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The Eagle Still Aloft

April 2024
1min read

Shortly after leaving the Navy in the summer of 1968 to become an airline pilot, I was at the third crew member’s station in the darkened recesses of the cockpit of a Boeing 707 airliner on the long, lonely leg from Honolulu to Manila.

Being a flight engineer offered little of the satisfaction of commanding a Navy aircraft, and it presented a formidable challenge in keeping alert during the long night over the featureless Pacific. By the time the purser entered the cockpit with a request from the cabin, I was weary of trying to identify stars and doing mental three-place multiplication problems.

“Captain,” she said, “one of the passengers has asked to visit the cockpit for a few minutes.”

“Do you know who he is?” the captain asked.

“No, I don’t know him.”

But the captain took no chances. “Please talk to him. For all we know he may be some kind of bigwig in the aviation industry or something.”

She returned in a few moments with a business card. A tiny high-intensity lamp used to read closely printed charts was switched on. In the small circle of light, the name Charles A. Lindbergh stood out.

It flashed in my mind: “Good heavens! The first man to fly across the Atlantic has just asked to spend a few minutes talking about flying.”

With a tight little cough, the captain said, “I think your passenger can come up here for a few minutes.”

My mind was doing backflips. “Can such a legend still be alive?” I recall thinking foolishly. “Does he still wear a leather flying jacket?” But Charles Lindbergh was in the door, filling it with a frame heavier than the one that earned him the nickname Slim.

He put us at ease immediately, introducing himself with an outstretched hand. “Good evening, fellows.”

To me the effect was as profound as if the Lincoln Memorial had spoken.

“Thanks for letting me come up to talk for a few minutes,” he said almost apologetically. “I don’t fly these days, but I like to look inside a cockpit from time to time.”

He drew us out, asking polite questions about our flying careers but never once mentioning anything more about his own. “I’m going to Manila on personal business,” he said. “I’m working on a research project of my own in the Philippines.”

More pleasantries, and he excused himself with polite thanks to us for sharing the time with him. The door closed, and the legend that became alive became a legend again.

Most pilots amass a collection of memorabilia: logbooks, photos, pieces of aircraft—that sort of thing. I’m no different, but my favorite memory doesn’t require a piece of picturesque hardware. My right hand will do. It’s the one that shook the hand of Charles Lindbergh … in flight.

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