I just recently started reading The Spirit of St. Louis by the late great Charles A. Lindbergh. In the very opening of the book, Lindbergh recounts a story about a “routine” in air evacuation he does while delivering mail (side note: this is absolutely insane).
Instead of just using his words (which are quite eloquent and straight up amazing storytelling) I’ll sum it up and hit what are the high points here.
It starts with Lindbergh saying that it was a foggy night. He’s an experienced aviator, so he isn’t too concerned, but when he gets to the area he believes to be the landing field, he can’t see the ground to land.
He busts out the ground light, which to my understanding is just a light at the end of rope that he uses to try to see the ground. It doesn’t give him enough of a visual, so he decided to circle for a bit to see if the fog will lift.
It doesn’t lift, which means Lindbergh is going to have to do the unthinkable. At least, I consider it to be unthinkable in jumping out of the airplane.
To do this, he climbs to about 5000 feet, puts on his parachute, and just goes for it. He freaking yeets himself out of the cabin!
On the way down, he has a flashlight that he was going to use to determine how high he was and where the airplane crashed, and pretty much everything else he could use it for. But he starts hearing the airplane engine, which he thought had run out of gas, as it starts coming directly toward him.
This causes him to kind of scramble to do his best to move out of the way. Whether it actually helps or not is impossible to tell. Regardless, the airplane begins circling and the nose down attitude caused the last bit of gas to get the engine going again for just a bit before crashing.
Lindbergh dropped the flashlight in his panic from the airplane coming back at him, so he had to brace for the last 1000 feet of descent back to the earth.
After landing and assessing himself for injuries, a farmer finds him and asks if he saw the airplane crash. Lindbergh says he’s the pilot and gets the farmer to help him find the crash site because he has to get the mail and have it delivered by train since he couldn’t complete the flight.
This story is just absolutely insane to me. It’s literally just the first few pages that tells this story. I think there are a few different takeaways I want to highlight here too.
Airplane Safety Improvements
The first big thing I noticed while reading this is the noticeable lack of instrumentation and lighting on the aircraft and landing field. Nowadays, there are extremely bright lights all over airports! I typically fly at a single strip untowered airport, and it will turn the lights off the runway. The trick for this is clicking the mic a number of times to activate the lighting. The lights typically have 3 settings and can be adjusted for how poor visibility is when flying.
Lindbergh’s experience here is pretty much the exact opposite of modern aviation on both counts. The lights on the airplane are weak, or not there. The same is for the landing field.
Also, notice I keep saying landing field instead of airport because airports in the modern sense didn’t exist yet, so I want to keep that differentiation.
There are serious lighting differences here that could have made the Lindbergh mail delivery much easier and less…crash-y.
Seriously though, I really want to highlight how crazy this situation would be for a modern pilot. If this happened in this day and age, it would easily make national news.
Secondarily, Lindbergh was just carrying a parachute in his cockpit as though this kind of thing wasn’t totally unexpected. Which, again, shows just how far aviation has come in terms of safety. The only time you are now required to carry a parachute is if you are doing aerobatics. And most aerobatic pilots are either experienced enough to not need it, or are flying with an instructor that knows how to fly to not need it.
Having a backup is still always nice though.
I just find it absolutely mind blowing to see the improvements that have been made to both airports and airplanes. I mean, autopilot is a thing now. That wasn’t even a thing in people’s brain at this point.
Freaking radios barely existed for aviation at this point. Now, it’s a completely different form of flying.
I mean IFR flying. IFR is completely dependent on ATC instructions. Flying into any busy airport that has an operating tower proves that a radio is kind of important…
Regardless, there have been so many improvements in aviation safety that it is now statistically safer than driving a vehicle. It’s the safest form of travel.
I aim to keep it that way, so make sure you are always diligent when flying.
Sense of Duty
The next incredibly notable thing I gathered from this was Lindbergh’s sense of duty.
He holds so much value in completing his task and aviation. Both are extremely important to him and to finishing his mission. It comes off as a bit of a mixed bag of results because of this mentality.
The FAA calls this a “Macho mindset.” I prefer to call it a completionist mindset. It has extreme value to a degree. Lindbergh, luckily, had his situation turn out alright. His airplane crashed and he survived, so it worked out. It could have easily turned out differently if he would have gone with the decision to try and land regardless of not being able to see.
For the time, this was probably the safest option he had. In fact, the logic he writes out in the book comes to this conclusion as well. But after landing, he does a personal assessment of himself and gets this farmer to help him get the bag of mail to send on a train.
This sense of duty is extremely admirable, but the big concern I have is that someone may see this and get a big sense of duty for their own life.
Once again, it’s important to take pride in your work and to have an extreme sense of duty when you do your own work (I do it with this blog, for example. Shoot I do it for anything I do.), but don’t let it cover up your mindset for safety.
Safety in aviation, everything really, should be the top priority. Instead of thinking that you can “probably pull it off,” you should be sure that you can. In an emergency, know EXACTLY what to do.
As I’ve continued the book, Lindbergh does something frequently when he’s flying that I think EVERYONE should do: Think about where to land and what to do in an emergency.
When I say this, I mean that you need to almost be morbid about it. Think about a scenario, maybe flying the pattern, think, “What do I do if my engine dies right now?”
The best part about this, is that your number one duty when flying is carrying out a safe flight. This is for yourself and any mission that you undertake while flying. A mission can be to take your significant other up in the air, flying multiple passengers to a destination, getting to a new location, or even just building flight time. The number one thing to have these things occur is to know that you can ALWAYS do the flight another time.
The saying is: Taking off is optional, but landing is mandatory.
That means, you can always change the take off time, but you will always have to be safe to land the airplane.
Keep in mind that a macho mindset can be overcome by thinking long term, taking into consideration your loved ones and those that are impacted by your decision.
I always say it’s better to be safe than dead.
It’s morbid, but it also really gets the point across as a flight attendant when people get upset about a diversion.