Charles Lindbergh flies virus serum to Quebec

In recent years, the reputation of Charles Lindbergh has taken a number of hits. Many people who were alive just before World War II have not forgiven him for his praise of Nazi Germany and all his anti-war efforts on behalf of the America First movement. To Lindbergh’s credit, he abandoned the anti-war activities right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and went on, as a civilian, to fly combat missions in the South Pacific. Much more recently, we learned of Lindbergh’s separate German family—a secret kept for many years after his death and one that was never mentioned by his principal biographer, Scott Berg. Very few people approve of bigamy.

But whatever his personal flaws and shortcomings, there are some traits of Lindbergh’s that have never been questioned: he was a brave, distinguished, and incredibly capable aviator and he always demonstrated enormous loyalty to his friends—especially friends who were fellow pilots. These characteristics were on full display on April 24, 1928 (not quite a year after his historic flight to Paris), when Lindbergh flew anti-virus pneumonia serum to Quebec City, Canada, in an attempt to save the life of his aviator friend, Floyd Bennett, who was desperately ill in a Quebec hospital. He made the flight through heavy snow in blizzard conditions with gale-force winds in a single-engine, open cockpit Army biplane, the Curtis Falcon. He landed in early evening, not at an airport, but on the Plains of Abraham in downtown Quebec. The story is a fascinating one, but it does not have a happy ending.

The Mission

The decade of the 1920s was one of the most important in world aviation history. Flying records were being set on a near-daily basis. Pilots were often lionized by the press and the general public. In the mid- to late-1920s there was an unending fascination (we might now call it almost an obsession) with trans-Atlantic flight. Lindbergh was the most prominent of these aviators for his 1927 west to east solo crossing of the Atlantic, but there were many others, prominent then but largely forgotten today.

Floyd Bennett
Floyd Bennett was a decorated Navy pilot.

This story begins with a flight by German aviators that crossed the Atlantic east to west (recall Lindbergh’s 1927 flight was the easier west to east route) in a German single-engine Junkers W-33 airplane named “The Bremen.” Even that flight had a multi-national component. The two pilots, Ehrenfried Gunther Freiherr von Hunefeld and Herman Kohl, were German but their navigator, James Fitzmaurice, was an Irish Army major. The Bremen flight departed Baldonnel Aerodrome in Ireland around 5 am GMT on April 12, 1928, and after some considerable navigation error that nearly doomed the flight, landed on Greenly Island just off-shore the Canadian province of Quebec around 5 pm GMT on April 13. The Bremen itself was damaged and unflyable. After giving up on trying to repair their airplane, the Bremen crew was flown off the island to Quebec City in a Ford Trimotor piloted by Bernt Balchen and Floyd Bennett.

The trans-Atlantic flight was confirmed as successful. The three Bremen aviators were celebrated in North America and Europe for their achievement. Sometime later, President Calvin Coolidge awarded the US Distinguished Flying Cross to the three Bremen crew members. But tragically, one of their rescue pilots, Floyd Bennett, became gravely ill and was hospitalized in Quebec City. Bennett was himself a distinguished US Naval aviator who flew a number of sometimes controversial Arctic missions with Admiral Richard Byrd. For his Arctic flying with Byrd, Bennett was awarded the Medal of Honor (for non-combat achievements) and the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal. He was serving as a Naval aviator warrant officer during the flight to evacuate the Bremen crew.

There is some question as to exactly when Bennett contracted the pneumonia that eventually put him in the Quebec hospital. Bennett was apparently quite ill even before he left to do the Bremen flight and became even sicker when he returned to Quebec City. There are a few totally erroneous reports that he died in flight while rescuing the Bremen crew. Learning that Bennett was seriously ill, a call went out to John D. Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Medical Institute in New York City for serum to treat Bennett’s pneumonia. Mr. Rockefeller had directed that all possible assistance be given to help Bennett.

The original plan was to send the serum by train, but it was quickly determined that the train would take far too long. Rockefeller then reached Lindbergh, who was in New York and asked him if he would be willing to fly the serum to Canada. Lindbergh did not hesitate. He simply said, “I’ll go, if it will help Bennett.” Back then there was a loyalty and affinity among aviators that those of us pilots alive in the twenty-first century can only guess at.

Twelve bottles of the virus serum and three white mice were delivered to Curtiss Airport on Long Island from the Rockefeller Institute by a principal assistant to Rockefeller, Thomas P. Appleget, who then flew on to Quebec as Lindbergh’s passenger. The white mice were to be sacrificed in Quebec to determine exactly what type of pneumonia Bennett had contracted. The serum would then be administered.

The Airplane and the Departure Airport

Curtiss Falcon
The Curtiss Falcon was not exactly an all-weather airplane.

In New York, Lindbergh had his own airplane, the Spirit of Saint Louis, but apparently decided that it would be better to fly to Quebec in a Curtiss A-3 Falcon. This “unequal span” biplane with an aluminum tubing fuselage and a wing-span of 38 feet was powered by a Curtiss V-12 liquid cooled engine turning a two-blade fixed pitch propeller. The A-3 model was eventually sold to both the US Army and Navy and after some modifications was re-named the “Helldiver,” becoming the Navy’s first dive bomber. It was a two-seater with a cruising speed of around 100 knots, a range of about 650 miles, and a 14,000-foot ceiling. Lindberg’s Falcon was borrowed from the United States Army at a point in time when then-Colonel Lindbergh could have just about anything he wanted from the Army.

