Charles Lindbergh and his Latin American Tour
By F. Robert van der Linden, Ph.D., Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
As the afternoon sun was beginning to wane, some 200,000 excited people gathered at Valbuena airport in Mexico City were beginning to get anxious. The crowd, including President Plutarco Calles and most of the government, were waiting for the arrival of the most famous aviator in the world, and he was two hours late.
Seven months earlier, on May 21, 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh, an obscure air mail pilot from Minnesota, captured the world’s imagination when he became the first person to fly non-stop, solo between New York and Paris, in his single–seat Ryan monoplane the NYP “Spirit of St. Louis.” Although many others had crossed the Atlantic by air before this no one had done so directly between two major cities. The obvious conclusion to millions of people was that the age of practical air travel for the public was dawning. While airlines had existed since the First World War, they were unprofitable and unreliable. Most had failed, and those that did survive, did so as wards of the state receiving either direct or indirect subsidy for their very survival.
When Lindbergh landed in Paris, he was immediately surrounded by 150,000 well wishers. The adulation continued throughout Europe and upon his return to the United States in June. A calm rational individual, Lindbergh sought to use the power of his new-found celebrity to promote his vision of a world transformed by air travel. During his subsequent aerial tour of the United States it is estimated that 1/3 of the population saw him and heard his message of the coming age of commercial air travel. He hoped to repeat his discourse on his goodwill tour of Latin America and the Caribbean.
After the completion of his months-long aerial tour of the country during the summer of 1927, Lindbergh was invited to meet U.S. ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow in New York. Morrow was the college friend of President Calvin Coolidge, the business partner of J.P. Morgan of U.S. Steel, and the recent chairman of the Morrow Board that examined the state of aviation in the United States. Morrow asked Lindbergh if he could conduct a similar tour, this time to Mexico, Central America, parts of South America, and the Caribbean. Relations between the two neighbors were under stress over recent political and economic disagreements; Morrow hoped a goodwill flight from the U.S.’s greatest hero would help calm the waters. Sensing an opportunity to further advocate for commercial flight, especially since he was recently befriended by Juan T. Trippe, the president of Pan American Airways, and to help brings the Americas closer together, Lindbergh accepted.
Lindbergh felt that a non-stop flight between the two nations’ capitals, Washington, D.C. and Mexico City, would send a dramatic and positive political message while demonstrating the impressive capabilities of the coming generation of aircraft. Morrow wanted safer trip, flown in stages in stages to minimize the danger so he would not be responsible should something untoward would happen to “The Lone Eagle.” Lindbergh assured the ambassador that all would be well and prepared for his trip. On December 14, 1927, Lindbergh took off from the U.S. Army’ Bolling Field in Washington, and headed southwest. He estimated that the trip would cover 2,100 miles, 1,500 miles less than the distance between New York and Paris. Lindbergh flew an uneventful straight line through the night across the American South until he reached the Texas coast which he followed until turning inland towards Tampico. It was a beautiful day with blue sky and unlimited visibility. Navigating by landmarks, Lindbergh followed railroad tracks as his charts were not very detailed. Assuming that each town was marked for pilots as they were back home Lindbergh soon realized he was lost as the towns were not marked and he was hours behind schedule despite the excellent weather.
Lindbergh was a superb pilot but not an experienced navigator. He had learned basic dead reckoning navigation in the Army using landmarks, compass and drift meter when over water, and acquired much experience flying the mail along a well-marked route between St. Louis and Chicago. He did not know more sophisticated techniques. Despite this, Lindbergh made landfall in Ireland within three miles of his planned target during his transatlantic flight so he had every expectation of landing on time. He was never late on his U.S. tour and now he was off to an inauspicious beginning to his Latin American tour.
Wisely, Lindbergh climbed to a higher altitude and surveyed the horizon until he spotted a city on the horizon, which turned out to be Toluca, as attested by the sign advertising Hotel Toluca on the side of a building. With his bearings reacquired, it was a simple flight to Valbuena where he landed, relieved, but embarrassed by his tardiness.
