We Saw Him Land!
In a long-lost letter an American woman describes Lindbergh’s tumultuous touchdown in Paris75 years ago this month
Among the 100,000 or so people crowding the airfield outside Paris when Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight on May 21, 1927, was Julia Richards of Groton, Massachusetts. She was on a European holiday with her husband, Dicky, and two of their children, Anne, 9, and Tudor, 12. Like thousands of others in and around Paris that Saturday, they had hustled to Le Bourget as word spread of Lindbergh’s approach.
The astonishing flight would transform aviation and travel, shape history, even launch the age of celebrity, with the 25-year-old pilot becoming the most famous person in the world—a world he made forever smaller. Lindbergh remained a public figure all his life, which encompassed marriage to author Anne Morrow; the kidnap killing of their first child and the ensuing "trial of the century"; a disastrous 1941 speech that urged the nation to stay out of World War II and included remarks perceived as anti-Semitic, and his advocacy of environmental causes. He died in 1974.
It’s precisely because Lindbergh’s historic arrival in France is so well known that Julia Richards’ account of it is such a delight. Writing to her older brother in Massachusetts days after the event, she helps us see it fresh. She was 38 and a homemaker. She loved to travel and was very interested in aviation, having had a brother who was a flier in World War I. She died in an automobile accident in 1961. Dicky, a schoolteacher, died in 1968.
Their son Tudor, now 87, was a forester, wildlife biologist and Audubon Society official. He lives in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, and says he recently came across his mother’s letter, which describes the family’s encounter with, as his mother put it, "a young upstart named Lindbergh":
On Friday morning Dicky bought tickets to the theatre for Saturday night; that same evening he said to me, "I rather wish I hadn’t bought those theatre tickets. That fellow Lindbergh has started, and if he should make it, it would be rather interesting to see him land." Saturday morning he got still more excited....He went all the way out to Le Bourget after lunch in the hope of getting some news. But there was nothing to be had there, and it wasn’t until we were sitting at tea (and beer) at the Café de la Paix on the corner of the Place de l’Opéra that we heard—or rather saw—that Lindbergh had been reported a hundred miles off the Irish coast. It was flashed up on the revolving electric sign at the top of the Selfridge building, in letters six feet high. Then we knew that, come what might, we must go out to Le Bourget that evening. Dick dashed off to the theatre to change those blessed tickets, and I flew back to the hotel to change my clothes, and to break it to the chicks [Tudor and Anne] that they were going, too.... The crowd [at the airfield] was lined up ten deep all along the high iron fence that shut off the field proper, and for a time it looked as if we weren’t going to see much except the heads of the people around us. We...then discovered a small perch for ourselves on the three lower steps of an iron staircase leading up onto the roof of one of the buildings....We waited a scant hour, but to me it seemed like an eternity. Nobody about us had any later news than ours (most of them had been there for three hours or more), and I thought the lack of it only too ominous. As we waited, the last lingering fingers of daylight dissolved into darkness, and one by one the searchlights were turned on, making the field stand out so brightly that it almost hurt one’s eyes....At intervals rockets roared up into the air, and the excitement caused by the slowly descending lighted parachutes kept the crowd amused and patient.
It must have been about quarter past ten when the roar of an aeroplane overhead was distinctly heard above the answering roar of the mob below. It passed, but people all about us had distinctly seen the outline of a plane. A few minutes more and we heard it again; it grew in volume, and then suddenly, out of the black darkness, there flew a great silver moth—it seemed to me—which glided down the path of light in the middle of the field and was as suddenly swallowed up again in the seething, howling mass of humanity that surged towards it from every direction of the compass. One second I was gazing transfixed at that unbelievable phantom ship drifting softly down its lighted way; the next I was gazing at a sheer black wall of humanity trying to fight its way up and over a six-foot iron fence.
Two seconds later the fence gave way, and the black wave broke and swept forward like the Mississippi floods. It was Homeric. We meant to escape then and there, but when we emerged from our protected corner, the fever took possession of us too, and we longed for just one nearer glimpse before we should go. So we all took hands and trotted out onto the field, stepping across the poor, flattened iron fence and tripping over the mangled remains of several deserted bicycles.
We saw the plane all right; as a matter of fact it came near being the end of us. It was moving slowly across the field—being pushed to its hangar we supposed—and we ranged ourselves up in close formation, well at one side, to see it as it went past. It was almost abreast of us when to our horror it suddenly turned at right angles and charged straight down upon us! It was a nasty moment; everybody was running in every direction and every third person was trundling a bicycle. I was thrown almost into a baby carriage, and the baby who belonged there was almost thrown out. We finally got free and by a miracle kept together.... As you know, before it was finally rescued, ardent souvenir hunters had succeeded in cutting good-size pieces of cloth out of the wings....
My poor dear, I have written a journal! But....I have been so carried away by the magnificence of this exploit. I only hope they don’t spoil the boy before they’re done with him—he seems such a decent, modest sort now.