Today, Lindbergh, Nungesser, and their stories. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Just months after Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927,
a book appeared: The Boy's Story of Lindbergh. It was pure undistilled
hero worship, but it's also oddly revealing. We can learn much from a raw,
written-too-quickly book. It can be a useful historic document.
Here is the Lindbergh that a nation needed to see. The words Clean Living,
Preparedness, and Courage are placed on the front page. This book
is about what people wanted young boys to become. That, in itself, reveals a
lot about America eighty years ago. It also describes the event in completely
Example: A supposed conversation between Lindbergh and Sir Alan Cobham at Le Brouget
Airport just after the landing. Cobham was the British long-distance flyer who'd
flown around Africa, and from England to Australia. Now he questions Lindbergh
about his nonstop flight. First question: "Did you steer by dead-reckoning?"
To do that, a pilot had to know his present location, speed, direction, and the
wind velocity. Then he had to plot a course without corrective information.
Very tricky. Lindbergh said, Yes, he had. He described his state-of-the-art compass,
and explained that he didn't have two hands free to use a sextant. Cobham also
asked how he stayed awake and what he ate during 33-1/2 hours.
The conversation explains the flight to us -- helps us understand just why it was
no walk in the park. Then the paparazzi journalists ask: What do you suppose has
become of Nungesser and Coli?
Charles Nungesser was a top French air ace in WW-I. After the war, he kept flying.
Howard Hawks' epic 1930 movie Dawn Patrol
includes footage of Nungesser in the air, made four years earlier.
Twelve days before Lindbergh flew, Nungesser and a navigator, François Coli, set out
from Paris in a large biplane they called L'Oiseau Blanc -- The White Bird.
They meant to make the much harder flight from Paris to New York against the prevailing
winds, and they'd disappeared. Lindbergh says he hopes they're okay but doubts it.
The great threat in flying the North Atlantic is ice forming on the wings. Once ice
gets a footing, it adds a huge load and messes up the airfoil shape. The plane can
only go down.
Well, they never were found, but, years later, an engine that could've belonged to
The White Bird turned up in the Maine woods. Perhaps they did not die at sea.
I recommend a wonderful 1999 movie Dead Aviators
[It also goes by the name Restless Spirits] for your kids. Two children
meet the ghosts of Nungesser and Coli in the woods. They help them rebuild their ruined
airplane so it can fly off to its final resting place.
So there is reality and there is story telling -- there is the real Lindbergh and Nungesser,
and there is their story. Historians are responsible for getting the facts right. But
story-tellers also have responsibility. They must plumb the meaning of the story -- two
roles, two purposes, each meaningless without the other.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. J. Beamish, The Boy's Story of Lindbergh, The Lone Eagle.
(Chicago: The John C. Winston Co., 1928).
For more on Cobham, Nungesser, and Nungesser's airplane, see
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.