|Getting the stories of his emergency parachute jumps published in the AERONAUTIC REVIEW magazine almost caused airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh to loose his job. When the new Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics William P. MacCracken read those stories, he was not happy. Airmail planes falling out of the sky did not fit MacCracken's plan for getting aviation out of the gypsy barnstorming era and into a new age of safe commercial air travel. In his biography Secretary MacCracken tells how close he came to grounding Lindbergh before the Paris flight.|
P. MacCracken remembers ...
I thought this fellow Lindbergh may be a damn good pilot, but he's not going to help commercial aviation if he keeps dropping these airplanes around the countryside.
While this was going through my head my secretary came into the office and announced that Major Bill Robertson, for whom Lindbergh was flying, wanted to see me. "Well, I don't want to see him," I said. About that time Bill walked on in and said, "Mr. Secretary, I didn't like the sound of your voice." The door was open, and he had heard me.
We were on a Bill and Bill basis, so I said, "Oh, forget it, Bill. I'm not mad at you. But you've got a pilot out there named Lindbergh whom I'm concerned about. Now I know these damned war surplus planes you're flying don't cost very much, and you can afford to crack them up. But we are not going to help commercial aviation if we drop them around the countryside promiscuously.
"I guess this fellow Lindbergh is a darn good pilot and uses good judgment in many ways. But I can't allow this to go on. The first time it happened was all right, because anything can happen once. But to happen twice so close together, I think maybe he ought to stay on the ground a while and think it over. I think I'd better ground him for a week or two, so he won't be so eager to get into these tight spots."
Major Robertson threw up his hands and said, "Bill, please don't do that. I'll let you in on a secret. You've heard of the Orteig prize?"
"Sure I've heard of the Orteig prize," I said. "The day after I was sworn into office I flew with Rene Fonck in the Sikorsky in which he was going to try for the Orteig prize." Fonck, a dashing figure of a man who had downed seventy-five German planes while flying for the French, did try a short time later and cracked up at take-off, killing his mechanic and radio operator.
"Well," he continued, "we're trying to raise the money so that Lindbergh can compete for the prize. But we're still three or four thousand dollars short, and if you ground him for any reason, it doesn't make any difference why, we'll never get the rest of that money. Now, I promise you he won't crack up another air mail plane. I'll call St. Louis this afternoon and give orders that he is not to take off unless the weather is perfect." He paused and waited for a moment, but I didn't say anything. Then he said, "Lindbergh will be going off air mail flying soon anyway. He is going out to the Ryan factory in San Diego to supervise the building of his plane, so you don't have to worry. I just promise you he won't do it again before he takes off for Paris." Then he added, as a kind of after-thought, "Bill, I think he can make that flight."
"Okay, Bill," I said. "You win. I won't take any disciplinary action."
So I came very close there to rearranging the process of history.
Another incident that is known, because Lindbergh himself wrote
about it in The Spirit of St. Louis, concerns the aircraft regulations we
put through when we organized the Aeronautics branch of Commerce. We required
that planes flying after dark had to carry navigation lights. Lindbergh
was trying to save every ounce of weight, so he wrote and asked if I would
give him a waiver on that rule. I allowed as how the traffic between New
York and Paris was not going to be very heavy, so I granted the waiver.
|In 1968, while working with the authors of his biography, William MacCracken wrote to Charles Lindbergh to seek Lindbergh's cooperation with the authors. In his letter MacCracken mentioned the grounding incident. The following letter is from "Mr. Mac" by Michael Osborn and Joseph Riggs.|
July 15, 1968
Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh
About a year ago I succumbed to delivering a commencement address at Memphis, Tennessee. One of the by-products was a commitment on my part to cooperate with a couple of professors at Memphis State College in their doing my biography. For years friends have urged me to write my memoirs. My stock reply was I would rather make history than write it, but I fear that my days of making history are limited and perhaps I should try to record a few of the events of which I have special knowledge.
As far as aviation is concerned, you played a very important part in that picture. Enclosed is a letter written by the two faculty members, which they asked me to forward to you. In it they refer to the second jump which you made while flying from St. Louis to Chicago. It so happened that Bill Robertson came into my office in the Department of Commerce while I had on my desk the report. I told him that I was thinking of grounding you so you wouldn't be taking so many chances. Bill persuaded me not to do it because he said they were still trying to get the last $2000.00 or $3000.00 to build the plane for you and if you were grounded for any reason they would never get the rest of the money. He assured me that there would not be another repeat performance and that he would phone St. Louis and give instructions that you were not to take off for Chicago if there was the slightest doubt about the weather at that end of the route.
Was sorry not to see you when you came down to Washington in connection with the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Inauguration of the Airmail Service. These days it seems to be one anniversary after another—many of them the 50th.
I am just passing on this letter to you and can assure you that both of these men are most reliable.
Kindest regards and best wishes.
|Charles Lindbergh wrote back to MacCracken and indicated that he never knew about the near grounding. Lindbergh then reminisces about his airmail flying days in this letter from "Mr. Mac".|
July 21, 1968
I received your July 15th letter just before leaving the United States on this trip to Europe, but have had no chance to reply sooner. I am delighted to hear that your biography is underway, and will of course be glad to help in any way I can.
