Even something as old as human flight – nearly a century old, in fact – can be anything but old hat, if the right person does the right thing at the right moment in time – and chooses to do so in the most motivational, inspirational manner possible.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet that person: Erik Lindbergh, a 37-year-old Seattle-area pilot and flight instructor with a famous name and lineage – and soon, most likely, a lot more fame than what goes with the fact of being the grandson of pioneer aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, who wowed the world 75 years ago this May as the first person to fly across the Atlantic, alone, in his famous Ryan monoplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis.”
Friday morning, the grandson who was just 9 when his world-renowned grandfather – the “Lone Eagle,” who was fastidious in his planning and research, and thus despised the term “Lucky Lindy” – died in 1974 took the keys to a specially configured, $300,000-plus Lancair Columbia 300, newly emblazoned: “The New Spirit of St. Louis.”
“I have one condition,” The Lancair Co. (http://www.lancair.com) founder Lance Neibauer told Lindbergh as he turned over the keys to what, in essence, is “loaner” plane N142LC. “I’ll be in Paris,” Neibauer said. “You have to personally hand them back over.”
“I will do that,” Lindbergh said as the crowd of about 100 Lancair factory employees laughed and applauded the line. They later cheered as the pilot – after a thorough visual inspection of the plane, of course – rolled down the taxiway and took off into the clear blue sky for a “spin around the block,” as it were.
The world is full of hype and of sequels these days, of “Lethal Weapon 12″ and Disney Happy Meals. But one man, alone, captivated the world back in 1927, in a way few others have since, as he flew those 3,600 miles non-stop over the ocean to Paris and a famed airfield mob landing scene that one can picture in the mind’s eye, with Jimmy Stewart at the controls in the movie “Spirit of St. Louis.”
As you’d expect, today’s plane easily outraces original
But in his own way, despite the satellite phone hookup and all the other technological advances he will make use of, Erik Lindbergh will be just as alone as he crosses the vast ocean. But because this is 2002, we’ll be able to follow along, via the Internet and TV (a 2-hour History Channel special, “Lindbergh Flies Again,” is planned) and get our own sense of the journey whose steps the grandson is retracing.
Lindbergh and his borrowed Lancair are due to visit the Experimental Aircraft Association’s “Sun `n Fun” show at Lakeland, Fla., on April 7. A week later, he’s scheduled to leave San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, following the “Lone Eagle’s” flight plan to St. Louis, then on to New York, where he expects to depart May 1, bound for Le Bourget Airport, outside Paris – the successful destination of his grandfather.
Because this plane, made of advanced composite materials, can cruise at 220 mph, and will average 184 mph, Lindbergh’s flight is expected to take only 19 ½ hours, compared to the 33 ½-hour flight time for his grandfather, whose plane was made of steel tubing, fabric and wood.
Ah, but there’s more to it all than that – much more, and wouldn’t you have guessed so? Because Erik Lindbergh already has staged what many call a miraculous recovery from the rheumatoid arthritis that struck him 15 years ago and as little as five years ago had him barely able to walk, and with a cane at that. A breakthrough biotech drug called Enbrel (http://www.enbrel.com) made his comeback, and these adventurous plans possible.
The flights are not just a union of Lindbergh and Lancair, which has delivered about 50 planes and has about 260 more on order from its Bend factory, but primarily a project of the X-Prize Foundation (http://www.xprize.org) in St. Louis. Much like the prizes offered to aviators for pioneering flights in the early 1900s, the X-Prize is a $10 million prize aimed at jump-starting the space tourism industry. The cash will be awarded to the first team to privately shoot a spaceship with three people aboard to a height 100 kilometers (62 ½ miles) above the Earth – and return safely, then repeat the launch within two weeks.
Lindbergh, whose grandfather won the $25,000 Orteig prize with his successful trans-Atlantic voyage, has said he’s making the cross-country and across-the-ocean flights “for three reasons: to promote the X-Prize competition and the future of space travel, to support the development and access to new treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, and to honor the legacy of innovation made famous by my grandfather.”
At first, Lancair founder thought Lindbergh message was someone’s joke
Introducing Lindbergh to the crowd of workers and fleet of media, Neibauer told of getting a message slip from “Jody at the front desk” one day a year ago, taking a glance and thinking it was from a secretary named Erika, then stuffing it in his pocket. When he finally read what it said, he still wasn’t convinced: “I get a lot of crazy calls,” he said, recalling that he thought at the time: “This stockbroker is being really creative.”
The Lancair founder said Lindbergh “could have chosen any plane in the nation,” but picked his company’s for three reasons: safety, performance and technology. And coincidentally, he said, the Columbia 300 took about 90 days to complete – roughly the same time Ryan Airlines Inc. took to build the first “Spirit of St. Louis.”
“We’re trying to follow tradition here,” Neibauer said, before reading off a list of sponsors that included Irridium and its satellite phone technology, a local firm – a Bend Municipal Airport neighbor, in fact – Precise Flight and its Pulse-Lights and flap panel, and Oregon Aero’s specially designed cockpit seat for the solo flier.