The departure airport, Curtiss Field, was then a civilian dirt strip near Mineola, New York, immediately adjacent to the much more prominent Roosevelt Field. Roosevelt Field was named in honor of Quentin Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt. Quentin had been killed as a US Army pilot in France during World War I. Lindbergh had flown from Roosevelt Field to Paris less than a year earlier and was very familiar with it. Roosevelt Field and Curtiss Field were consolidated by the Army during World War II and closed in 1951. As of September, 2020, the site comprises commercial buildings and shopping malls.

The Route and the Weather

The route from Mineola, Long Island, to Quebec is roughly 440 miles on a direct magnetic heading of about 020 degrees. Contemporary newspaper reports suggest that Lindbergh first flew directly north towards Albany, New York, and then took a slight dogleg right to Quebec. Lindbergh took off a little after 3 pm local time, anticipating a flight of around 3 hours 30 minutes to Quebec City. The weather was atrocious. He encountered gale force winds, snow with blizzard conditions at times and freezing cold in an open-cockpit airplane. The Falcon’s instrumentation was minimal, with Lindbergh relying almost entirely on his magnetic compass for navigation.

To try to test all of this out, I flew this same route in my flight simulator, trying as best as I could to replicate Lindbergh’s flight. I’m only an amateur pilot with slightly over 1000 hours of flying time, but I doubt I could have made it in real life. For a pilot like me, the trip would have verged on the suicidal. I suspect most pilots, even high-time professionals, might have refused to go. But recall, Lindbergh’s good friend, Floyd Bennett, was dying of pneumonia in a Quebec hospital. Charles Lindbergh went.

Lindbergh’s Arrival in Quebec City

Lindbergh in Quebec
Lindbergh was greeted as a hero when he arrived in Quebec.

Lindbergh made it in slightly less than four hours, landing on the snow-covered grass of the Plains of Abraham, a large park in central Quebec City, now known as “Battlefield Park.” The Plains of Abraham was the site of a crucial 1759 battle fought between the French and British forces during the French and Indian War in which both commanding generals were killed on the field.

The landing area, a section of the park known as “The Playing Field,” appears on modern maps to be around 1000 to 1500 yards in length. In the hands of Lindbergh, the master aviator, the Falcon—clearly a well-designed, well-engineered airplane—had no trouble handling the landing or the subsequent takeoff a day later. The serum was immediately rushed to Jeffery Hale Hospital in downtown Quebec with the highest hopes, only to have these hopes dashed for medical reasons, notwithstanding Lindbergh’s heroic efforts.

The Sad Conclusion

As it turned out, there were several types of deadly pneumonia virus in existence back then. The sacrificial white mice disclosed that Floyd Bennett had virus type three; the serum carried by Lindbergh worked only to treat virus types one and two. Lindbergh had carried a treatment that was useless and was not administered to Bennett. There was nothing more to be done, given the state of medicine in 1928. Even though he was in an oxygen tent, Bennett was told that Lindbergh had arrived and apparently smiled at him when Lindbergh was permitted to look into Bennett’s hospital room. But they had no conversation.

Bennett died a day later in the hospital, at 37. His wife and Admiral Byrd were with him at the time of his death. Bennet’s death made national headlines. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Lindbergh’s efforts to save Bennett triggered separate newspaper headlines and his bravery was given a good deal of recognition. His landing on the Plains of Abraham was greeted by a large crowd. While still in Quebec City, the city fathers hosted a dinner for him. He spent the night in one of the suites at the famous Hotel Frontenac in Quebec and flew the Curtiss back to New York the next day.

And before you finish reading this article, spare at least a few ounces of gratitude and appreciation for Lindbergh’s passenger, Mr. Appelget. He was there under direct orders from his employer, John D. Rockefeller. He was not a pilot. This was probably his first time in an open-cockpit biplane. He flew four hours through a blizzard. He probably held the vials of serum and the three white mice on his lap the whole time to keep them from freezing. There are no further reports on Mr. Appelget’s activities, but my guess is he took the train back to New York City.

Shortly after Bennett’s death, New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia identified a site in Brooklyn for New York City’s first fully functional commercial airport, to be named “Floyd Bennett Field.” Floyd’s wife was present at the dedication of the airport in 1930. Before and during World War II, Floyd Bennett Field was one of the busiest airports on the East Coast. It now comprises a helicopter pad and a short runway for radio-controlled aircraft.

Eighty years later, in 2008, as part of a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Battlefield Park, Charles Lindbergh’s grandson, Erik Lindbergh (himself an outstanding pilot), was flown in a helicopter to the exact spot on the Plains of Abraham where Charles set the Falcon down in 1928. During this ceremony, the City of Quebec unveiled a plaque commemorating Lindburgh’s virus serum flight. The plaque can be seen while walking along the northern edge of Battlefield Park, near the middle of the park.

6 Comments

  • Lindbergh’s achievements as an aviator are beyond dispute. I found your article both interesting and informative.
    While you have described the Curtiss Falcon accurately it should be noted that the accompanying photograph shows an OX 5 powered Travel Air.

  • Tom,

    Thank you for spotting the error. It was my mistake. The Air Facts editorial crew inserted the proper photo.

    Bill Fox

  • Wow, what a story! Never knew the Plains – which to Canadians is sort of our Gettysburg – was used for historic landings. My grandparents would meet CAL in Lake George NY when he visited Harold Bixby, one of the backers of the Spirit of St. Louis. The book of the same name is a classic. He really worked to repair his reputation during WW2 flying P-38’s in combat and helping pilots get maximum range on their missions. But an unusual guy….truly the “lone” eagle.

  • Thank you so much for your article about Lindbergh!! I am a fan of his life (with warts and all). He was a true aviator and loyal friend.

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