Charles Lindbergh – the man and his aircraft

Even now, 86 years after his silver Ryan NYP monoplane touched down at Le Bourget, Paris, there are many, many people who will react to his name. Charles Augustus Lindbergh is a giant figure in aviation history, and his solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean between Roosevelt Field, Long Island and the landing field at Le Bourget, surrounded by what seemed to be majority of the population of Paris, is a true landmark in the annals of human endeavour.

The Ryan NYP (standing for ‘New York Paris’) was intended to be a modified version of the Ryan M-2 monoplane, but it ended up being so radically different (Lindbergh having taken a hand in the design) that it deserves its own unique designation. This was not the only aircraft that Lindbergh had acquired and which he put his own stamp on. Even the very first, a Curtiss JN-4D ‘Jenny’ trainer, with which he started his barnstorming career – at least as a pilot, he had already been a wing-walker – was a little different. Bought brand new, in its original packing crate, from a dealer at Souther Field, Americus, Georgia, Lindbergh paid for a new olive drab paint job, a brand new Curtiss OX-5 engine, and a long-range tank (giving an extra 20 gallons of fuel) to be fitted; the total price was $500. With only a minimum of instruction, he soloed on this very ‘plane then flew off to begin barnstorming.

Charles Lindbergh was a complex and difficult individual. He made fine contributions in the fields of cardiology and conservation as well as aviation, but he and his wife, Anne, suffered an appalling loss with the kidnapping and murder of their first-born, Charles Lindbergh, Jr. Some of what followed was difficult to understand – the fawning over the Nazi regime, the whole-hearted support of American isolationism, the resignation of his Air Corps commission. Lindbergh was no longer welcome in official U.S. circles, but he still kept on flying….

The Lindberghs decamped to Europe from their New Jersey home, and settled for a while in England. They moved in influential circles, and Lindbergh found that Ambassador Joseph Kennedy’s views on Germany co-incided with his own. The couple wanted to see more of the world so Charles Lindbergh sought out F. G. Miles – whose designs for record-breaking wooden aircraft were being built by Phillips and Powis – to see if he was willing to design a two-place touring aircraft to Lindbergh’s own specification. What followed next was covered in a November, 1936 issue of ‘Flight’ magazine, which trumpeted ‘Lindbergh Buys British’!

Miles and Lindbergh came up with what was described as a custom-built tourer, which contained a large number of American made components. These included a fixed, spatted undercarriage incorporating slim-line Lockheed struts, and Airdraulic shock-absorbers, and an advanced, Menasco Buccaneer B6-S, inverted, air-cooled six cylinder engine of 200 hp which was specially imported. This engine was supercharged by a centrifugal blower, which gave rise to a longer, more streamlined nose, compared to the de Havilland Gipsy and Gipsy Six engines normally found on Miles aircraft. Great care was taken to reduce drag, wherever possible, and the tandem seats (with dual controls) were enclosed by neat glazed panels, which could be slid downwards to rest inside the fuselage. It was equipped with Miles split flaps to lower the landing speed. ‘Flight’ quoted the top speed of the aircraft, which became known as the Miles M.12 Mohawk, as around 200 mph.

Colonel Lindbergh would usually occupy the front seat with Mrs Lindbergh behind him, and some thought had been given to landings in inhospitable places and other emergencies, for as well as their luggage (stowed in a special compartment immediately behind the rear seat) the Mohawk could carry a 10lbs weight ‘collapsible dingy’, a tent, and other survival equipment; the seat cushions and backrests could be removed, and when placed together made an alfresco bed! Also, Lindbergh specified that his new aircraft be painted in an unusual colour scheme; black fuselage and orange wings, which he maintained were the easiest colours to spot in the event of an emergency landing. To aid in such a dire emergency, Lindbergh insisted on three parachute flares (made by the International Flare Signal Co. of Ohio) being fitted in the rear of the fuselage, from whence they could be fired electrically, to illuminate a landing ground at night. The aircraft’s range was a very impressive 1,400 miles. Amazingly, a set of floats by Shorts was schemed, but the Mohawk was not flown with these as far as can be ascertained. Despite the fact that this was a ‘one off’ design by Miles, ‘F.G.’ indicated that he would be happy to produce ‘replicas’ for other pilots should they wish – no-one asked.