Lindbergh only had a few things to say to his audience. “These keys represent the spirit of Lancair,” he said, recalling how when his grandfather “talked about his flight in ‘The Spirit of St. Louis,’ he would always refer to it as `we’ – meaning the aircraft and himself were inseparable. The beating of his heart and the firing of the spark plugs were inseparable.”
Lindbergh said that to him, the plane’s builders are the “helping hands underneath” his wings. “You guys are the ones who are pushing me along, helping me get across” the mighty Atlantic.
“It is with incredible gratitude to those of you that have helped to make this possible that I accept this key, and I want to go on this mission, and” – he stopped, with a nervous laugh – “that’s it, or I’m going to break down. Thanks again.” And then came the applause, the inevitable reporter questions, before and after his brief flight. (Not his first at the controls of this plane, by the way, but the first since the wings were replaced with ones that can hold more fuel for the cross-ocean flight.)
Spark plug stays home, but he’ll bring along grandfather’s Swiss Army knife
Asked by a bend.com reporter if he would carry any mementos of his grandfather’s on the flight, Lindbergh said the aviator and his wife didn’t keep most of the many items given to them in their travels – instead, they were donated to museums.
He said that his grandfather believed, “The care and feeding of possessions can often slow you down.”
“I have a spark plug, and I’m not going to take that” along, he said, but there will be one of his grandfather’s belongings he will bring across the ocean: “I do have a little Swiss Army knife.”
Lindbergh talked of recent preparations he hopes never to have to make use of, for surviving in case the plane has to ditch in the ocean. He went to Groton, Conn., where a simulated cockpit is turned upside and flooded. Then there was a stint of sea survival training on New York’s Long Island Sound, wearing the exposure suit he’ll don before leaving New York, jumping out and deploying the raft he’ll also bring along.
Lindbergh said he’ll also carry a device called a “Heed’s bottle,” similar to a scuba tank, which would provide five to 10 minutes worth of air. The ocean water would be so cold, “you have a maximum of 10 seconds to get out of the aircraft.” He could use a fire extinguisher to inflate the raft, should it run into trouble.
“I don’t plan to get my feet wet,” he said.
Biotech drug has `given me another chance’ at life, aviator’s grandson says
Rather than instilling a new level of anxiety, Lindbergh said, “It made me feel like it was possible to do this”
“Five years ago, I was walking, very painfully, with a cane,” he said, while small planes departing from Bend soared overhead. “Now I can do these things, thanks to this amazing biotech drug.” – not to mention a double, total knee replacement. “I can walk, I can ski – carefully. It’s given me another chance, and with that chance, I want to do something to help people, inspire people.”
Next question: Has preparing for these flights given Lindbergh a new appreciation for his grandfather’s daring journey? “I have come to understand, I think the odds of him surviving that flight were not good,” Erik Lindbergh said. “He did it through sheer willpower and intricate planning – he hated the term `Lucky (Lindy)’”
Now, with all the technology that’s come over the past 75 years, Lindbergh said he chose the Lancair plane because it’s “the fastest, most rigorously tested, safest aircraft I could find.”
Josh Schroeter, a spokesman for Immunex, said Lindbergh’s recovery on the biotech drug Enbrel has “been really miraculous. Erik is just one of our many success stories.”
While Lindbergh took off and circled the area for about 15 minutes, Neibauer said the pilot has been as hands-on about the plane’s preparations as his famous grandfather was. “He comes down for a week at a time,” and has helped decide how things should be laid out within easy reach, for example.
Plane feels `fantastic,’ but a bit different with extra room for fuel in wings
Surrounded – well, mobbed, sort of – by reporters after taxiing to a stop and opening the cockpit door, Lindbergh said the plane felt “fantastic,” although in its new configuration, “I could tell the difference, a little bit of sluggishness in the wings, banking. Otherwise, it’s the same plane.”
Lindbergh has been trying out various Lancair planes over the past several months, getting comfortable with the aircraft. He recalled a moment during a flight to Klamath Falls, aboard this very plane, when he “looked out at the wing, and I thought: Yeah, this is going to do it. This wing is going to carry me across the Atlantic. And it’s a good feeling.”
“This aircraft is a rocket, and it takes off fast,” he told reporters. Asked what his first words would be on landing in Paris, Lindbergh joked: “Anybody got a bed I can borrow, with a soft pillow?”
“I’m feeling very good – I’m elated, really,” he said.
With the far more advanced weather data now available, Lindbergh figures he can avoid any serious problems such as thunderstorms (not to mention the infamous wing-icing issue his grandfather dealt with). He can maneuver around the trouble spots or even delay the flight, if need be.
“We can pick an altitude that gives us the best tailwinds, the least headwinds,” he explained, relaxing in the cockpit of the black and white plane with its new, red white and blue swirling pinstripe on the sides.
