By 1931 Charles Lindbergh had acquired the aura of the world’s greatest aviator and hero. He had also acquired a young wife, and one year-old baby. Yet he longed for an adventure, one that would further the cause of air travel. Since his epic flight across the Atlantic in 1927, many other pilots had successfully tested new air routes. So, in the summer of 1931, Lindbergh decided to fly from New York to China via Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Japan, but not as the “Lone Eagle” of 1927; this time he would have a co-pilot-radio operator — Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The following story of their summer excursion relies mainly on Anne Lindbergh’s 1935 book North to the Orient.
On July 27, 1931, at College Point, New York, the Lockeed seaplane Sirius gently rocked on the waters of Long Island Sound. The plane’s fuselage looked like a giant black cigar. At the hot tip was a powerful Wright 575 h.p. Cyclone engine; halfway down the fuselage a long glass canopy covered both the pilots compartment and, directly behind the pilot, the co-pilot’s compartment; the fuselage tapered down to a point, but was topped by a large thumbnail- shaped tail section. The black fuselage sat in the middle of a single orange wing connected to two Duralumin pontoons, each containing 150 – gallon gas tanks. The tanks were full and the plane ready for take off.
A small crowd formed near the Movietone newsreel truck, and a dock side radio announcer reported the scene. After describing every heroic twitch of Charles Lindberg’s face as he climbed into the cockpit, the announcer turned his attention to Anne Lindbergh: “Mrs. Lindbergh is wearing a leather flying helmet and leather coat, and high leather flying boots.” Anne looked at herself and wondered who the announcer was describing; she wore a thin cotton blouse — sticky from the heat — a pair of rubber sneakers and she was bareheaded. With a knowing smile Anne suddenly realized her outfit fell short of the standard flyers regalia and of course “The Great Radio Public must not be disappointed!”
After Anne settled herself into the rear seat, the engine burst into life with a powerful roar and Charles slowly maneuvered the plane away from the dock. Anne described the take off: “The spray sluiced over the windshield as we started to take off…. I held my breath after each pounding spank as the pontoons skipped along from wave to wave. …the plane felt clumsy, like a duck with clipped wings. It met the coming wave quivering after each effort to rise…quick, sharp jolts. I put my hand on the receiving set. It was shaking violently. Suddenly all vibrations smoothed out. Effortlessly we rose; we were off; a long curve upward.”
After a stop in Washington D.C. for visas, the Sirius flew to North Haven, Maine, where the Lindberghs said goodbye to their baby and to Anne’s parents. The Baby’s nurse Betty Gow, recalled a half century later: “Oh, how she loved her Lindy! She’d have gone anywhere and done anything for him…even leave that beautiful little baby behind.”
The remoteness of the Lindbergs’ itinerary came home to them at their first stop, near Hudson Bay. “No trees, no hills, nothing but gray moss, gray water, and a gray sky,” wrote Anne, “How could anything live here, even animals?” Taxiing the Sirius up to the shore, the Lindberghs climbed down to the beach. The bright red coat of a Canadian Mounted Policeman shattered the gray drabness. “Welcome to Baker Lake,” said the Mountie. A group of Eskimos accompanied the Mountie, including two Eskimo boys who stared intently at Anne — the first white woman they had ever seen.
Later that evening at the trading post when the fresh salmon trout dinner was laid before the flyers, their hosts apologized for the lack of fruits or vegetables. “Our boat is due about now and we’re pretty short.” The Lindberghs looked puzzled. “Your boat?” The head trader said “Our boat from home — comes in once a year, you know — all our supplies.” Anne reached into her bag and retrieved three plums, a pear, and four three-day old meat sandwiches. With wide eyes and broad grins the men offered thanks and split the unexpected treats equally among themselves.
At the next stop, Aklavik in the northern reaches of the Northwest Territories, the Lindberghs witnessed the arrival of “the Boat.” Like children on Christmas morning, the Aklavik residents crowded onto the dock. As the boat’s large paddle wheel churned the frigid waters, voices rose in anticipation, “Perhaps that big crate there is my engine.” “Do you see our wash tub?” ” I hope my shoes are there.” When the gangplank hit the dock the towns people crowded aboard to wait in line at the pursers office for their treasures and mail from “the outside.”
From Aklavik the Sirius flew a course that hugged Alaska’s north coast. Destination: Point Barrow.
August in the land of the midnight sun meant the absence of one bane of early flyers — darkness. But the Arctic Ocean manufactured a worse curse than night –fog. Anne tapped out her morse code message to Barrow, ” Flying — thru — fog — and — rain — going inland — wea(weather) — pse(please)?” She listened for an answer. “DIT-DARR-DARR, darr-dit-dit- darr….” Anne’s pencil moved rapidly across the paper as she copied the reply, then she pushed the pad through to her husband in the front seat. “Low fog bank rolling off ice,” he read. “Now clear. Fog expected soon. Visibility one mile.” The world’s most famous aviator nodded to her as if to say “We’ll push on.”
“On for hours through the unreal shifting world of soft mist.” wrote Anne, ” No sight of land; No sight of sea or sky; only our instruments to show the position of the plane.” Now, too far from Aklavik to turn back, the clinging fog became ominous. Charles handed a note back to Anne — “Weather at Barrow?” She placed a finger on the key and began sending. After the last dot she reached up and snuggled the earphones closer to her head and thought, “Weather, weather, weather — send us weather!” Anne listened intently but heard only static.