I can well understand your (1927) reaction to my fourth emergency parachute jump, but I did not know about your conversation with Bill Robertson at your office in the Department of Commerce Building. Certainly Bill didn't say anything to me about not taking off for Chicago "if there was the slightest doubt about the weather at that end of the route." If we had stayed on the ground when there was doubt about weather in 1927, I'm afraid the airmail would have just about stopped moving!
Naturally, I'm deeply grateful to you for not having grounded me after that fourth jump. But I think if you had, ramifications would have arisen to show even more clearly than was then the pretty obvious case that airlines were in need of regulation and finance. I think the background of my jumps will be interesting to you even now, and I don't think I have ever brought it out more than fragmentarily before.
My first emergency jump was after a collision of SE-5's during a scheduled sham-combat attack at Kelly Field, Texas. The next three were in relation to Robertson Aircraft Corporation operations. The first of these was during a test flight in an OX-5 (or was it an OXX-6?) biplane constructed at St. Louis by one of the Robertson Aircraft engineers. I couldn't get the plane out of a flat, lunging spin.
My second two emergency jumps were, as you know, while flying the mail between St. Louis and Chicago. Both involved inadequate equipment and improper maintenance.
The Robertson Aircraft Corporation, like most of the small airplane-manufacturing companies scattered around the country, rebuilt and reconditioned salvaged Army airplanes—"Jennies," "Standards," and for the airmail line "DHs". The only non-military plane I recall the corporation owning (aside from the plane I bailed out of, mentioned above) was a Curtiss "Oriole."
These planes purchased from Army salvage often arrived at Lambert Field in pretty bad condition—rotting longerons, rusting wires and fittings, badly torn fabric, etc. Some of the DH plywood fuselages had been hacked with axes by Army personnel so there would be no doubt about their being placed on the salvage list.
Robertson Aircraft personnel were expert at turning this material into flyable aircraft—flyable, at least, on pre-Bureau-of-Aeronautics, barnstorming standards. Based in these standards, and because of their low cost, pilots accepted the Robertson products, and were glad to get them. But we expected troubles, such as those I experienced when my rusted rudder-bar post broke while I was instructing a student during a low-altitude turn in an OX-5 "Standard," and when my wooden propeller threw its sheet-metal tipping on a southbound mail flight from Chicago, and when my "DH" throttle mechanism broke and closed a hundred feet above ground over Illinois.
When we started night flying with our DH's on the St. Louis-Chicago mail run, we did not have landing lights on our planes, and not even navigation lights. Our total lighting equipment consisted of a pocket flashlight (pilot furnished) and a compass light attached to a button on the end of the stick. Having no radio whatever, we had to keep ground contact. This sometimes required flying within a hundred feet of the surface in rain and haze, and at night. We were averaging seventy hours to an engine failure. At the start of our night flying, we had no rotating beacons or flashing lights or lighted emergency fields on our route. I arranged with the mail-truck driver to hang four kerosene lanterns on fence posts on the leeward side of the cow pasture we used as an airmail field at Springfield, as a precaution; and I once had to return and land by the light of the two of them that were still burning.
The Robertson Aircraft Corporation just didn't have enough money to buy first rate equipment for the mail run. As a barnstorming pilot, I knew what it was like not to have enough money to buy new airplanes and equipment. I liked the Robertson Brothers, and while I felt critical of some of their policies, I had great sympathy for their problems. They were staying in the aviation business when it was extremely hard to make a living in it. They were determined to stay in aviation, and they believed in its future. I respected them for this. They were tenacious and courageous.
I knew well what I would encounter when I accepted the appointment as chief pilot of the St. Louis-Chicago mail route. I knew the hazards involved. So did Bill Robertson. I took the position with the understanding that each pilot be furnished with a new seat-type silk parachute, and that no criticism be made if the parachutes were used. To this, Bill readily agreed.
Both of my emergency jumps on the mail route involved weather, lack of equipment, and improper maintenance. I attribute the major cause of the first jump to the fact that a rigger at Lambert Field had removed a 120-gallon gasoline tank from the plane I was flying, some weeks before, and not reported his action to any pilot, if at all. I thought I had forty gallons more fuel than I was actually carrying. Forty gallons would have taken me back to the Peoria flying field. As it was, I ran out of fuel at night, over a fog layer not far from Chicago.
The fourth jump also involved maintenance. I had to give up ground contact in a heavy storm at night. After severe difficulties, I found a hazy area in which I could see ground lights. I dropped my only flare; but the canopy caught on a hook formed by a newly-installed tail-skid shoe, and the flare broke loose and fell, still-burning, to the ground. However, in this instance, I think it highly unlikely that I would have been able to land without crashing even if the flare had functioned properly.
Jumping from the mid 1920's up to date, I was not in Washington to attend the 50th Anniversary of the Inauguration of the Airmail Service; but Paul Garber took me to see the rebuilt Airmail "DH" only a few weeks ago.
It is really good to be in contact with you again. I enclose a copy of my letter to Professors Riggs and Osborn, and am sending a copy of this letter to them.
With best wishes always,
Charles A. Lindbergh