The world will never forget the epic flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in May 1927, a feat still regarded as one of the greatest in aviation history. Many San Diegans proudly remember the event because of the city’s pivotal role in the construction of Lindbergh’s monoplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Although financed by businessmen from that midwestern city, the plane was constructed here by the Ryan Aeronautical Corporation.
San Diego, the self-proclaimed “Air Capital of the West,” had begun its development as an aviation center with the coming of World War I and the establishment of Rockwell Field on North Island. An aviation school had been built there in 1911 when the island was only a desolate wasteland of brush and sand, but with the coming of the Great War both the army and navy had invested millions of dollars in the Rockwell facility. In addition, San Diego’s beneficent climate with uniform air conditions, slight temperature variations, and steady wind velocity made for nearly ideal year-round flying conditions.1
Although many famous aviation “firsts” had occurred here, including the first night flying, first aerial photography, and first in-flight refueling, nothing would assure San Diego’s place in aviation history more than the construction of “The Spirit of St. Louis.”2 It was built in only sixty days by a crack team of Ryan employees supervised by Lindbergh himself in the company factory, a vacated fish cannery near the present-day site of Solar Turbines. The cost was $10,580. After several test flights in which Lindbergh expressed satisfaction with the machine, the lanky and taciturn pilot recorded his departure from the city as he flew into history: “Took off at Rockwell Field, North Island, California, circled field and over Pacific, then circled San Diego.”3 He then flew on to Lambert Field in St. Louis and Curtiss Field on Long Island, where after several delays he was able to begin his nonstop solo flight to Paris.
After his triumphal return home to New York in June, where he was welcomed by over four million people, Lindbergh began a 22,000 mile 48-state tour of the country. Lindbergh received $50,000 for the tour, which was sponsored by the Foundation for Aeronautical Research and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Always publicity-shy and no longer in need of money, Lindbergh’s goal was to promote aviation by showing himself and the “Spirit” to the people in order to demonstrate the feasibility of commercial flight.4 “We felt that we will be amply repaid for our efforts if each and every citizen in the U.S. cherishes an interest in flying,” Lindbergh had written before starting out in Hartford, Connecticut.5
The tour was a demonstration of Lindbergh’s immense popularity and drew thousands of people wherever he landed, but no crowds exceeded in sheer enthusiasm those that met him in San Diego, the place where his idea had come to fruition. His arrival was to become one of the greatest days in San Diego’s history, and drew more people and generated more excitement than President Wilson’s visit here in 1919 when he spoke in favor of the League of Nations. As Lindbergh himself noted with his usual understatement, “Our visit to San Diego did not follow the usual routine.”6
How different this visit would be from the other 67 cities on the tour was evident from the moment his plane approached flying at a low altitude from Los Angeles on September 21, 1927, a clear and sunny Wednesday. Lindbergh knew that many of the people who would greet him would be those who had seen him off on his departure for New York in May, and that his San Diego visit also meant that the “Spirit” had now completed a round trip from Paris and would be heading back eastward once again. Always grateful to the builders of his plane, he twice circled the Ryan plant near the waterfront while flying on his side and then made the short hop to North Island where he was saluted by a battery of guns. Next, he headed back and made eight circles over the city stadium (later known as Balboa Stadium) to greet the assembled throng there. Buzzing over the center of the field at only 100 feet while dipping his wings, he then returned to land at Ryan Field at about two o’clock in the afternoon. The field was in an area called “Dutch Flats”, close to the site of the Main Post Office today in the Midway section of San Diego.
As some 650 marines held back the swelling crowd, Lindbergh was greeted by the man who had bought out Claude Ryan, Franklin Mahoney, along with Mayor Harry Clark and several other officials, in preparation for his hero’s ride to the stadium and official reception that the city had been preparing for weeks. The route took him up “B” Street to enter the stadium at 15th Street by the east gate. Local police estimated that there were 48,000 automobiles on the city streets that day partaking in the celebration, some parked nearly a mile away from the stadium in all directions. “It was impossible to describe the genuine outpouring of welcome,” according to one eyewitness. “Lindbergh had left San Diego in May probably known to only fifty people here — and had returned a world hero.”7
Parade units included a contingent of U.S. Cavalry, the U.S. Navy band from the naval training station, the American Legion and even a troop of Boy Scouts. A fife and drum corps led the United Veterans of the Civil War who rode following in cars. By the time Lindbergh’s flower-bedecked automobile reached the stadium about 2:40, the crowd was in a fever pitch chanting “Clap hands, here comes Charlie, clap hands.” A “LINDY” had been formed by 300 schoolgirls wearing light and dark costumes at the end of the stadium. The parade units circled the track to find their places, and Lindbergh’s car made a complete loop to the speaker’s stand which had been equipped with a loudspeaker and radio microphones so those unable to get into the stadium could hear his voice. Since school had been let out and most businesses closed for the gala event, some 60,000 people, 10,000 more than for President Wilson and the largest assembly in San Diego’s history, jammed the seats and floor of the stadium.8
After the singing of the national anthem and the invocation in which Chaplain R.D. Workman of the 11th Naval District spoke of the lives sacrificed to advance aviation, spectators began to shove and surge up around the speaker’s stand, and Lindbergh was asked to quiet the crowd so the speaking could continue (some Los Angeles newspapers incorrectly reported that a “stampede” had occurred). The keynote speaker, J.B. Lyman, chairman of the Aviation Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, spoke of the need to build a larger airport in a location central to the city.
