Lindbergh grew up spending carefree summers on the Mississippi, living the life of Huckleberry Finn, accompanied only by his dog, and, when Congress went into session, he dressed-up, behaving as a son of a United States Congressman in Washington DC. Lindbergh displayed his creativity and innovation, working alone on the family farm, inventing mechanical devices to ease his work, maintaining his motorcycle and the family car in good repair, learning aircraft construction, maintaining engines, piloting, and supporting himself in the aviation industry by parachuting at county fairs and air-shows. We will fly with him, landing in pastures outside of small towns to take people for airplane rides, during his Army Air Service training as a fighter pilot, carrying the Air Mail though all kinds of hazard conditions, and his trip, across the Atlantic ocean, from New York to Paris, in a single engine airplane, alone.
The chapter will include the following little-known incident of his advanced Army pilot training:
On January 5, 1925, the U. S. Army Air Service came very close to dismissing Charles Lindbergh on charges of lying to superior officers. The Army advanced flight-training program at Kelly Field, Texas was going to dismiss him. He would not become an Army Pilot and would not receive a commission as a second lieutenant. He had worked hard to earn those honors.
Prior to joining the Army as a flight cadet, he was an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin. At college, he did not apply himself. He only studied those subjects that interested him. His poor academic performance resulted in his dismissal. However, he wanted success in the army-training program and he worked hard to make top scores. Lindbergh learned to study in the Army aviation program and was academically more successful there than at any school he had ever attended.
While his fellow cadets were asleep at night, Lindbergh was studying in the only after hours lighted room in the barracks, the latrine. When he moved from the preliminary flight training at Brooks Field to the advanced training at Kelly, Lindbergh was second in the class. Nevertheless, his instructors were about to dismiss him. There was no question about his ability to manipulate the controls of an airplane successfully. Lindbergh was an accomplished pilot before joining the Army. He had received preliminary flight training at a flying school in Nebraska and, more importantly, he had worked as a barnstorming pilot, taking passengers for $5.00 a ride at small country towns, throughout the western United States as well as performing acrobatics at air shows. By the time he joined the Army, he had logged more flight hours than any other cadet had in his unit. Only one flight instructor at Kelly Field had more flight hours logged than Lindbergh had.
His army flight instructors recognized his piloting skills but since they thought he had lied, they had to drop him from the program. Anyone who would lie was unacceptable. Integrity was, and still is, a characteristic, which is just as important to a military aviator as the skill needed to fly an airplane.
Lindbergh’s problem arose from a navigation training flight. The cadets were to fly solo on a triangular course from Kelly Field eastward for 67 miles to Gonzales, Texas, then southeasterly for 33 miles to Cuero, Texas, then northwesterly for 82 miles back to Kelly Field. They were to land at Gonzales and Cuero where a flight instructor would document their time of arrival. Upon returning to Kelly Field, the cadets were to present the document that contained the endorsements of those instructors. This flight would give experience in navigating over large areas of undeveloped countryside with few towns, roads or other features that would serve as checkpoints. The instructors expected the cadets wander off course and have to find themselves by identifying positions on their maps and making proper course corrections.
Flights like this were more of a pleasure than a difficulty for Lindbergh. The weather was good and the navigation problem was interesting but uncomplicated. His airplane was modern and well maintained.
The cadets took off at five-minute intervals. Lindbergh was the third one to leave. The first leg of the trip, to Gonzales, presented a challenge because the countryside was mostly uninhabited prairie and lacked landmarks. The only checkpoint that would give a pilot’s place with precision was 57 miles from Kelly Field. The road running from Seguin to Gonzales came within half of a mile of a winding river that twisted as it ran parallel to and south of the road. When he identified the road from the air, he could follow it to Gonzales if the visibility became limited. However, the weather was good and flying direct to Gonzales was easy. Lindbergh learned this type of navigating from his barnstorming days when he flew using the railway maps one could buy at any drug store in the United States. He was the first cadet to land at Gonzalez, checked in with the flight instructor positioned there to verify the landing of the cadets, and then took off for the airport at Cuero.
The second leg of the fight was easier than the first. Initially, for seven miles, the road to Cuero ran in the same direction as the flight path. Following the road for those seven miles would give the magnetic course to follow for the rest of that leg. The road wandered off to the east but then came back to Cuero. It was the shortest leg of the flight and the easiest to navigate. Lindbergh flew direct to Cuero and landed but could not find the flight instructor there to verify his arrival. There was no army airplane or flight instructor on the airport so he took off on the third leg of the trip, returning to Kelly Field.
The return flight from Cuero to Kelly Field was a long stretch over sparsely populated and undeveloped countryside. However, some small towns served as checkpoints and would verify Lindbergh’s correct magnetic course to Kelly Field. Seven miles from Cuero, just north of the flight path, was the small town of Lindernau and 50 miles farther was another small town, Sutherland Springs, just south of a bend in a river. He flew directly along the flight path and landed at Kelly Field.
Lindbergh’s performance pleased him. He had navigated well, taken off third, and was the first cadet to return. However, when he reported in at Kelly field, he was in trouble because he did not have the Cuero instructor’s endorsement indicating that he had landed there.
The instructors at Kelly did not believe he had found Cuero. They thought he had mistakenly landed at some other small airport or he had just gotten loss and wandered around until he found his way back to Kelly Field. They told Lindbergh that they would dismiss him from the flight program because he had lied about the details of his flight.
Lindbergh was distraught because he now faced elimination from the program. All of his hard effort to excel during Army flight training was now in jeopardy. He had a 93.36 average at Brooks Field and was second in the class when they went into advanced training at Kelly Field. He knew he had flown the assignment perfectly and insisted that he had landed at Cuero. However, the instructors did not believe him. Lindbergh began to make a drawing of the Cuero airfield showing the arrangements of the hangers and aircraft tie down facilities to prove that he had been there. Before he completed his sketch, the Kelly Field base operations office received a message from the instructor who was to check the pilots at Cuero. The instructor reported that he had become lost that morning on the way to Cuero and had arrived very late. He had not been at the Cuero Airfield when Lindbergh landed. His honesty no longer in question, Lindbergh remained in the program.
Of the 104 cadets that started at Brooks Field, Only 19 cadets successfully completed the advanced training and received the grade of second lieutenants in the Reserve Officer Corps. Lindbergh stood first in the class.
In 1926, the Robinson Aircraft Corporation named him Chief Pilot, of their flight crews, flying airmail from St Louis to Chicago.
In 1927, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field, NY, in the “Spirit of St. Louis” flying the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris, alone. At that time, he was the most famous person in the world.