Local history: Lindbergh’s landings in Long Beach

Local History is a weekly feature that looks at the people, places and events of Long Beach’s past. Have a question or a piece of history you want us to explore? Email [email protected].

From the moment Charles A. Lindbergh stepped out of the cockpit of his Ryan monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, on May 21, 1927, at Le Bourget Field in Paris and was carried off the airfield by 150,000 witnesses to the historic flight, he was the most famous man in the world.

The young pilot, at 25, would hold that title at least until World War II when he found some detractors for his controversial views on Nazism and a desire to stay out of the war.

But for more than a decade, Lindbergh drew thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of people looking for little more than a glance of the first person to fly a solo nonstop transatlantic flight, from New York City to Paris, France, in 33 and one-half hours.

His first appearance after returning to America was on June 11, 1927, when some 200,000 people cheered as Lindbergh was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest honor for an aviator, by President Calvin Coolidge.

The crowd at the Washington Monument on June 11, 1927, waiting to welcome Charles Lindbergh in his first appearance in America following his historic flight. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

In the years shortly after that flight, while he was still at the peak of his fame, Long Beach got a few visits from the “Lone Eagle” as the aviator continued flights around the country.

On May 31, 1928, just 10 days after the first anniversary of his Paris landing, Lindbergh was forced to make an unexpected 3 a.m. landing in Long Beach during a flight that originated in Albuquerque. He later told reporters he was able to spot Long Beach by the big electric sign atop the Breakers Hotel, whose ownership made immediate hay from that fact and began advertising the hotel as “Where Lindbergh Saw the Light.”

Police officers phoned the fledgling Long Beach Airport’s first manager William J. Putnam, who turned on the airfield lights allowing Lindy to land safely, or, as the Los Angeles Evening Express hollered with its front page headline: “‘Lindy’ Escapes L.A. Death Landing.”

Putnam and his wife lived in a pink stucco shack on the airport grounds and they prepared a late-night dinner of rabbit and strawberry preserves that Lindbergh enjoyed in the rare and welcomed calm away from the crowd. That would come later.

Lindbergh sought refuge back at the Breakers, which by 8 a.m. had a lobby crowded with people who had heard he would be staying there. The Press-Telegram reported that “by 10 o’clock, the crowds in the lobby, the corridors and the elevators had become denser and denser. By noon, restless at the delay in the appearance of Lindbergh, the crowd was kept quiet only by police control.”

He finally showed, worked his way through the crowd by escort and was able to get a long nap in his room. Later in the afternoon, he was escorted by 20 police motorcycle officers back to the airport where thousands watched him take off.

A little less than a year later, on March 17, 1929, Lindbergh once again landed at Long Beach Airport, though officials at airports in Van Nuys and Glendale were both expecting him at either of their fields at about 7:30 p.m. When he didn’t show up at the appointed time, they began to worry about his whereabouts and by 9 p.m. they considered a search for the pilot and his plane. At around 9:30, they learned he had once again escaped an “L.A. death landing” and was safely in his room in Long Beach, once again at the Breakers Hotel.

Breakers Hotel in the 1920s. Photo courtesy Historical Society of Long Beach.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Lindbergh had arrived at the hotel as an orchestra was concluding an evening concert.

He managed to avoid being spotted by the crowd, the paper reported, until he got to the front desk where he was recognized by a clerk.

According to the Times, he told the clerk, “put me away, don’t write me up and get me to my room as soon as you can.”

He tipped the bellboy a 50-cent piece and left instructions not to be disturbed, a request met by police officers stationed in the corridor.

Long Beach paid tribute to Lindbergh in 1930 when the city opened Charles A. Lindbergh Junior High (now Middle School) on Market Street, the first secondary school to be built in North Long Beach. The famed pilot was invited to the groundbreaking and the dedication of the school. He sent his appreciation but declined to appear.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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