Lindbergh was then presented with a silver replica of the “Spirit” in a glass case which Mayor Clark withdrew from a wooden chest. “Someday,” he told the aviator, “when your real ‘Spirit’ is put away in a museum, this exact model will remind you of it.”9 Next, in a not-too-subtle gibe at Lindbergh’s failure to carry one both over the Atlantic and on his cross-country flight, he was given the very latest model “Russell” parachute by W.W. Gibson, representing the local chapter of the National Aeronautical Association.
Federal Judge Paul J. McCormick, representing the U.S. government, then spoke of Lindbergh’s influence on America, saying that he stood for not only courage and self-reliance but the ideal of modesty as well: “Colonel Lindbergh, your greatest accomplishment is in being able to retain the composure, dignity, and plain manner of the American boy among the American people.”10 The flier was then introduced by Mayor Clark who reminded Lindbergh that he was now back home where he had started from as an “adopted son” who had accomplished what he had set out to do when he had taken off from San Diego. He continued, “I’m going to ask Charlie to talk as long as he feels he should. We have fifteen minutes allotted for the purpose.” The crowd cheered as Lindbergh rose and lifted his hand for silence.
According to some onlookers, Lindbergh looked different than what they had expected from his photographs — his face appeared drawn and tired, certainly understandable after the exhausting ten to twelve hour daily schedules of flying, parades, dinners, and speeches.11 Nonetheless, he stood calmly before the multitude, and typically showing no excitement in his voice, spoke clearly and deliberately of the need for construction and equipment of adequate airports. “During this tour of the U.S. it is our greatest object to promote commercial aviation,” he intoned. “Planes need airports as cars need a system of good roads. A city needs an airport near the business district of the town.”
The former air mail pilot went on to remind he audience that air mail had pioneered air transportation in the U.S. Those cities off air mail routes might not get a route without showing cooperation to the air industry, since air mail is the forerunner of future passenger lines and passenger lines cannot come without suitable airports:
Therefore, in closing, I want to bring before you the necessity of keeping your city in the foreground of American aeronautics by constructing and equipping a good airport such as you are considering, and by backing the air development program of your city. San Diego has always been in the foreground of western aeronautics and San Diego, I believe, always will be in the foreground.
I want to thank you for all the attention you have shown me here today and for the welcome I have received. I hope that you will not forget that you have an air program in this city which requires the cooperation of every citizen.12
The entire speech lasted less than five minutes.
Aside from the problems of crowd management and defective amplifiers which made it impossible for some people on the north rim of the stadium to hear him (a similar problem had prevented many from hearing Wilson’s speech eight years earlier),13 Lindbergh’s remarks were a great success and the crowd roared with approval. After leaving the stadium, Lindbergh went to Mahoney’s house, gave short newspaper interviews, and prepared to attend a dinner — a citizen’s banquet — to be given in his honor at the Hotel Del Coronado that evening.
The banquet began at six o’clock and was attended by more than 700 prominent San Diegans and others from northern coastal cities. It featured such unusual menu entrees as Stuffed Eggs “Lone Eagle,” Salad “Lindbergh,” and Hearts of Tenderloin Beef “Le Bourget.” The famous guest was welcomed by Mayor Clark and the main address of the evening was given by Major T.C. Macaulay, a veteran flier and civic official. His speech, entitled “Lindbergh Field,” was prophetic since within two months a local bond issue would be passed by the voters enabling that facility to be built.
Also on hand was the comedian Will Rogers, who had sat beside Lindbergh on the podium at the stadium. Rogers warmed up the crowd with some gags, telling them to not get too excited about air mail in spite of what they had been told because “although you can get a letter faster, when you open it, it is only a real estate advertisement.” He said that he hadn’t received such a thrill from what “this boy” did since the Armistice (ending WWI), claiming that Lindbergh always knew where he was going and only got lost when he found land. Every joke elicited a smile or laugh from the usually poker-faced aviator.14
Lindbergh finally rose to say that since Rogers had stolen all his stuff, he had decided to talk about the plane made in San Diego that had taken him across the Atlantic (a replica of the “Spirit” was suspended from an overhead track that ran around the banquet hall past illuminated pictures of San Diego, New York, and Paris.) He praised the plane for its mechanical perfection, explaining that the tests he had made at Camp Kearny before taking it to New York for the big flight had surpassed all his expectations. It had now flown more than 25,000 miles without any major problems, was still nearly in its original condition except for a few parts stolen by souvenir hunters, and was ready for considerably more service.
