By Jamil Zainaldin
In last week’s column I wrote of Charles Lindbergh, who flew into his future by way of Souther Field in Americus, Georgia. In the years following his solo flight in 1923, he learned the aviation trade at breakneck speed: first, as an army air reserve cadet in 1924-25 and next, as a pilot flying the U.S. Mails in 1926.
Inspired by Raymond Orteig’s offer of a $25,000 cash prize for a New York-to-Paris nonstop flight, Lindbergh threw himself into the challenge. He taught himself celestial navigation and began designing an entirely new, one-of-a kind plane that could carry only one person and enough fuel to make a transatlantic crossing. He named it the Spirit of St. Louis.
On the morning of May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field in New York and landed 33 and a-half hours later at Le Bourget Field near Paris. As he taxied to a stop in darkness, he was completely unprepared for the throngs that greeted him. Overnight, the “Lone Eagle” became an international hero, the best-known person on the face of the earth.
When Lindbergh returned to the United States in 1927, he set off on a forty-eight-state tour in the Spirit of St. Louis. He made his return visit to Georgia on October 11.
Flying from Jacksonville, Florida, via the Georgia towns of McRae, Vidalia, and Millen, the Spirit of St. Louis landed at Candler Field in Hapeville at two o’clock on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon. A large crowd undeterred by the weather greeted him.
Atlanta Mayor Isaac N. Ragsdale and Georgia Gov. Lamartine Hardman gave an official welcome as he stepped from his plane. They escorted the young flier to downtown Atlanta, where a parade was planned.
Hovering in the background, always just off center stage, was William B. Hartsfield, a city alderman. A student pilot and ardent aviation enthusiast thoroughly familiar with Candler Field, he angled a position as chair of the City Council’s Aviation Committee. The opportunity this young enthusiast saw in Lindbergh’s visit would change the city.
Lindbergh’s motorcade formed at the intersection of Whitehall (now Peachtree) and Forsyth streets in downtown Atlanta, the beginning of the parade route. The parade meandered along West Peachtree and Peachtree streets in the late afternoon, and then turned on North Avenue toward the Georgia Institute of Technology; thousands of cheering spectators lined the streets as part of the city’s official “Lindbergh Day.”
Another 20,000 people gave him a hero’s welcome at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field, where Lindbergh called on Atlantans’ “good will” to be “generous” in their view of “passenger and freight air service” (yes, there would be costs) and to recognize that a new day was dawning for commercial aviation.
This was a visionary message, some might even say deluded: most Americans still viewed aviation as a dangerous and quixotic pursuit (which is what made Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight so electric, after all).
But this sober, earnest, sincere young man was a new air-age prophet not to be denied. The city’s celebration of Lindbergh was the largest public gathering in Atlanta’s history, not to be outdone until the premiere of Gone With the Wind in 1939. Nor did the city’s leaders miss the message. They reported to the daily papers (the Journal and the Constitution) that “the good will of the general public” was “assured.”
Alderman Hartsfield and his City Council colleagues wasted no time in making the most of Lindbergh’s brief visit. Naming a thoroughfare after him was easy (today’s Lindbergh Drive). Of greater consequence was the city’s installation of an expensive “electric illumination” system for Candler Field — a prerequisite for nighttime Air Mail service.
Things moved quickly after that. In 1928 Pitcairn Aviation made the spiffed-up and modernized Candler Field an official U.S. Air Mail stop in its New York to Miami route (it was the government’s mail subsidy, paid by the pound, that kept carriers in business). In 1929 the city purchased Candler Field outright as its municipal airport. (It eventually became, of course, Hartsfield-Jackson International.)
What better “Forward Atlanta” advertisement for a city that also called itself the Gateway to the South?
Success followed success. In 1930 Eastern Air Transport (formerly Pitcairn and soon-to-be Eastern Air Lines) named Candler Field a stop in its New York to Florida route. Delta Air Corporation (as it was then called) expanded its service to include Atlanta, eventually deciding to move its headquarters there from Louisiana. Though there have been rocky financial times, especially during the Great Depression era and modern deregulation, from that day to this there has been no looking back — for the airlines or the city.
Georgia’s and Lindbergh’s fates intertwined, first in 1924 when Lindbergh soloed at Souther Field, and again when he returned to Atlanta as a conquering hero.
What can we say of these visits to Georgia by Lindbergh? Certainly this: multiple factors fortuitously aligned so that Georgia changed Lindbergh’s life, and Lindbergh changed Georgia’s. But something more than chance is involved here.
What Lindbergh and Hartsfield shared were diligence and preparation, and a willingness to take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself. For that, we — Georgia and the world — are all beneficiaries.