The day Lindbergh got lost

Back in 1968 I was the relief copilot on Pan Am’s Boeing 707 Rome to New York morning flight. I was doing pre-departure Doppler navigation system checks and the captain, first officer and flight engineer were busy accomplishing other pre-departure duties when the purser entered the cockpit with news that Charles Lindbergh would be traveling with us in first class. It wasn’t unusual since Lindbergh was a Pan Am consultant and periodically rode our flights on company business, but it was the only time he flew on one of my trips. The captain thanked her and we all nodded. She flashed her “Pan Am smile,” a fleeting, superficial expression of politeness, then turned and left.

Charles Lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh, still dapper at 66, was a frequent Pan Am passenger.

Flying from Rome to JFK normally took over nine hours and sometimes much longer depending on routing and headwinds. I was on board to relieve the captain and first officer so that they each had a few hours rest during the trip. It was customary for all of us to be in the cockpit during the departure and early stages of cruise flight as well as during the descent, approach and landing to provide an extra set of eyes and ears at those busy periods.

Our route passed over Paris, across the English Channel, over the UK and out over the Atlantic. After leveloff, when the seat belt light had been switched off, a flight attendant brought up a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Before she left, the captain asked her to invite Mr. Lindbergh to the cockpit if he cared to visit. Back in those days before reinforced cockpit doors and high security, captains had more latitude about who could enter the cockpit and we thought nothing of his gracious gesture.

About 45 minutes later, the purser chimed the cockpit and said Mr. Lindbergh would like to come forward and visit the flight deck. The captain responded: “Sure, bring him up.” The watch list had already been posted and I was scheduled to go aft to a first class seat for crew rest since I would relieve the captain and then first officer during the ocean crosssing and down the Canadian Maritimes to JFK.

But I chose to hang around for Mr. Lindbergh’s visit.

There was a knock on the cockpit door. The flight engineer looked through the door’s viewing port, opened the door, and in walked the purser and Mr. Lindbergh, an erect, lean, gray-haired gentleman with angular facial features. I unstrapped and offered him my jump seat behind the captain. The captain introduced himself and we all did in our turn.

He had a polite, no nonsense countenance and sat quietly, taking in the scene of gauges, status lights, charts and logs amid the loud hiss of air streaming by outside at .80 Mach. By then we had entered French airspace and were approaching Paris. Skies were clear and Paris lay before us about six miles below with Le Bourget Airport clearly visible. The captain turned around to Lindbergh and pointed down at Le Bourget and said: “Well I guess you recognize that place.” Lindbergh just smiled and nodded.

Paris passed beneath the nose and a little while later French air traffic control handed us off to British controllers. I switched off the frequency to monitor the first officer on a separate frequency while he got our oceanic routing. Lindbergh sat quietly, taking it all in. With nothing much going on at that point we were just a small fraternity of five airmen in the cockpit, the captain, first officer, flight engineer, me and Mr. Lindbergh, heading west on a sunny day toward New York.

Pan Am 707

A much more civilized way to cross the Atlantic than Lindbergh’s first trip.

After receiving our oceanic clearance the captain and first officer set about verifying and entering the first two course segments in the Boeing’s Doppler navigation system. Lindbergh watched as the pilots set in the oceanic courses down to a tenth of a degree which included corrections for magnetic deviation in the 707’s two compass systems. With that accomplished, the cockpit was quiet again.

All this attention to detail must have piqued Lindbergh’s memory. He smiled and said: “I was flying down in Mexico,” (most likely it was back in the 1920s or 30s but he didn’t say). He went on: “The maps were spotty and I didn’t know where I was. I saw a railroad track and thought I’ll just drop down and follow it to a station and read the town’s name off the station sign. So I followed the track and sure enough a small station came into view up ahead. I descended to rooftop height and spotted a sign above a doorway. As I flew by I could read the sign’s bold letters but it was no help. It said CABALLEROS.” Lindbergh had located the men’s room entrance and nothing more. We all had a good laugh. His presence in our cockpit that day was proof that he ultimately found his way to a safe landing on that flight long ago.

We shook hands and I left the cockpit for my crew rest seat in first class. Lunch would be served soon, then I’d get a short nap before it was time to relieve the captain. Across the aisle, the gray-haired gentleman returned unobtrusively from the cockpit to his seat and was served lunch. Then, like me, he dozed off to sleep. Passengers took no notice.

35 Comments

  1. AfricanEagle says:

    A true pilot is never lost. He knows he is in the sky. He maybe uncertain of his position in relation to the ground but that is a minor issue.

  2. Flying with a legend! That is a cool story. Thank you.

  3. Brent says:

    That’s a great story! Really neat that you got to hang out with someone who’s name will be forever etched into history.

  4. Frank says:

    As a P.pilot, If i was to drop down to roof level looking for a name of a town etc. I would be in jail. That was another era when such things were new and easy to explain to non-aviation types.

