he took sights with the sextant, a surge of energy pulsed through her and she took over the controls.
A seasoned crewmember with several years experience, Anne had served as a relief pilot on all the Lindberghs’ expeditions. With her hand on the stick, she stretched her feet out to the rudder pedals. Her head was no longer buried in the cockpit but raised high, her eyes sweeping a horizon dotted with puffs of white cumulus clouds. Between peeks at the clouds, skimming the seas at 800 feet, she made sure to maintain a correct heading on the aperiodic compass in front of her.
Ten hours into the flight and back at the radio, Anne heard nothing but static through her headphones. Concerned about the lull in receiving stations, she added “Lindbergh plane” to her call sign and soon had a bite: a ship bound for Rio, the S.S. Caparcona. The plane scudded across the equator during the eleventh hour, and at 14:00 GMT a German catapult ship, the S.S. Westfalen, responded to Anne’s call. A floating refueling base, the ship launched Deutsche Luft Hansa flying boats when they landed mid-ocean on their transatlantic mail runs. The Westfalen gave Anne radio bearings, and at 15:20 GMT the Sirius swooped down low, buzzing its deck. Anne looked down to see all hands waving their caps. She held up her arm and waved back, exhilarated by the face-to-face contact after the surreal and lonely world of code and static.
Fifteen hours after takeoff, Charles waggled the wings, alerting Anne to lift her head from the radio work and look out. Far ahead, she saw the green Brazilian coast emerging through a sultry blue haze. The Sirius closed the distance quickly. From the front cockpit Charles raised a hand, signaling five minutes to landing. While he throttled back and spiraled down to bleed off altitude, Anne quickly reeled in the antenna before it hit the water. She snapped on the antenna brake, turned off the radio switches, and unplugged her headphones.
At 17:55 GMT, five minutes shy of a sixteen-hour flight, the Lockheed Sirius settled gently on the calm waters of the Potengi River near the Pan Am barge at Natal. It was 3:00 P.M. local time on December 6, and the sun beat down brightly. On shore, Anne weaved unsteadily, trying to shake her sea legs--the result of hours of rocking motion aloft.
Two days later the flight continued, as the Lindberghs flew northwest to Belém, on the South American coast, and then moved inland, grazing the Amazon River to Manaos. Then, on December 19, after stops in Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Miami, and Charleston, the Sirius came upon Manhattan skyscrapers jutting from a winter haze. Within half an hour, it landed on Flushing Bay, Long Island, where it had launched five months and ten days earlier. Since taking off on July 9, the Lindberghs had flown 30,000 miles to four continents and twenty-one countries, and across the North and the South Atlantic Oceans, a 261-hour exploration flight charting potential air routes for Pan American, during which Anne had logged 202 hours as the radio operator and had acted as co-pilot and navigator.
The long journey ended, Anne had become the first woman to fly across the South Atlantic, one of many “firsts” she earned during her flying career. In 1934 she became the first woman awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal for her critical role crewing on a 10,000-mile survey to China in 1931 and the 1933 Atlantic survey. Today many Americans know of Anne only as a gifted writer and as the wife of the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh. Her husband’s fame has overshadowed her own contributions as a pilot and explorer, and her place in aviation history has faded with time. Yet in the first decade of her marriage she received enormous recognition for her life in the air, and journalists christened her “First Lady of the Air.” This shy and sensitive young woman, petite and dark-haired, earned the accolade not simply because she flew with her husband, but for her flying skills. Within two years of marrying Charles, Anne was licensed to fly airplanes and to operate an aircraft radio, and had become the first woman to earn a first-class glider pilot’s license. Even before she herself became licensed, she went with her husband on aerial jaunts inaugurating Caribbean routes for Pan Am and domestic lines for Transcontinental Air Transport: 30,000 miles of air travel within the first year of her marriage. She was “crew,” her husband boasted to his flying compatriots, while adding that she flew as well as he, and maybe even better.
Anne and Charles Lindbergh flew during aviation’s golden age, an explosive era when the air crackled with excitement, when men and women acted on their dreams for glory in the skies. With her husband Anne partnered to pioneer commercial aviation, scouting future airways and potential airport sites at a time when other brave souls perished doing the same. In the early 1930s Anne crewed while exploring the far corners of Earth, from the Canadian wilderness to the coast of Africa. Some routes the Lindberghs traversed had never seen the shadow of a plane. Though demanding, the trips enabled Anne to share her in her husband’s work and his vision to link the continents, and by doing so she helped foster the public’s confidence in the future of aviation. The Lindberghs put aviation on the map, and a public hungry for heroes rewarded their derring-do by treating them as if they were royalty. Newspaper headlines proclaimed their deeds; thousands of people scrambled to catch sight of their idols at airfields. (Thrust into the limelight, stalked by reporters, they had to fly to be alone with one another.)
Even after Anne retired from crewing, flying never left her spirit. Whether crossing the Bering Sea toward Siberia or charting a course across Greenland’s ice cap, she had gained insight into people and places around the world. By melding her literary talent with the adventures she had shared with her husband, she subsequently launched a successful writing career. Anne’s thirteen critically acclaimed books included aerial travelogues, along with fiction, poetry, essays, and collections of diaries and letters. A poet and a romantic, she was one of the very few aviators whose writings captured the allure of flight. As she wrote in her first book, North to the Orient,
“If flying, like a glass-bottomed bucket, can give you that vision, that seeing eye, which peers down to the still world below the choppy waves--it will always remain magic.”
Copyright © Kathleen C. Winters. All rights reserved.