Once again he spoke of the need for more airports that would reduce the cost of commercial aviation by putting it on a mass-produced basis. And, in tribute to his machine’s birthplace:
San Diego has been the starting point of many great flights. It has a reputation all over the U.S. for its aviation achievements. The climate here is ideal for flying. With these assets already at hand, it is almost impossible that San Diego should not back this air program.
In closing, he thanked his audience and remarked, “I hope to be able in the future to devote a part of my time to the development of aviation in this city and state.”15
Next on the busy schedule was the initiation of Lindbergh into the Order of the Sciots, a noted fraternal organization, later that evening at Russ Auditorium. Along with some others who had worked on the plane, Lindbergh was solemnly inducted, and although he was already a Mason himself, he looked rather tired and uncomfortable during the ceremony. Also present were Mayor Clark, Police Chief Joe Doran, W.W. Gibson, and Orville McPherson, executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. Lindbergh signed autographs and gave a short speech.
Continuing his theme of airport construction throughout the day, he said San Diego had the chance to get a “Triple-A” airport, one rated first-class for land planes, seaplanes and flying boats, and complete plane service equipment:
There are very few cities that have this opportunity so close to them — so near to the business section as the proposed site here. I hope that you will continue to back a progressive airport in San Diego and keep this city on the airways of the United States.16
Lindbergh stayed overnight at the Mahoney residence and the next morning had breakfast with ten guests at the Point Loma home of Mahoney’s attorney, William G. Mirow. Following breakfast, Lindbergh made an unannounced flight to Los Angeles from Ryan Field in a large Ford Trimotor plane owned by Jack Maddox, an L.A. businessman and friend of Mahoney. He arrived back in San Diego at about 12:25 with eight passengers and a delegation of Los Angeles citizens headed by Mayor George E. Cryer. Will Rogers and his wife and Mayor Clark had also made the trip, along with Mirow, Mahoney, W.M. Boels and Philip Gildred.17
Lindbergh then held an honorary banquet, financed and prearranged by Mahoney, for the employees of the Ryan/Mahoney Aircraft Corporation at the factory where history was built. He visited with some of the men who had helped build the plane, saying, “At this time I want to thank all, especially the older employees for the work you did in constructing the plane. It is an organization which can do much to keep San Diego and California in the forefront of aviation.”18 Lindbergh knew that the city had grown in importance as an aviation center when Ryan Aeronautical Corporation began building and selling its planes, at one time supplying engines to some twenty American aircraft companies and foreign countries.19
One of the younger employees at the time was 27-year-old Ed Morrow, a skilled machinist from Oregon who had come to San Diego in 1925 because he had wanted to learn to fly. Morrow, now 93 and living quietly in retirement in El Cajon, probably got to know Lindbergh as well as anybody in the factory. “I would never have figured him as a pilot just to see him offhand on the street,” Morrow remembers, “you’d never think to look at Lindbergh when he came here that he was going to be the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic.” Morrow had been asked by plant superintendent Harley Bowles to make and fit all of the plane’s parts. “I made all of the fittings for the ‘Spirit’ personally,” Morrow said. “They were made from sheet metal of different gauges to hold the plane together and then heat-treated to make parts like the landing gear and wing struts strong. It was a task to make all those fittings.”20 Morrow reports that many of the employees were a bit skeptical themselves that the plane would be able to make the trip, despite the fact that along with Lindbergh he had inspected everything himself while the “Spirit” was put together. Morrow was the last Ryan employee to say goodbye to Lindbergh before he left for North Island to take on fuel for his flight to St. Louis and New York. Although he remembers Lindbergh as “not what you’d call talkative,” Lindbergh remarked, “Well, Ed, I guess this is goodbye — I might get wet.” Morrow replied that after sixty days of continuous labor Lindbergh couldn’t let the plane get wet, that it was built to fly the Atlantic. “Thanks a lot,” Lindbergh said, “I sure appreciate that.”21
Morrow greeted Lindbergh at the banquet by congratulating him on his successful flight without getting wet, but Lindbergh said that due to his low altitude over the ocean he had been splashed by some wave spray which kept him awake and may well have saved his life. “Well, thanks, Ed, and goodbye again,” Lindbergh said upon leaving. Morrow proudly relates that he was the only Ryan employee to receive two personal “thank you’s” from the Lone Eagle himself.