    • Dennis Baer says:

      Carry binoculars. When you get “disoriented” as to your ground location, follow the railroads since the “Iron Compass” always leads to a town. The town’s name is usually on the watertower in yard high letters that you can easily read from a safe altitude. If that doesn’t work, use the binoculars to read the freeway signs: those big green signs that hang over the freeway are among the best back ups to a GPS you’ll ever find. If people ask you why you carry binoculars, just tell them it’s for your passengers so they can find their house when you take them for a ride.

  5. Lawrence says:

    Nice story.
    However, Lindbergh’s luster is badly tarnished.
    He accepted a medal from Goering. He was an isolationist if not actually a pro-Nazi. He was a white supremacist, and shared in the casual anti-antisemitism of the times.
    He also managed to commute between three mistresses and children in Germany and Switzerland while being married to an American wife.
    We all need heroes, but Lindbergh is not one of mine.

    • Arnie Reiner says:

      That’s all true. He was unworldly and morally vacuous and thrust onto the world stage.
      But at that time and place flying over Paris we were just five airmen sharing a flying story.

      Arnie

      • John Lauber says:

        Arnie…great story! And it is great to hear from you. I’m retired and living on the Puget Sound SW of Seatac.

        Best wishes

    • Dennis says:

      Anyone’s reputation can be trashed if every detail of their private lives was spread around by professional smear merchants.

      Lindbergh was a genuine threat to run for President against FDR, up until his previously spotless reputation was deliberately trashed for political purposes.

      As an isolationist, he was in the majority in the USA of the day.

      As for “pro-Nazi”, he courted the Germans, trying to generate aviation business between them and France and England, hoping this might help prevent the approaching war. He recorded those efforts in his real-time diaries, so that’s not post-war spin. He lived in Paris at the time. If he had been genuinely pro-Nazi, he could have easily lived in Berlin.

      We do all need heroes. I’m an aviator and a wannabe aeronautical engineer, and Lindbergh is high up on my list. His personal foibles are irrelevant. Modern attempts to trash him yet again are just the echos of nasty and long since decided partisan politics.

      • Lawrence says:

        I take issue with most of your comments.
        Lindbergh was not a genuine threat to Roosevelt’s chances of re-election. Take it from somebody who was around at the time.
        I know of no statistics that support your statement that most of America was isolationist prior to Pearl Harbor.
        Lindbergh had genuine sympathy for many of the policies of the 3rd Reich.
        It is said that his attitude to the conflict that might break out between the US and Germany was based on his thinking that we were no match for the Luftwaffe.
        When Germany was already at war with Britain and France Lindbergh continued to press for the US to remain neutral.
        There are all shades of “pro-Nazi,” and the fact that he ultimately chose to support his native country, returning here to live does not negate his sympathy for the Nazis’ aims.
        As for his “personal foibles,” as you put it, they were of a magnitude that puts him beyond redemption and well out of the range of my pantheon.
        You, of course, are welcome to admire whomever you choose. I know of others who share your viewpoint. In the interest of civil discourse I will say no more about that.

        • Pete Hodges says:

          >>”I know of no statistics that support your statement that most of America was isolationist prior to Pearl Harbor.” >>

          Americans were isolationist after WW1, that is why the League of Nations failed. Woodrow Wilson was once shown in a political cartoon trying to get approval from “The Boss”, meaning the American People, and he lost that battle. FDR often had to re-assure the American people that he was not trying to get us into a war wth Germany when he started helping England. Perhaps not everyone in America was isolationist at the time, but a substantial number of people were. To suggest otherwise is to ignor the truth of history.

          • Lawrence says:

            I welcome your comment Pete since you agree with me that most of America was not isolationist. Apparently neither you nor I have a poll in hand to show differently. I do agree with you that a number of people were isolationist and they were called America Firsters. I have read Lindbergh’s diaries where these people were named. I do not admire them. I did not admire them back in the day. I have to insist that they were a minority.
            I’ll take this opportunity to say a few more things about Lindbergh. As Arnie Reiner states, he was thrust onto the world stage after his famous flight. There were few people of importance that he did not interact with in one way or another. Thus was perpetuated the myth surrounding this young “hero.”
            Roosevelt did not trust him and he disliked Roosevelt.
            There was absolutely no chance that Lindbergh would be elected in place of Roosevelt. Your comments about public sentiment after WWI do not bear on what was happening in 1939-1940.
            BTW Lindbergh thought we would lose the war before we entered it. He thought we would lose the war while we were fighting it. And he announced that we had lost the war after it was all over.

        • Troy Snead says:

          World War Two started in Europe in 1939. The draft passed the House of Representatives in Oct of 1940 by one vote. The law stated the draftees could only serve in the Western Hemisphere. One could derive from this that prior to Pearl Harbor the country had an isolationist tilt. The American First Committee had a lot of Captains of Commerce as members and at least one future president (Ford). After the war began Lindbergh did his part and would have done more if not for politics. I found his grave on Maui many years ago. No monuments . Just a marker behind a small one room church. I would fly with the him anytime.

          • Lawrence says:

            After the fall of France in 1940 the public mood had changed from the tilt that you infer. The America First Committee was started in 1940. Its membership peaked with 800,000 paid members in 650 chapters.
            I stand by my statement that isolationists were in the minority. The US population then was over 132,000,000.

