Soaring Through the Clouds With ‘Lucky Lindy’

Air travel is taken for granted these days. It’s much easier to focus on the usual complaints, such as bad service and overbooked or delayed flights, but flying—even though your luggage doesn’t fly for free like it used to—is still a luxury that wasn’t available to most people before World War II. The concept of calling a travel agent and saying, “Book me on the last flight out of O’Hare to New York; I have a meeting in the morning,” was unheard of in those days.

Instead, those people were more likely at the train station purchasing a ticket on the 20th Century Limited, which ran from 1902 to 1967. It was a first-rate passenger train that traveled up to 70 mph and got people from Chicago to New York in about 17 hours. Today, you can make the same trip via airplane in about 2½ hours. Of course, getting through security might feel like it adds an extra 14½ hours, but we’re somewhat confident that that just isn’t true.

A couple of weeks ago, my kids and I met up with family at the Big Foot Airfield Annual Fly-In & Pancake Breakfast in Walworth, Wisconsin, a small, rural town near the Illinois-Wisconsin border that knows how to flip a flapjack. I’d never been so close to so many biplanes—on land and in air.

Indeed, one plane came in for a landing as we were heading back to our car, and I instinctively ducked as it came in right over our heads. It’s hard to say how close it really was, but if I had to guess, I’d say no more than 10 feet. I’m just not used to looking both ways before crossing a field. Lesson learned.

Examining the small planes that were taking off and landing on a grass runway reminded me of a story I had heard almost 10 years ago. In the early 2000s after I had lost my job at Arthur Andersen—a story for another time—I took a position as a concierge at a retirement home so I could work nights and search for jobs in my chosen field during the day. While the job itself wasn’t very rewarding financially, it was extremely gratifying for me because I got to know the residents and hear their tales.

Many of the people living there were happy to chat with me about this and that, but one resident’s story in particular has stuck with me all these years. He was a tall, slender nonagenarian with a mustache on his face that couldn’t hide his perpetual smile. His thoughts were lucid, and he told stories as if they had happened the week before. I cannot confirm the accuracy of this story, but I believe it to be true. He had written it down and asked me to edit it so he could submit it to Reader’s Digest. I don’t know if he ever did as I left the position soon after I had worked on it with him.

In the early 1920s when he was a teen, a pilot on a barnstorming tour had landed in the resident’s hometown in Nebraska. The pilot was offering rides in the aircraft for the princely sum of $20 or about $250 in today’s money. (For comparison, you can book a flight from Chicago to New York for about $250, so $20 wasn’t exactly off-you-go-have-a-good-time money back then.) The resident somehow talked his dad into allowing him to have a once-in-a-lifetime date with “Jenny”—a World War I surplus Curtiss JN-4D aircraft flown by a then-unknown Charles Lindbergh.

The man’s impromptu flight in the clouds at a time when few people had soared through the air was prior to Lindbergh’s history-making solo, nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927—although some argue the “history-making” part as dozens of transatlantic flights had taken place prior to “Lucky Lindy’s” flight across the pond.

Regardless, it was a very cool story he told that I felt compelled to share with you. And it’s important to remember how far we’ve come the next time you catch a redeye to make your meeting first thing in the morning. Just try to pack a carry-on; luggage fees are pretty steep.

James Tehrani is Workforce Management’s copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.