Lindbergh ran a safety check on his plane and pronounced it fit for the remainder of the cross-country trip which was now about half over in mileage. From San Diego he flew to Tucson, Arizona, and then on to El Paso, Texas, after a “touch stop” in Lordsburg, New Mexico, to allow people a glimpse of his plane. By the time the tour ended on October 23, Lindbergh had flown 22,350 miles in 260 flying hours, had made scheduled visits and stops in eighty-two cities, had made 147 speeches on aviation, and had been seen with his plane by an estimated thirty million people.22
By any standard the tour had been a great success. Lindbergh had accomplished what he had set out to prove, that modern airplanes with present-day engines could keep schedules as reliable as railroad trains (fog at Portland, Maine, had caused his only late landing). It had heightened popular interest in aviation, convinced his audiences that America must take the lead in aviation, and given new perspective to Lindbergh himself. He wrote in his obiography of Valuest “the tour let me know my country as no man had ever known it before…when I returned to New York in October, the United States was represented by a new image in my mind — it was no longer outlines on a paper map.”23
Lindbergh had made no greater impression around the country than in San Diego. As he himself had said, “It was a most intense reception, unequalled in any city which has seen fit to honor me. Nothing could surpass its genuine enthusiasm, its heartfelt sentiment. Neither Paris nor London equalled San Diego.”24 He never forgot his plane’s origin as a product of Claude Ryan’s imagination and enterprise, and in later autographing the work of his flight, wrote “To Claude Ryan, who built the company that built “The Spirit of St. Louis.”25
A great day in San Diego’s history had come to an end, but the aura of Lindbergh’s visit continues and his message lives on in San Diego’s rightful place in aviation history. The city retains its stature as a leading military and commercial aviation center, and an exact replica of the “Spirit” sits in the lobby of the Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park surrounded by Lindbergh’s personal effects and memorabilia. The display is a tribute to a man who represented the best of what his country stood for and who believed that he could do what no man had ever done before. San Diegans share the pride expressed by Ryan engineer David Hall when he said, “Lindbergh had everything necessary for victory…if there ever was a youth who deserved success it is Lindbergh.”26
1. “San Diego — Air Capital of the West,” “We” in San Diego (official program and Lindbergh issue of San Diego Magazine,) (September 1927): 7.
2. Ibid., 15.
3. Ibid., 6.
4. Leonard Mosley, Lindbergh: A Biography (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1976), 124-125.
5. Tom Crouch, An American Life: Charles Lindbergh, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977), 17.
6. Donald Keyhoe, “Seeing America with Lindbergh,” The National Geographic Magazine (January 1928): 33.
7. Helen Van Dusen, “Well, Hello Lindy,” San Diego Magazine (September 1977): 125.
8. “Riot of Color Marks Parade through City,” San Diego Sun, 22 September 1927, 3.
9. “60,000 Hear Lindy’s Plea for Airport,” San Diego Sun, 22 September 1927, 3.
10. Evening Tribune, 22 September 1927, 1-2.
11. Van Dusen, “Well, Hello Lindy.”
12. “Famous Flier Appeals for Airport Here,” San Diego Union, 22 September 1927, 2.
13. Gerald A. Shepherd, “When the President Spoke at Balboa Stadium,” 32 Journal of San Diego History (Spring 1986): 100.
14. “Will Rogers Brings Back Famous Lindy Smile,” San Diego Union, 22 September 1927, 2.
15. “Humorist Makes Lindy Grin So Dinner Guests Are Happy,” San Diego Sun, 23 September 1927, 2.
16. “Lindy Becomes Sciot Member at Fete Here,” San Diego Sun, 22 September 1927, 11.
17. Evening Tribune, 23 September 1927, 6.
18. Richard Pourade, The Rising Tide, (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1967), 120.
19. Ibid., 123.
20. Ed Morrow, interview by Bob Wright, 2 June 1974, transcript, Oral History Collection, San Diego History Center, San Diego, CA.
21. Ed Morrow, interview with author, El Cajon, CA, 9 September 1991.
22. Kenneth Davis, The Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh and the American Dream, (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1959), 235-236.
23. Charles Lindbergh, Autobiography of Values, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1977), 82.
24. Evening Tribune, 22 September 1927, 2.
25. Pourade, Rising Tide, 120. Another famous San Diego aviation pioneer, Fred Rohr, worked as a foreman on “The Spirit of St. Louis”.
26. “Lindbergh from Sea to Sea,” St. Louis Globe Democrat Magazine, 19 June 1927, 16.
Gerald A. Shepherd retired last year as a U.S. history teacher at Helix High School in La Mesa. He is a native San Diegan and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley where he studied political science and history. His research interests include the World War era, famous local “firsts,” and the visits of notable people to San Diego. He has written articles and book reviews for such publications as the Retired Officer Magazine, the Journal of San Diego History, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the San Diego Union-Tribune.