San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

March 11th, 2014
Bartee Haile: Lindbergh was lucky before historic trans-Atlantic solo

This Week in Texas History: A column

“Slim” Lindbergh reported for pilot training at Brooks Field in San Antonio on Mar. 18, 1924 just three years before the skinny college dropout became the most famous man in the world

To the dismay of his father, a Minnesota congressman, Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. gave up his engineering studies in 1920 to become a barnstormer. The youth spent the next two years risking his neck for pocket change and having the time of his life.

However, by the summer of 1922 stiff competition was sucking the profit out of the barnstorming business. A massive influx of hungry thrill-seekers drove the price for a close-up gander at the clouds down from five bucks a head to a mere $2.50. Finding it hard to make ends meet, Lindbergh decided to learn to fly by the book instead of the seat of his pants.

A stranger suggested the U.S. Army, which offered the best training in the latest aircraft. Although the course consumed an entire year and required an up-front commitment of three more in uniform, Lindbergh could swing a transfer to the Army Air Reserve with only three weeks notice and resume his civilian career.

Convinced this was too good a bargain to pass up, Slim took the entrance exam on New Year’s Day 1924. Brimming with confidence after acing the test, he had three months to kill before the aviation school opened at Brooks Field in San Antonio.

With a pal named Leon Klink, who happened to own a Canuck he did not know how to fly, Lindbergh made the rounds of the southern airshows. Death-defying stunts kept the pair in meal money and provided the footloose volunteer with a final fling before facing the strict discipline of military life.

The acceptance notice from the Army was waiting at the Pensacola, Fla. post office in mid-February. Enrollment in the air academy was still a month away, so Slim talked his willing sidekick into a cross-country jaunt.

An embarrassing mishap the very next morning delayed their departure for sunny California. The engine of Klink’s airplane died over the ocean at an altitude of 200 feet, and the cool-headed pilot barely reached the shore, where the crippled craft plowed into a towering sand hill. Though not his first crash and far from his last, the accident was surely Lindbergh’s most humiliating as a convoy of emergency vehicles unnecessarily converged on the scene.

After patching up the plane, the daredevils headed west, and the adventure continued without a hitch until halfway across Texas. Running low on fuel and unable to spot a safe place to land in Real County, Lindbergh parked on the town square in the small community of Camp Wood.

The following day, he selected a local street as a substitute runway in spite of the fact that telegraph poles allowed less than a three-foot clearanceAs Lucky Lindy recalled decades later, “After all, one drove a car regularly through objects with only a few inches clearance. Why shouldn’t one do it with an airplane?”

Sound as the logic seemed, a sudden gust of wind caused the Canuck to clip one of the poles and spin propeller first into a hardware storeRefusing Lindbergh’s offer to pay for the damages, the proprietor took the intrusion in stride but the cursed plane did not.

By the time the materials arrived from Houston and the extensive repairs were completed, the duo had lost three more days on their tight timetable. California was simply out of the question after another aborted take-off ended in an encounter with a giant cactus that tore a wing to shreds.

The comical collision put the Canuck out of commission for a week. Klink caught a train for the West Coast, and Lindbergh limped to San Antonio in the battered craft to keep his appointment with the Army.

Touching down at Brooks Field on Mar. 18, 1924, Lindbergh was met by a mob of mechanics amazed that anyone could get such a pitiful specimen off the ground. The officer in charge was not nearly so genial and ordered him to clear the runway.

Coaxing his airborne wreck to a nearby commercial airport, Lindbergh stored the Canuck in a hangar. He eventually put the pitiful plane back together and spent his free time cavorting in the clear Texas skies.

The Army training course proved so demanding that 86 of the 104 cadets bailed out before graduation. Slim Lindbergh not only survived the ordeal but finished at the top of his class. In March 1925, he was officially certified as an aviator.

Impressed as they were by the uncanny ability and unparalleled performance of lanky Lindbergh, neither instructors nor classmates could have dreamed he was fated to be the immortal Lone Eagle, the greatest hero of the twentieth century. Yet the successful New York-to-Paris flight in May 1927 that earned Charles Lindbergh a unique place in history also unleashed an avalanche of adulation that almost ruined his life.

Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here

COVER: Charles Lindberg sits in the open cockpit of an airplane in a photo dated 1923, the year before he reported to Brooks Field in San Antonio to join the U.S. Army’s Air Service.

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