By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator
Once you’ve made sure that your taxes are out of the way, take a moment to consider famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. Of course we all know that he was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, making his historic flight in 1927. But did you know how Lindy made a living prior to that? For a time, he worked as an airmail pilot. In 1925 Robertson Aircraft Corporation, owned by brothers Bill and Frank Robertson, was one of five companies to obtain a US airmail contract. These contracts were the first step in turning the operations of the nation’s airmail service over from the Post Office Department to private companies.
Among Robertson Aircraft’s stable of pilots was 23-year-old Charles Lindbergh, who received flying instructions at a Nebraska flying school from veteran airmail pilot Ira O. Biffle. The Robertson’s had successfully bid on Contract Air Mail Route (CAM) #2, which operated between the Robertson’s home base of St. Louis, Missouri to Chicago, Illinois. Lindbergh flew the first mail on that route (from Chicago to St. Louis) 86 years ago today on April 15, 1926.
Lindbergh earned his nickname, “Lucky Lindy,” years before his trans-Atlantic flight. While flying the mail for the Robertson brothers, Lindbergh was forced to bail out of his mail plane not once, but twice! The first incident happened on September 16, 1926, when heavy fog made a safe landing impossible. A report forwarded to the New York Times from Ottawa, Illinois noted that Lindbergh was 11 miles north of that city and flying at about 4,000 to 5,000 feet when his plane ran out of gas. The Times noted that “he decided to leave the plane by parachute” and “landed safely in a field and proceeded to Ottawa.” Three mail sacks were retrieved from the plane wreckage and forwarded to the Ottawa post office for processing.
Just a few weeks later, on November 3, 1926, Lindbergh found himself forced to parachute out of another airmail plane. This time he landed in a field near Covell, Illinois. Lindbergh was truly lucky on this escape, jumping out of his plane at night, with almost no visibility to see the ground below in a snow storm. And although he landed on a barbed wire fence, Lindbergh’s heavy flight suit protected him from injury. The soaked mail sacks were recovered and the mail placed back into the mail stream. Lindbergh soon left the airmail service and began his preparations for his historic flight.
About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.