One big difference – this Lindbergh plans to get some pre-flight sleep
But once in the air, one key – familiar to Charles Lindbergh or Jimmy Stewart fans – is staying awake. Erik Lindbergh noted that his grandfather didn’t get any sleep the night before the flight, or during, either, “in an aircraft that really wouldn’t fly straight.” That’s a situation he doesn’t intend to repeat. “I can change that. I can get sleep … We know so much more in 2002 about physiology … (and) biorhythm cycles,” he said.
One reporter joked about how it feels to have a front windshield – a reference to the original “Spirit of St. Louis,” which had to carry so much extra fuel that Charles Lindbergh had to rely on instruments and had no forward view. Erik Lindbergh told of sitting in a replica of his grandfather’s plane, marveling at how he made the flight with “no forward reference at all.”
And while he said he’s been told he’ll be able to send and receive e-mail – quite a trick, even in 2002, when you’re in the middle of the ocean – he will use the satellite phone to keep in touch with Mission Control at the St. Louis Science Center, as well as air traffic controllers during his over-land journeys.
A bend.com reporter asked Lindbergh whether it’s realistic to expect his flight to generate the kind of worldwide attention his grandfather’s did, long before we became bombarded by hundreds of information sources and dramatic TV portrayals. His answer was as plainspoken as his famous grandfather was known to be.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “What’s important is if I reach one person who’s facing adversity in their life and help, then it’s all worthwhile.”
And, he noted, people will be able to watch Mission Control over the Internet and follow along on his journey – something unthinkable 75 years ago, when his grandfather couldn’t communicate with anyone.
’I feel 200 percent,’ after rebound from crippling arthritis, pilot says
But even with all those advances, a solo flight across the Atlantic still has its many risks, Lindbergh said in response to a bend.com reporter’s question: “You’re exactly right – it’s no walk in the park.”
He explained that one reason he chose the Lancair plane is that it has a “side-stick control,” which means that “I can kick the seat back and stretch,” allowing him to move a bit and stay limber – important during long hours in a cramped space, even if rheumatoid arthritis didn’t almost cripple you.
And how does he feel now – 100 percent. “I feel 200 percent,” he said with a boyish smile (though he’s a dozen years older than his grandfather was for the famed New York-to-Paris flight).
The medical-research aspect of the trip’s goals is “one of the wonderful parallels” to the 1927 journey, Lindbergh said. “A lot of people don’t know, my grandfather helped develop the perfusion pump that allows us to keep organs and tissues alive outside of the body,” a big advance toward the medical breakthroughs like organ transplants that we sometimes take for granted.
Erik Lindbergh’s grandfather was an extremely private person, even before the sensational kidnapping of his son, which he blamed on the media circus that he saw before the word “superstar” was coined. What of his grandson – is he ready for all those interviewers asking the same question over and over?
“It’s a tradeoff I looked at very clearly,” he said, but he added, “I’m a people person.”
Grandfather saw cockpit apparitions; grandson hopes to experience it, too
Another reporter asked if he felt his grandfather would be along for the ride, so to speak.
“You know, that’s one of the things I hope to experience. That’s one of the unknowns I’m not sure about,” Erik Lindberg said. “My grandfather discussed seeing apparitions in the cockpit,” affecting even his scientific mind in ways that affected the rest of his life. “It led him to examine the essence of humanity,” through travels to visit primitive cultures, such as those in the Philippines, the grandson said.
There’s another parallel with his grandfather’s trip: the concern about keeping any unnecessary items off the plane, to reduce its weight and extend the range of its fuel. For that reason, two “eyeball cameras” mounted above the controls, to give viewers a look in the cockpit, may not make the final cut.
Has Sept. 11 – a day in which planes were used for the worst of humanity, not its best – affected Lindbergh’s plans?
“What the people have said to me is, this flight is bringing out the most positive in people,” he said. General aviation has suffered in various ways since the terrorist attacks, but Lindbergh said, “Hopefully, I can show people that it’s something that is positive. Most pilots are the most intelligent, upstanding, caring people you will ever meet.”
“Together, we’ll come through this,” Lindbergh said.
Erik Lindbergh, the son of Jon Lindbergh, said he is married, with no kids but two dogs – border collies – and that his wife has been “incredibly supportive” of the effort he’s undertaking.
He also acknowledged that his life easily could be a book – a state gymnastics champion at age 12, only to later become “disabled, crippled, not able to walk.” As for the many who have helped him – and especially, the company whose drug did so much for him – “there’s no way I can ever repay them,” he said.
Lindbergh urged anyone with rheumatoid arthritis or who knows someone with that painful disease to visit another Website, http://www.raaccess.com.
Neibauer noted another way Lindbergh passes the time when on the road, to stay limber: “He’s great at hacky-sack.”
Oh, and what does he expect to eat while on the flight? “Low-residue foods, whatever that means,” he said, adding that he will learn more next week when his flight doctors fill him in. But he also knows what he would prefer to munch on.
“I like grandfather’s idea – just take a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of water,” he said.