Slim - The Little-Known Life of Charles Lindbergh
Mention the name of Charles Lindbergh in aviation circles, and to a lesser extent in skydiving, and you get instant recognition. He is perhaps the greatest and most well known aviator since the Wright Brothers. His historic flight in May 1927 as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean made him a world-famous celebrity. Several years later, his infant son was abducted and killed, and the kidnapper was arrested, put on trial, found guilty and executed. This story was front-page news of gargantuan proportions. Fame also followed Lindbergh in the days prior to World War ll when he visited Germany and paid adulation to Hitler’s modern air force. And although he faced much negative publicity, his legend as an aviator continued, even to this day.
While most people believed that Charles Lindbergh stepped out of nowhere to cross the Atlantic, in fact, he had acquired considerable aviation experience as a barnstormer in the early 1920s. He was a restless Minnesota farm boy and college student when he first caught flying fever and was determined to parlay this interest into a paying activity, much to the dismay of his family and friends. Not one to put off his dreams, Lindbergh traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he enrolled in pilot training at the Nebraska Aircraft Factory. In short order, he began to learn all he could about aeronautical theory, aircraft design, manufacturing and repair as an apprentice mechanic and pilot.
It was during his stay in Nebraska that “Slim” (as his colleagues called him) became a favorite student of flight instructor Ira Biffle. But, after Lindbergh received only eight hours of instruction, the flying school closed down. Lindbergh wasn’t a pilot yet, and he wouldn’t become one anytime soon.
Determined to stay in aviation, Lindbergh hooked up with barnstormer Errold Bahl, who agreed to take him on as a mechanic. It was during this experience that Lindbergh became inclined to parachute. He became fascinated with how parachutes were manufactured, packed and repaired and, of course, with the people who jumped them. Aching for aerial adventure, he decided that he must make a jump. Doing so was a monumental challenge for this young man who seemed to be unafraid of wing walking and riding in airplanes. As a boy, Lindbergh had been plagued by nightmares of falling through the air, and making a parachute jump was terrifying to him. In spite of these fears, and perhaps because of them, he talked a traveling parachute jumper by the name of Charles W. Hardin into letting him use his parachute for an extraordinary jump.
Lindbergh in a Jenny biplane during his barnstorming years. Photo courtesy of San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Hardin could hardly believe his ears when the young man he knew as Slim told him that he wanted to make a double jump (what we now call a cutaway) on his first jump. Despite some reluctance—Hardin sensed that Lindbergh was competent although maybe a bit reckless—he gave in and decided to help the tall and slender country boy make his first parachute jump. Hardin was a balloon commander during World War I and later a stunt flyer and acrobat and had been in many dangerous situations. He knew Slim was very determined to do things his way and decided not to interfere. On or about June 21, 1922, Hardin helped Lindbergh prepare the chutes for his first jump. As it turned out, it almost proved to be his last!
On jump day, Lindbergh was filled with a cautious fear; a knot in his stomach belied his anticipation. Flying at 2,000 feet, the pilot turned in on the jump run and signaled for Lindbergh to ease himself out to the end of the lower wing and begin snapping on his parachutes. Hanging beneath the biplane, Lindbergh dropped free. The first parachute blossomed quickly, and Lindbergh exalted in the event. Then, he prepared himself for his second ordeal.
Lindbergh adjusts his parachute, which he later uses, prior to testing an experimental plane at Lambert Field in 1925. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A quick slash of Lindbergh’s knife cut the rope attaching the first chute, and he went back into freefall. However, the second chute failed to open smoothly and began to trail behind him. Basking in the thrill of falling and totally unaware that something was amiss, Lindbergh plummeted faster and faster to the ground. The streamered parachute cracked open at about 250 feet, and he felt the reassuring tug on his leg straps and the crisp opening shock from the inflating canopy. Lindbergh landed safely, euphoric but dazed.
