Rocket Man // Family Legacy Takes Flight

By George Soltes

As a boy, Erik Lindbergh had a vivid recurring dream. “If I flapped my arms hard enough, I could fly,” he recalled. “It was a lot of work because I didn’t have wings, just these stupid arms, but I got good at it. I flew from my house in Manzanita around Big Manzanita Bay, all the way to the head of the bay and back.” Sometimes he flapped so hard that he woke to find his bedding on the floor. Years later, when he paddled and water-skied over those same waters, he found that the contours of the bay matched perfectly with the bird’s eye view from his childhood dreams.

Fifty years earlier and a continent away, another Lindbergh had a dream that changed history. In 1919, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 reward for the first aviator to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. On May 21, 1927, an obscure U.S. Air Mail pilot named Charles Lindbergh prevailed, landing the single-engine Spirit of St. Louis in Paris after a marathon 33½ hour, 3,600-mile solo flight. It proved to be an inflection point in modern aviation. Within six months, the number of pilots in America tripled and the number of planes quadrupled. Within 18 months, the number of people buying tickets on commercial flights increased 30-fold.

The intensely private Lindbergh almost instantly became the biggest celebrity in the world, a fame that came at a steep price. In 1932, his 20-month-old son Charles Jr. was kidnapped for ransom and then murdered. After the car carrying his second son, Jon, home from school was run off the road by paparazzi, the family fled to Europe in 1935 and would not return to the U.S. until 1939.

Subsequent Lindbergh generations scrupulously avoided notoriety. Jon Lindbergh, when the chance came, moved as far away from the spotlight as he could, arriving on Bainbridge Island with his young family, including newborn Erik, in 1965 to start a salmon farm.

Erik Lindbergh’s childhood on Manzanita Bay was both idyllic and intensely physical. “There were swarms of kids in each neighborhood and we were allowed to roam pretty freely,” he said. “You could ride your bike on trails almost all the way to Fort Ward.” Winter and spring were for gymnastics, with Lindbergh showing enough skill to win the state championship at 11 (even if his name was misspelled in The Seattle Times). The warmer months were spent on the water. Lindbergh learned to water-ski on a course his brothers set up in Manzanita Bay and went on to collect “a box full of trophies” for the Bainbridge Island Ski Team. After graduating Bainbridge High School, he overcame an initial reluctance to hew too closely to his grandfather’s path and pursued his dream, earning a degree in aeronautical science and becoming a pilot and flight instructor.

Charles Lindbergh’s flight created echoes which would return years later to transform his grandson’s life. In 1994, with American spaceflight solely under NASA’s control, entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Gregg Maryniak decided that if the Orteig Prize could ignite the aviation industry, they would create a prize to do the same for spaceflight. “We were trying to get commercial spaceflight unstuck,” Maryniak said. “I’d been writing for years that space needed a Lindbergh-like event. After Peter read (Charles Lindbergh’s memoir) Spirit of St. Louis, he said that we ought to do a prize just like the Orteig Prize and we decided to start the X Prize Foundation.”

In May 1996, under the St. Louis Arch, with the NASA administrator and 20 astronauts in attendance, the $10 million X Prize was announced. Teams were challenged to build a privately financed spaceship capable of carrying a crew of three people into space twice within two weeks.

Also present that day, as a representative of the Lindbergh family, was Erik Lindbergh. When Diamandis and astronaut Byron Lichtenberg initially pitched him the idea of the X Prize, he had been skeptical. “I thought, why spend $10 million on space when we have so many problems here on earth?” he said. “Byron and Peter helped me understand that looking at our planet from space will help us understand that Earth is the only self-contained and sustainable spaceship that we have and that we need to protect it.”

As the X Prize Foundation embarked on its quest to lift humans into space, Lindbergh was battling gravity here on earth. At age 21, while descending Mt. Rainier after a climb with his brother Leif, he had suddenly struggled to lift his backpack and his knees inexplicably began to ache. Over the ensuing months, excruciating joint pain came and went for no apparent reason. Finally, he received the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.

By the time of the X Prize launch, after a decade of relentless decline, the athlete who had once water-skied the circumference of Bainbridge Island could barely walk and was living in a yurt on a friend’s farm, trying to make ends meet by selling furniture and sculptures he made from driftwood at the Bainbridge Island Farmers’ Market.

Just as he reached his physical nadir, however, something surprising happened. It started with replacement of his knees, then placement of screws in his hip and foot. A few years later, he was placed on a new cutting-edge drug, with dramatic improvement. “I got my life back. I wasn’t in pain all the time,” he said. “And I was able to fly again.”

As the 75th anniversary of his grandfather’s flight approached, Lindbergh began considering a previously taboo idea—to duplicate the transatlantic crossing himself. “Family members got really upset that I would think about retracing my grandfather’s flight,” he said. “Exposing myself and the family name to the public again was really scary.”

By then, X Prize, always a long-haul proposition, was experiencing severe financial headwinds and appeared as if it might not survive. Lindbergh believed his flight could both help revive X Prize and send a message of hope to fellow arthritis sufferers. He also saw it as a way to finally break free of a smothering family legacy. “Being destroyed physically then gaining another shot at life allowed me to push into the most difficult thing I could do as a Lindbergh. I was able to step into my grandfather’s footsteps, realizing I didn’t need to fill his shoes.”

In May 2002, after two years of planning, with Gregg Maryniak running mission control from St. Louis, Lindbergh flew a custom carbon fiber, single-engine plane from New York to Paris in just over 17 hours. The flight was a sensation, garnering headlines around the world and raising $1 million for the X Prize Foundation.

Maryniak described Lindbergh’s flight as “one of the unsung hero stories of X Prize.” The organization regained sound financial footing and in 2004, SpaceShipOne roared into space to take the prize, ushering in a new era of human spaceflight. SpaceShipOne now hangs wingtip to wingtip with the Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and commercial spaceflight is an over $300 billion industry, with dozens of companies competing to launch humans and cargo into space.

In addition to serving on the board of the X Prize Foundation (now offering over $140 million worth of prizes for goals such as cleaning carbon from the air and saving the coral reefs), Lindbergh is the executive chairman of VerdeGo Aero, a company working to create a new generation of quiet, environmentally friendly hybrid-electric aircraft, which he envisions someday shuttling passengers from Bainbridge to Bellevue in under 10 minutes. He is also board chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation, a 43-year-old nonprofit founded by astronaut Neil Armstrong and aviation pioneer Jimmy Doolittle to carry on Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s vision of balancing advancing technology with preservation of the environment. For the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s transatlantic flight in 2027, Lindbergh is mulling a repeat flight across the Atlantic, this time perhaps in a zero-carbon plane, the challenge being that no such plane yet exists.

These days, Erik Lindbergh wakes up every day, gets his joints “into loose formation” and takes care of the Bainbridge Island farm he shares with his wife, fitness guru Lyn Lindbergh. They are in their second year of collaboration on “The Lindberghs” podcast, which explores second chances, a topic with which he is intimately familiar.

Despite playing an instrumental role in launching private citizens into space, Lindbergh is in no hurry to join them. “Early on,” he said, “I was motivated by the idea that I might be able to move more freely in space without the weight of gravity on my joints. Now I’m having a pretty good time here on earth and I think gravity is my friend. I’m in no rush. You know, life on earth is amazing.”