In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This is part II in a series about how philanthropic gifts have shaped Georgia. You can read part I here.
By Jamil Zainaldin
Did you know that the great aviator Charles Lindbergh taught himself to fly in 1923 at a decommissioned World War I pilot training facility near the community of Americus, Georgia, just ten miles from Plains?
Lindbergh had a bumpy beginning as a young adult. He attended college for two semesters and then dropped out. He turned up next in Nebraska, where he worked for a while as a wing walker for stunt flyers. It was in Florida, while clearing brush from a small plot of land his father owned, that Lindbergh’s interest in becoming a pilot was first aroused when he saw an ad for surplus World War I biplanes in a place called Americus, the site of a decommissioned World War I airfield. With the $500 he got by selling his motorcycle, he bought a two-place JN-4 Jenny. After three weeks of self-taught takeoffs and landings in the somnolent Georgia countryside, Lindbergh turned his plane west into the setting sun. He was going to become a barnstormer, by golly, out in the western prairie that he already knew and could charge $5 for five-minute rides.
He did okay. When the barnstorming season ended later that autumn, he worked his way into a paying job flying the airmail for Uncle Sam. Life expectancy for barnstorming flyers was short and for airmail pilots, who flew in all kinds of weather, even shorter.
In 1927, a virtual flying hobo and tempting death in the only two occupations he knew, he decided to go after the $25,000 prize offered by a New York City hotelier, Raymond Orteig, to be awarded for the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, either from Paris to New York or New York to Paris. That’s the equivalent of about $333,000 today. It was very tempting, and people were going after it. They were usually never heard from again.
For the trip, Lindbergh himself designed a mono-winged plane that he named the Spirit of St. Louis, after the city where he raised the money to build it. He learned on his own how to navigate using the stars. On the morning of May 20, 1927, he took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, and nearly crashed on takeoff due to a heavy fuel load. He disappeared over the horizon and was unheard of for the next 33 hours.
At precisely the time and in the location he planned for, Lindbergh’s odyssey ended as he descended through the night sky and landed at Le Bourget Field in Paris. When he came to a stop, his plane was mobbed — to his utter shock. It seemed all of Paris was there waiting for him. He was the most famous man on earth.
This part you know. Now let me tell you the part you may not know.
When he returned to the United States, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation of New York offered to pay all expenses for a victory tour for Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis. In just four months, he would touch down in 92 cities in 48 states. Lindbergh would use the occasion to speak on the potential of civil aviation.
In Europe, commercial and military aviation was going great guns. Just a few weeks before Lindbergh, two French flyers took off from Paris heading for New York, and all of Europe was holding its breath. In the States, there seemed little interest. Our country was strangely out of step — and there was a reason.
Europe had lived with airplanes buzzing overhead during World War I. Stories of derring-do in the clouds and of killer aces with names like Baron von Richthofen and Eddie Rickenbacker were front-page fare, and aviation’s momentum survived — and even thrived — in the transition to peace.
To most Americans, aviation was something associated with the war “over there.” In a time of peace, it was the element of danger, as was the case with auto racing, that made aviation appealing as a spectator sport. It was gasoline, nicotine, and moonshine, after all, that fueled both (this was the Prohibition era).
Civil, military, and commercial aviation boosters saw their moment in “Lucky” Lindy. He was lucky (he always had been), he was clean cut, and he was smart, too. Here was the perfect promoter for the future of civil aviation: a role model, and alive!
Lindbergh’s scheduled stop in Georgia finally came on October 11, 1927. His plane touched down in Hapeville in the same vicinity as today’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Back then, it occupied the grounds of the old Candler race track.
Crowds turned out in droves. A parade was given in his honor along Peachtree Street, with people packed five and ten deep. Everyone turned out. The motorcade eventually turned off North Avenue into Grant Field, the Georgia Tech stadium, where Lindbergh was scheduled to speak. It was a full house, with people spilling out into the streets. This handsome young man, perfectly sober and levelheaded, gave an inspiring talk on aviation’s future. First there was the horse, and then the horseless carriage. Now there was the “Lone Eagle,” that mind-boggling presence who single-handedly shrank the world. The governor, mayor, and city council were all on hand.
Lindbergh’s gala celebration in Atlanta caught the attention of the tour’s New York-based sponsor, the Guggenheim Foundation. Guggenheim family members approached Georgia Tech with an offer to fund an aviation program, and in 1931 Tech opened the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics in a brand-new building with classrooms, offices, and lab space. In a single stroke, Tech expanded its focus from a traditional industry — like textile manufacturing — to a modern one in takeoff mode. Nothing anywhere, least of all in Atlanta, would ever be the same.
The city council moved quickly. It voted to fund the electrical lighting of its runway in Hapeville in an attempt attract the lucrative U.S. Air Mail service. It worked. In 1930, a Louisiana-based air service called Delta added the city of Atlanta as one of its stops, and then moved its headquarters there. In 1934, the biggest air service company in the country, Eastern Air Lines, made Atlanta its hub for the lucrative New York to Florida air service. (The company recruited World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker to run its operations.)
We know how the story turns out. Today, Atlanta’s commercial airport is the busiest in the world. But who remembers where it all began: a small town in central Georgia and the generosity of the Guggenheim Foundation?
Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.