Lindbergh’s epic and daring feat helped him overcome a gnawing fear of high places and falling. For him, this first jump was filled with meaning. He came to feel as though he had passed the supreme test, like an ancient rite of passage. Lindbergh later commented that he had “obtained a level of daring which even few pilots could attain.”
... when I decided that I too must pass through the experience of a parachute jump, life rose to a higher level, to a sort of exhilarated calmness. The thought of crawling out onto the struts and wires hundreds of feet above the earth, and then giving up even that tenuous hold of safety and substance, left me a feeling of anticipation mixed with dread, of confidence restrained by caution, of courage salted through with fear. How tightly should one hold onto life? How loosely give it rein? What gain was there for such risk? I would have to pay in money for hurling my body into space. There would be no crowd to watch and applaud my landing. Nor was there any scientific objective to be gained. No, there was a deeper reason for wanting to jump, a desire I could not explain.
It was the quality that led me to aviation in the first place—it was the love of the air and sky and flying, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty. It lay beyond the descriptive words of men—where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane; where man is more than man, an existence both supreme and valueless at the same instant.
—Charles Lindbergh on parachuting in his autobiography, “The Spirit of St. Louis”
Shortly after his first parachute jump, Lindbergh joined the barnstorming team of J. “Cupid” Lynch and another man known only as “Rogers” as a mechanic, stuntman and gofer. During the hot summer months, the team traveled rural America plying their aviation skills to entertain the local folks. Precision flying, airplane rides and crazy stunts did much to attract large crowds of interested spectators. Everywhere he travelled, the handouts proclaimed that the wing walker, parachute jumper and stuntman “Daredevil Lindbergh” would thrill the crowds. The spectators were never disappointed. Records of his feats no longer exist, but Lindbergh undoubtedly made quite a few parachute jumps during this time, although the exact number is unknown.
When the flying season ended in October 1922, the barnstorming team wintered over in Billings, Montana. Lindbergh’s desire to become a pilot and purchase his own airplane then sent him to Americus, Georgia. After borrowing $900 from his father, he traveled to Souther Field in April 1923 and spent $500 to buy a surplus JN-4D “Jenny” biplane. Shortly thereafter, he became a genuine pilot when he soloed his new airplane.
With less than five hours of solo time, a restless Lindbergh left on his first solitary barnstorming tour. Over the next two months, he survived five separate airplane crashes. He was never seriously injured, but he did broaden his appreciation for surviving the hazards of flying and earned another nickname, “Lucky Lindbergh.” Somehow, his Jenny was always able to fly again with only minor repairs.
In 1924, Lindbergh turned in his freedom as a gypsy barnstormer for the smartly tailored uniform of an Army Air Cadet, and in 1925, he graduated at the top of his class. Just nine days before graduating, he and Lieutenant C.D. McAllister collided in midair and both used parachutes to save their lives. This was the first time pilots of two different planes escaped alive from a midair collision. This was also a step toward yet another interesting nickname: “King of the Caterpillars.”
During the next two years, Lindbergh made three more emergency parachute jumps from disabled airplanes. By doing so, he qualified as a four-time member of aviation’s most exclusive fraternity, the Caterpillar Club (an association named for the silk threads that comprised the original parachutes). The only way someone can earn membership in this elite club is by escaping from a disabled plane using a life-saving parachute. There is little doubt that Lindbergh’s barnstorming experiences, particularly those involving the use of parachutes, would see him through some pretty rough times. In fact, Lindbergh continued to hold the record number of emergency jumps for many years. (It was not until World War II, when a pilot reportedly escaped from seven wrecked airplanes, that Lindbergh’s records were broken.)
In the years following his service, the barnstormer and parachutist known as Slim Lindbergh followed his destiny. His epic Atlantic solo flight earned him a hallowed and legendary place in aviation folklore, and one that is unique beyond compare.
About the Author
Michael Horan, D-881, is a former archivist and historian for USPA. He has written three books, including “Parachuting Folklore: The Evolution of Freefall,” which contains the material for much of this story.