A short series of test flights, from the Phillips & Powis airfield at Woodley, near Reading, were undertaken by Colonel Lindbergh, and the aircraft assumed the British Registration of G-AEKW. Immediately after taking official delivery of the Mohawk, on the 1st of February, 1937 the Lindberghs departed on a trip to India! For the next two years, as the war clouds gathered, G-AEWK was the Lindberghs personal transport around Europe until Colonel Lindbergh flew it back to Woodley on 4th April, 1939, and asked for it to be stored. The couple left for the U.S.A soon after; Charles Lindbergh was never to fly the aircraft again.

When war broke out, all civil flying in the U.K., unless directly approved by the Air Ministry, came to a halt, and ALL civil aircraft became subject to ‘impressment’, for official use by the Services. The Mohawk was taken on charge by the RAF in October, 1941, and given the military serial of ‘HM503’. For the next 3 years, the Mohawk served as a communications machine, mostly with the RAF’s Maintenance Command Communications Squadron. Unfortunately, the Menasco Buccaneer engine gave endless problems, and overheated (although Colonel Lindbergh seems to have kept it within limits); this could explain why Phillips & Powis – who were agents for Menasco engines in the U.K. – did not have success selling them. In February, 1944 the Mohawk was delivered to RAF Kemble where it was put into store by No 5 Maintenance Unit.

1946 saw the famous ‘Kemble sales’ take place, when hundreds upon hundreds of surplus light aircraft, both impressed and Service types, were auctioned off for incredibly low prices. G-AEWK was bought by Southern Aircraft (Gatwick) Ltd at the sale on the 28th May, 1946, and after refurbishment they put it on the market. A market saturated with secondhand Tiger Moths, Magisters and Austers meant that the little Monarch was not sold until the 9th of January, 1948 to a Mr Ernest Lyden of Bexley, Kent. According to Civil Aviation Authority records, a Mr Bruno Pini of London acquired the aircraft on the 28th May, 1948. Despite reports that Mr Pini, who was a member of the Hants & Essex Aero Club, entered the Mohawk, and competed in, the 1949 Oran International Rally in Algeria, according to ‘Flight’ dated 28th November, 1949, he never reached North Africa, and made a forced landing in Spain.

Reportedly, the damage was not too great, but the aircraft was left were it had landed, and Mr Pini returned home without it. There is then a gap in the history of the aircraft, until Lew Casey of Charlottesville, Virginia, one of the curators of the National Air & Space Museum, discovered the remains in 1973, gently rotting away in a junkyard near Seville. Recognizing it for what it was, he had it shipped back to the U.S.A, and began a long, slow restoration. Nearly 30 years later, in 2002, Mr Casey decided to gift the aircraft to the RAF Museum. This is where the highly skilled firm of Skysport Engineering came into the picture. According to their records, they rebuilt both the fuselage and centre section for the RAF Museum during 2002, then undertook repairs to the Mohawk wing in 2005. On the 19th August, 2008, the Mohawk, resplendent in its new paint scheme, was put on display in the RAF Museum, Hendon, which is where the above photograph was taken.

There is another link between Charles Lindbergh’s JN-4D, his Ryan NYP and this Miles Mohawk – all three of them are preserved in museums! As you can see, the Mohawk is in the ‘Milestones of Flight’ Gallery at Hendon, the ‘Spirit of St Louis’ is in the ‘Milestones of Flight’ exhibition in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the JN-4D (authenticated by Lindbergh himself, just before his death) hangs from the ceiling in the ‘Cradle of Aviation Museum’ on Long Island, New York.

The Miles M.12 Mohawk, a highly significant bespoke aircraft, and part of a world aviation narrative.

One comment on “Charles Lindbergh – the man and his aircraft”

  1. Indeed, a complicated man. The Lindbergh’s Lockheed Sirius which they took across the American NW and onto the Pacific was also black and orange. The paraflares are a good touch! Lindbergh also went to the Pacific Theater of Operations, trained pilots to fly further and reported was involved in a bit if aerial combat. A complicated man, indeed! Thanks for this intriguing aspect of his history, Ross.


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