Spirit of St Louis
This is obviously from a little earlier time than most of what I post here. It is also, just as obviously, “iconic” in the truest sense of the word.
Let’s look at a pioneering aircraft.
I first became interested in the whole category we call “air and space” when I was 5 years old. Apollo 8 orbiting the moon in December 1968 is one of my very first memories. I’ll say I read everything I could about the space program, but seriously that was before “reading” really played much of a role in my life. But still, there was a lot of kid oriented space and aviation material out at the time and my parents encouraged the budding interest. Later, when I was 10, that interest narrowed in more on World War II. But never completely, exclusively.
This airplane, the “Spirit of St Louis” is one of those things I had awareness of from as far back as I can remember. As a kid I was fascinated by its look; with the silver dope finish and high wing monoplane design I thought it looked shockingly modern for its its age. Again, as a kid that mostly just meant compared to the other airplanes in the same section of the book! Funny, now as someone retired from the aviation industry I look at it and see a typical 1920s design. But it still has a rightness to its shape and proportion that makes it an attractive little airplane, a timeless beauty.
Early in the 20th Century aviation was THE happening thing. It was the most exciting and rapidly developing technology in a world becoming aggressively modern. Many businessmen sponsored competitions and prizes of different sorts, speed and distance records getting the most attention. A New York hotel owner by the name of Raymond Orteig put up a $25000 dollar prize for the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris (or the reverse).
Several tried for it. There were four crashes involving six fatalities and a number of injuries.
Charles Lindbergh was a young air mail pilot, and former fighter pilot, who managed to put together the needed sponsorship to get an airplane built. He was convincing enough that his mail experience meant he could navigate and handle the long distance.
He approached Ryan Airlines (at the time, several airlines and aircraft manufacturers were all in one companies) about building a customized version of their M-2 mail plane.
This was a type Lindbergh was familiar with, but it would need to be heavily modified to get the needed range. Apart from the obvious, more fuel, that also meant a lengthened wing to generate more lift. It also led to the plane’s defining look with no front window. Lindbergh insisted he didn’t need to see ahead, he was used to flying mail planes with a load in front; forward visibility meant slipping the plane sideways, usually right until the final flare for landing. Further, Lindbergh liked the idea of putting the largest fuel tank ahead of his pilot’s seat because it would keep the plane perpetually out of balance; which would force him to stay awake and alert the whole time he was in the air.
On May 20, 1927 Lindbergh took off in his new airplane from New York. He landed in Paris 33 1/2 hours later. The pace of aviation development from that time is staggering, the number I grew up always seeing was 42… years later that man landed on the Moon. Lindbergh was still alive to see it. Maybe 42 truly is the answer to everything…
The impact of this flight was earth shaking. The whole world knew about it. A generation of youth grew up fascinated by this branch of technology. Literally EVERY every pilot from the World War II era was shaped by this event. Charles Lindbergh was a rock star in the US, France, Britain, Germany and many other countries. He traveled the world promoting aviation, air mail, disaster relief and more. He was a part of that universal language that unites flyers regardless of national issues.
That global fame led to some controversy too. In 1936, at the request of the US government, Lindbergh traveled to Europe to assess the state and threat of German aviation. He remained a celebrity wherever he went and received the royal treatment in Germany. He returned home in 1938 convinced that Nazi Germany was immensely powerful and it would be a mistake to think of fighting them. He became very actively involved in the “America First” movement and wrote an article for Reader’s Digest in which he stated Russia was a more natural enemy of the US and western nations should present a united front against them. This all put him aggressively at odds with the Roosevelt administration. He made a deep and lasting enemy of FDR. His active involvement in his causes continued after the start of the War right up until December of 1941.
Charles Lindbergh’s beliefs and politics aligned him with a pretty sizable minority group in the US. People like Henry Ford and Joseph Kennedy Sr. We could argue the rightness or wrongness of that movement at length, and it was argued at length at the time. But the thing is, on December 7, 1941 they all remembered that they were Americans first. Charles Lindbergh, like thousands of others who had opposed a US involvement in European Wars; wholehearted devoted himself to serving his country at war. He wanted to return to the Army Air Force as an officer. But FDR utterly forbade his return to uniform.
So he joined with Henry Ford in developing a mass production site for the B-24 Liberator (at Willow Run Michigan, I’m less than two miles from that site as I type this). After about a year’s work he moved on to Chance Vought to work on load and range issues for the F4U Corsair. In that capacity he arranged to represent the manufacturer in the field. Which meant he wound up flying combat missions with Marine fighter squadrons (mostly VMF-222 and VMF-216). He flew about 50 combat missions as a civilian. He also volunteered his services to help P-38 squadrons add to their range. MacArthur was enthusiastic about having such a well known celebrity helping out his forces and he flew several more combat missions in P-38s. I should mention here that Charles Lindbergh truly was a capable pilot and engineer; he DID provide the help he claimed he could adding 10-15% to the range of a Lightning. He also shot down a Ki-51 Sonia on July 28, 1944.
This is the Revell kit. It is from early this century (2005?) and is a sort of transition kit; nicely detailed and well molded, but not quite the perfect fit we expect from the top manufacturers today (or even then if you’re talking about Tamiya or Hasegawa). There actually ARE some choices with the decals! The flags added during several goodwill trips in the late ’20s (as currently seen on the airplane) are included. And the distinctive “Damascene” look on the forward fuselage is provided including a decal for the spinner. But the spinner was actually replaced BEFORE the famous trans-Atlantic flight with an unadorned replacement (because of a deep crack). So you can build it either very early or very late. I’m not 100% satisfied with the result, and photographing it here really brought out some flaws. But silver finishes are notorious for that.
Overall, not a bad kit. But it will require more traditional modeling skills than most modern kits do.
What a coincidence ! I’m just in the middle of watching a fascinating series called “War Factories”, and, of course, Willow FIeld, Michigan is repeatedly featured in a number of the episodes.
Oh cool! There’s not much of it left now, one building saved by Yankee Air Museum where they keep the flying part of their collection. But when built it was the largest factory in the world.
I made a Revelle kit back in 1967. The wing about 10-12″ so 1/48? I had just seen the “Spirit of Saint Louis” movie with James Stewart (1957, the 30 year anna) as a TV movie for the 40th anna. I had been enamored by Lindberg since my first books revealed the home town boy made good. Didn’t hear the America First stuff till about 1990. Have several of Anne Morrow Lindberg’s books as well (she’s gifted!). Still a fascinating era and story.
I fixed your typo Joe.
Yeah it was definitely an interesting and exciting era! Lindbergh may have stepped in it politically, but his contributions in science (pioneering work in organ transplants!) and technology are important and significant. I think the current “cancel culture” can’t grasp his all too human duality; great but flawed… go figure!