Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2592
THE STEEP ASCENT

by John H. Lienhard

Today, fact and fiction meet. 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.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a fine writer. Her best-known book was Gift from the Sea. Less known is The Steep Ascent -- a short book, only a vignette. A woman and her pilot husband live with their young son in London. One day, the couple fly off to Egypt for a vacation. Anne wrote it during WW-II and says, in her Foreword, that it may seem strange to write an aerial adventure while so many flyers are in far worse danger. But this isn't adventure; it's simply a woman's story -- fiction based on a real event.The couple in the story gets up early for the first leg of their flight, over the Alps to Rome. The husband is irritatingly casual as they lose time before takeoff. They cross the Alps, then get lost in cloud cover on the Italian side. It's getting dark and only at the last minute do they find a safe landing spot. All the while, the woman vacillates between pride in her husband's calm control of a desperate situation, and horror over the mess he's put them in. It's a pretty minimal story, beautifully written.

The Lindberghs So, I go off to read her diaries and letters from the mid-'30s and there it is -- the book's story as a 7-page diary entry! Anne and Charles Lindbergh leave their young son Jon and fly off to India for a vacation. Charles seems blasť about leaving on time. They enter clouds over the Alps, get horribly lost, and finally find an airfield in Pisa, just in time to avoid being doomed by nightfall.

In real life Anne learns after they land that their Gyro navigation system had failed. She writes, Charles "had a confirmed belief (with nothing to go on but hidden perceptions ...) that there was a ceiling under the [clouds. And] a kind of intuition ..." She's clearly grateful for Charles' uncanny ability in a pinch.

But, how does all that play in her book? As the couple lands, the pilot turns and smiles (she says) "pleading forgiveness. But she [has] no 'I-told-you-so' blame left in her. She [can] only pat his back for choosing just that spot in the clouds." She's no longer the happy camper that she was in her diary seven years earlier. In the book, she breaks down sobbing once she's finally safe.

Another wrinkle: The airplane in Anne's book was the Miles Falcon, a snazzy four-seat, low-wing, closed-cabin monoplane -- like the one Smilin' Jack flew in the old comic strip.

Miles Falcon

Charles had ordered his own two-seat version of the Falcon, called a Mohawk. It had extra gas capacity and a 1400-mile range -- plenty for the Italy trip. But, in the book, Anne puts them in the older Falcon, which had nothing like the fuel range needed to reach Rome.

Miles Mohawk

I wonder if that was intentional. After all, any writing is ultimately autobiography. That's unavoidable. That might mean just drawing on experience. But it can also mean purging demons, grappling with pain, making the past bearable. When we read these two stories, diary and book, side by side, the sum is far more dramatic than either would ever be by itself.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


A. M. Lindbergh, The Steep Ascent. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1944): Quotations from pp. 114-116.

A. M. Lindbergh, The Flower and the Nettle: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1936-1939. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976): pp. 131-137.

See also, R. Lindbergh, Under a Wing. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009). Reeve Lindbergh, Charles and Anne's youngest daughter, provides a superb account of her life growing up with her parents.

Images above: The top picture shows Anne and Charles, not with Jon, but with Reeve. It is from the cover of Reeve Lindbergh's book (above). The images of the Miles Falcon and Mohawk are Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

As a footnote to this story, the woman in The Steep Ascent is revealed at length to be pregnant. When Anne made the real life flight in 1937, she had to've been pregnant with her son Land Morrow Lindbergh. When She wrote The Steep Ascent in 1944, she had to have been pregnant with daughter Reeve, while Charles was covertly flying combat missions as a civilian in the Pacific.

Smilin' Jack
Smilin' Jack's aeroplane -- quite similar to the Miles Mohawk. From Z. Moseley, Smilin' Jack and the Stratosphere Ascent. (Racine, WI: A Big Little Book, Whitman Publishing Co. 1937): pg. 13. This small hardback comic book was published the same year that Anne Morrow Lindbergh made her diary entry and it represents the contemporary public's romanticized view of modern light aircraft.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.