Rocket Man


Erik Lindbergh
Erik Lindbergh on the wing of The New Spirit of St. Louis, the plane in which he duplicated his grandfather's historic solo transatlantic flight. Photos courtesy of Erik Lindbergh.

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.”

Continued on page 40

Do You 💛 Bainbridge Island?We hunt down the best stories and deliver them to your inbox or mailbox quarterly.

Sign up for the best of Bainbridge Island, right here 👇