I am a woman of a certain age who, in spite of strong reservations, has had to fly too often in commercial aircraft, the only means to my destination. I was the passenger white knuckling the arm rests and clutching her Saint Christopher medal during take offs and landings as I visualized newsreel accounts of acres of smoldering wreckage, and of airline seats and pieces of luggage floating in the ocean.
Thus it came as a complete surprise, when I was asked to review “The Flight, Charles Lindbergh's Daring and Immortal 1927 Transatlantic Crossing,” and found that I loved Dan Hampton’s book.
Since 1927, a flood of ink has washed over Lindberg's accomplishments, politics, and private life. However, in the prologue Hampton, a veteran of 20 years in the USAF and many hours at the control of an F-16, stresses the uniqueness of his approach:
"No other book about this man and his flight has been written from the cockpit point of view by a fellow aviator…. My purpose in these pages is to put the reader into the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis during those thirty-three and a half hours on May 20 and 21, 1927, and to fly along with him."
From the safety and comfort of my living room recliner I can say that the author accomplishes this masterfully.
I held my breath from pages 11-17, while Lindbergh attempts to take off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York on the morning of May 20th. The conditions could not have been worse: drizzly morning, mushy, soggy runway, mud slapping against a small aircraft trying to lift 5, 250 pounds. I exhaled only when Lindbergh says, "I am above the trees."
Armed with an atlas, I followed his flight path over the New England coastline and the bays and islands of Nova Scotia until he runs out of land. At this moment he writes:
"A minute ago, I was a creature of the land, thinking of the ocean ahead…now, I 'm a creature of the ocean. I've given up a continent and taken on an ocean in its place—irrevocably."
He had not slept for 23 hours before take off and the flight lasts 33 ½ hours. Though I knew how the story ended I couldn't put the book down as he battles storm, ice, and solitude while fighting an overwhelming urge to sleep.
Of necessity, the Spirit of St. Louis had been stripped to its bare minimum and only those instruments essential to the mission had been included. As the suspense mounts, and without interrupting the flow of narrative, the author briefly sheds light on the purpose of maneuvers and instruments essential to Lindbergh's control and which might not be familiar to someone who is not a pilot.
Finally I cheered at his first sight of Valentia Island and held my breath again lest he crash in his several attempts to land at Le Bourget.
"The Flight," which runs to 296 pages is mostly about the journey but interspersed in the narrative are parts of Lindbergh's biography – the product of a dysfunctional family and a poor student, he thought he would become a farmer. The book also incudes a brief overview of the development of aviation up to May 1927.
The last chapter, titled "A New Reality," begins with Lindbergh’s frenzied reception in Paris and ends on June 10, 1927 as he and his beloved Spirit of Saint Louis, which had been disassembled and packed up into two crates, sail into New York harbor to a hero's welcome. In America's eyes, at least for the moment, Lindbergh with his modesty and boyish good looks could do no wrong.
In a short epilogue, only 17-pages-long, the author briefly touches on life after the dust had settled and reality had set in. He comments on Lindbergh's much misunderstood initial advocacy of non-intervention in the European conflict, on his dispute with President Roosevelt, and on his very real and courageous technical contribution to military aviation during World War II.
Above all the author leaves the reader with a portrait of a brilliant, restless, complex and difficult man who had gone from obscurity to world fame and fortune overnight, and "was only comfortable with his place in the world a very few times during his long eventful life. His greatest, and perhaps only true peace, came during those fateful thirty-three hours between New York and Paris in May 1927. "
I strongly recommend Dan Hampton's unique approach to Lindbergh's extraordinary deed to anyone including high school students, aviation specialists on active duty or retired, and to ladies of a certain age always eager to expand their mind.
The author is a highly decorated veteran of 20 years in the United States Airforce whose exploits include 157 combat missions and many hours in the F-16. He also is the author of several New York Times bestselling books dealing with flight.