    • Mike says:

      While Lindberg had his personal issues as we all do he was man enough and American enough to strap on a P-38 and fly into combat numerous times. Any man willing to put himself in the position of laying his life down for his country is man enough for me. Lawrence have you?

      • Lawrence says:

        I think Arnie Reiner nailed it when he commented that Lindbergh was otherwordldly and morally vacuous.
        I continue to have no admiration for him.
        Did you know that Lindbergh (in his diaries) stated that we lost WW2?
        Did you know that he berated our GI’s for their treatment of the gallant Japanese?
        As for your apparent qestioning of my patriotism, I served in the Navy, although I never saw combat. My father volunteered, but was rejected, but my uncle skippered an LST in several landings including Normandy and Salerno.
        Lindbergh was an unreconstructed white (nordic) supremacist,just like the Nazis that he admired.
        You are welcome to ignore these peccadilloes.

        • Edd Weninger says:

          Those interested in the politics of intervention/isolationism in the years 1939-1941 might like to read a new book:

          Those Angry Years by Lynne Olson

          Then we can argue on a political history forum.

  6. Thomas says:

    Everybody’s human in their own special way. Maybe being fearless runs hand-in-hand with other qualities of character attributes that are foreign to most of the general population. Whatever happened afterward, history will always record that he was the first, no matter how controversial his beliefs or actions were thereafter.

  7. Michael W. Wojcik says:

    Great story, Thanks for sharing

  8. Mr. Reiner, I was very interested in your article. My father, Leldon F. Beard, was a flight engineer for Pan Am from 1942 until his retirement in 1980. He told me that he too had the pleasure of flying with Mr. Lindberg several times during his tenure with Pan Am. I was searching his flight journals last night to see if he was on this flight, but he was flying the Central American routes in 1968 until the 747’s came out. My father told me, and his journals reflect all the famous people he flew with, but none excited him more than seeing Charles Lindbergh in his cockpit, as you so aptly described. I have beautiful colored prints of most of the Pan Am plane flown in my office, and in one of the pictures, Charles Lindberg is shown standing by a Sikorsky S-38 that he flew on February 6, 1929 from Miami, Florida to the Canal Zone. My father was very proud to be a part of the history of the airlines.

  9. Greg Johnson says:

    Less than one tenth of one percent of all the people in the United States fly airplanes and, for the most part, they are quiet people- probably from having spent so much time alone controlling a complex piece of machinery. Just being part of a collective conversation like the one that Mr. Reiner had has always taught me something about flying because that is the one thing that we all have in common. About the rest of Mr. Lingbergh’s life, it was good that such awful personal information was publicly suppressed until his wife, Anne Morrow, died.

  10. It is always a pleasure to talk with other pilots and hear their stories, especially from the Golden Age of flying. I believe someone once sai “There is no such thing as being lost-you just don’t know where you are for a few hours”

  11. Bob B says:

    What a great story…airmen together in the air or on the ground is always special…It is sad to read some of the pathetic comments above most likely from people who never really grasped what this brotherhood is all about.

    • Lawrence says:

      Lindbergh also had a sadistic sense of humor.
      One sweltering day he gave a fellow pilot a glass of kerosene instead of water. The “friend” doubled over in agony, collapsed, and was hospitalised.
      That’s what “brotherhood is all about?”

  12. Rex says:

    Great story, Mr. Reiner! I’ve always been a big Lindbergh fan and wish I could have had the opportunity to fly with him.

  13. Mauleflyer says:

    My hero in many ways but not all. Thanks for the insite.

  14. Dan Katen says:

    Well I don’t know too much about fixed wing guys but helicopter pilots are never lost. They may be momentarily disoriented but never lost and then we do fly down and look at the water tower to make sure where we are. :) Sunny side up.

  15. John Roper says:

    That was one story I had to print out for the rest of the family.Thank you, John

  16. When I was a Third Officer/relief co-pilot and Second Officer/flight navigator we also had Charles Lindbergh with us on Pan Am 707 flights from New York to Frankfurt. I met him twice when he made brief visits to the cockpit and have never forgotten those encounters with a pioneer aviator. Many years later we learned of his extra-marital affairs and German children… “Sic transit Gloria” (Btw, our senior pursers told us he preferred to sit in Economy rather than First Class.)

  17. Gene Fendler says:

    In 1962, my parents flew Pan Am to Europe to visit relatives. My father had a very nice conversation with a fellow passenger and when he introduced himself, he learned that the passenger was Charles Lindbergh. My father had Lindbergh autograph the cover of an in-flight Pan Am magazine, “Clipper.” I still have the cover framed as a valued keepsake.

  18. Howard Billman says:

    I too have visited the small cemetary where Charles Lindabergh was buried on Maui overlooking the Ocean…The small church and graveyard are simple examples of a man who achieved “everything” but in the end only wished peace and quiet. His last days were spent in his home in Maui, without electricity…..I think the world expected too much of him and, as a human, he failed…..but no one can take away from him…what he did.