He need not have worried. President Calles, Ambassador Morrow, and the crowd were forgiving, thrilled, and relieved that he had arrived safely after his 27 hour and 15 minute flight. The next two weeks were a blur of activity. It began with a welcoming parade through the city followed by a state dinner and sightseeing. Where ever he went, Lindbergh was accompanied by throngs of happy onlookers hoping to catch sight of this newly minted aviation legend. He was deeply impressed by the genuine kindness and generosity of the Mexican people, returning the favor in one small way by taking President Plutarco Calles up for his first airplane ride. Lindbergh stayed with the Morrow family while in Mexico City. It was there that he me the Ambassador’s family, including his youngest daughter Anne, who Lindbergh would later marry.
Welcoming speeches, parades, sightseeing, formal dinners, and more speeches praising Lindbergh and remarks by Lindbergh expressing his gratitude and his vision of aviation’s future in regions where transportation infrastructure not well developed was the routine for the next two months. After leaving Mexico on December 28, Lindbergh flew on to each of the capital cities of the seven countries of Central America where his reception rivalled that of Mexico in its joy and enthusiasm. He was instructed to fly high over Nicaragua to avoid possible gunfire from the Sandino forces fighting the government and the U.S. presence there. Only in Costa Rica, did Lindbergh ever fear for his life, not out of hate but of love as the crowd broke through the barriers at the airport and the armed soldiers risked impaling Lindbergh on their bayonets in their frantic efforts to control the mob.
Panama and Canal Zone were next, where the U.S. Army mechanics overhauled the “Spirit of St. Louis,” then on to Colombia the highest point of the tour at Bogota’s Madrid Airport which rests at 9,000 feet above sea level. All along his trip, Lindbergh was stunned by the natural beauty of the region and keenly aware of how undeveloped the transportation networks were – ideal territory for aviation, which could fly over the natural barriers of geography.
From Colombia, Lindbergh proceeded to Venezuela where a huge thunderstorm forced him to fly an extra 150 miles around the massive storm clouds to an uneventful landing in Caracas. The rest of the trip was uneventful as he flew the “Spirit” over the Lesser Antilles and around the Caribbean to the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba. As a favor to chief Pilot Basil Rowe of West Indies Air Express (an airline soon to be acquired by Pan American) Lindbergh carried 3,200 pieces of mail from Santo Domingo to Cuba, the first mail he had carried since his last flight as an air mail pilot with Robertson from St. Louis, and the only air mail ever carried by the “Spirit.”
The last leg of Lindbergh’s Latin American Goodwill Flight should have been routine. It wasn’t. He planned to fly directly from Havana to St. Louis, Missouri but, as the limits of navigation technology in the late 1920s were to prove, this was easier said than done.
On February 13, 1928, just nine days after his 26th birthday, Lindbergh took off from Havana at 1:35 in the morning, heading northwest to St. Louis, a distance of about 1,000 miles. Climbing easily to 4,000 feet, Lindbergh and “Spirit” settled into a comfortable night flight. About halfway across the Straits of Florida, however, his magnetic compass started rotating and the needle on his earth inductor compass that could be set to fly with the planet’ magnetic field started to jump spasmodically. While this was occurring, a haze developed which obscured his ability to see the horizon. This was potentially deadly.
With the haze getting worse, he could not find the North Star. Lindbergh was now lost for the second time in his brief piloting career. Lindbergh descended to 1,000 feet and, at dawn spotted an island he thought was in the Florida Keys. Unfortunately, the island’s outline matched nothing in the Keys and nothing along the Cuban coast. As the daylight grew, he realized that he was actually some 300 miles off course and over the Bahamas. Lindbergh and had been flying all night 90 degrees away from his intended course. Fortunately, the “Spirit” was designed to carry hundreds of gallons of fuel and, as long as its trusty Wright Whirlwind engine kept working, it could fly safely for several thousand miles.
With the sun rising in the east and his magnetic compass returning back to work, Lindbergh adjusted his route and flew up the eastern coast of Florida, not the western part as planned. For the remainder of his flight Lindbergh encountered rain and snow before arriving at Lambert Field, St. Louis, formally completing his tour.
One last flight remained, however. On April 30, 1928, Lindbergh flew the “Spirit from St. Louis” to Washington, D.C. where he presented it to the Smithsonian Institution. It has been cared for since then and remains on display in the National Air and Space Museum.
One year later, Lindbergh retraced his tour in an airliner, only this time as guest pilot and technical advisor for Pan American Airways. The age of commercial air travel had arrived in the wake of Lindbergh’s tour.