In 1931 the celebrated aviator and his wife set out on an adventure across the Canadian north to chart a potential route for Pan Am passenger service.
One long flight: no timeline, no start or finish, no diplomatic or commercial significance and no records to be sought.
That was how Charles Lindbergh described the 1931 flight from Washington, D.C., to China to a reporter from Time magazine on July 27, prior to the start of the journey. Despite Lindbergh’s efforts to downplay its significance, the flight to the Orient by way of Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Japan was an important milestone in the pioneering days of aviation.
The planned route covered 7,100 miles. Lindbergh and Anne Morrow, his wife of two years, were attempting to find a commercial route to Asia for Juan Trippe, president of Pan American Airways. After winning the $25,000 Orteig Prize for his solo transatlantic flight in May 1927, Lindbergh had signed consulting contracts with various new airlines, and Trippe had secured his expertise with a lucrative contract of $10,000 per year plus stock options.
Lindbergh had met Anne Morrow at Christmastime in 1927, during a goodwill tour of Mexico, where her father was serving as U.S. ambassador. Anne was immediately smitten with the celebrated aviator. After Lindbergh took her and a group of officials on an airplane ride, Anne recorded in her diary: “He was so alert perfectly at home—all his movements mechanical. He sat easily and quietly, not rigid, but relaxed, yet alert. It was a complete and intense experience. I will not be happy until it happens again.”
The couple were married on May 27, 1929, in a quiet ceremony in the Morrow garden in Englewood, N.J. Part of their honeymoon involved surveying Central and South America for Pan Am in a Sikorsky S-38. “I would have been content to stay at home and do nothing else but care for my baby, but there were those survey flights that lured us into more adventure,” Anne wrote. “I went on them proudly, taking my place as crew member. The beauty and mystery of flying never paled, and I was deeply involved in my job of operating the radio.”
In 1929 Charles purchased the first Sirius aircraft from Lockheed’s Jack Northrop and Gerald Vultee for $22,825. A low-wing monoplane with a powerful 680-hp Wright Cyclone engine, the Sirius had a range of 2,100 miles and a top speed of 115 mph. The Lindberghs customized the airplane to their specifications, adding a sliding canopy for each cockpit to protect them from the elements. Andre Priester, Pan Am’s chief engineer, installed the radio equipment, including a trailing antenna—the same radio system that would eventually appear on Pan Am aircraft. The Sirius’ registration number, NR-211, was the same one Lindbergh had used on his Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis.
The Lindberghs familiarized themselves with the Sirius during several trial flights. The major test came on April 20, 1930, when they flew from Los Angeles to New York City in a record time of 14 hours, 45 minutes and 32 seconds.
In preparation for their trip, the couple replaced the Sirius’ wheeled undercarriage with Edo pontoons, as much of their flight would be over open water and the lake-and river-dotted Canadian north. The pontoons doubled as extra fuel tanks.
Since every ounce of weight was critical, each item taken on board had to be weighed and a tally kept. Vital equipment included a rubber boat, electrically heated flying suits, gloves and helmets. The Lindberghs allotted themselves 18 pounds of clothing each, including their suitcases. Anne was obliged to take dresses and heels in the expectation that there would be formal dinners at a few stopovers.
Charles pored over the available maps, identifying 12 stops where aviation fuel, spare parts and other items would be placed. Anne worked with Pan Am staff to learn Morse code, navigation and how to operate the radio. She practiced deploying the trailing radio aerial, then immediately retracting it once the message had been sent and a response received.
On July 27, 1931, the Sirius lifted off from Long Island Sound and whizzed past the newsreel cameras. At their first stop, Washington, they picked up passports and other documents and met with State Department officials to obtain the required permissions from Canada, the Soviet Union, Japan and China. Their next stop was the Morrows’ summer home in North Haven, Maine, for a final meeting with family and friends.
Shortly before the couple took off on July 30, a reporter said he could have walked across the rowboats lined up in the harbor. One local resident, 14-year-old Samuel H. Beverage, reported, “They circled around and swooped down low and flew past all the rowboats that were filled with people cheering, waving, clapping, screaming and a few crying. After they flew away I went and purchased a model kit of the now famous Sirius aircraft for 50 cents.”
On the leg from North Haven to Ottawa, Anne noted: “I had my first successful day at the radio. I was in direct contact with a station every 15 minutes of the trip to Ottawa. I was able to send out our position and weather on a regular basis and receive back ‘received OK.’”
The Sirius landed on the Ottawa River near the Rockcliffe Air Station. While Anne did a radio interview, Charles met with local aviators, explorers, travelers, meteorologists, surveyors—anyone who knew anything about the Canadian north. One expert said that most of the stops Lindbergh had marked on the map were little more than a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post or had a small detachment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Charles was unperturbed. Another warned that the pontoons might sink into the mud of the rivers this time of year, and that he would not be able to take off without burning out his engine. To everyone’s amusement, a Canadian bush pilot chimed in, “Listening to so many in this meeting I wonder, how did any of them get back here alive then?”
After spending two days in Ottawa, the Lindberghs headed to Baker Lake. “The scenery appeared the same—trees, marshes, lakes, and bleak shorelines,” Anne wrote in her diary. “After several hours, the sight of smoke billowing out of the chimney of four or five cabins appeared.” A typical stopover, Baker Lake had four small white houses and a British flag flying outside a Hudson’s Bay post. Anne noticed a shack with a sign: Revillon Frères Ltd. Furs.
“A few white men, Eskimos in pointed Santa Claus hoods, a Canadian Mountie, tall and handsome in his red coat, put out a hand to us,” she recorded. The Eskimos had never seen a white woman before. “What a disappointment I must be, wearing baggy trousers just like the rest of you,” she said.
The Lindberghs’ guesthouse was a small, square building with one bedroom. Their hosts explained that the supply ship only came once a year, and since it was due shortly, supplies were very limited. Dinner consisted of fresh salmon. Charles and Anne still had food left over from their stop in Ottawa—four meat sandwiches, three plums and a pear—and they offered it to the trappers.
That evening they were treated to a showcase of furs that would be shipped south on the supply ship. “It was Baker Lake’s version of a fashion show for the visiting guests,” Anne wrote. The following winter she was opening her mail and noticed a fat envelope from Baker Lake. In it were two tickets to that year’s show, stamped Revillon Frères – Private Showing – Baker Lake. Anne laughed for a long time.
Upon their departure, Anne noted: “There is a feel of autumn in the air. A cold wind was blowing. Our first sight of the Mackenize Delta, we had flown 12 hours from Baker Lake, and the motionless sun set in a motionless cloud bank. A bleak land with icy lakes, always the same.”
They followed the Canadian coastline from Amundsen Gulf to the Beaufort Sea. To relieve the boredom, Anne attempted to contact radio stations along their route even if she didn’t need to. When Charles needed to catch a few minutes of sleep, he turned the controls over to Anne.
Their next destination, Aklavik, was a metropolis compared to Baker Lake. There were 20 or 30 houses, two churches, a hospital, giant radio masts and even another airplane. Although it was 3 a.m., it was still light, and many people came running out to greet the fliers and take pictures.
It turned out the excitement was not only over the Lindberghs but also the yearly arrival of the supply ship. As locals began opening crates from the ship, “There was excitement mixed with disappointment,” Anne wrote. “The doctor, a hammer and crowbar in his hand, was pulling up the wooden boards to get at his motor boat tank. ‘Why, they’ve sent the wrong kind….I wrote them all the specifications and now I can’t use this tank. I have to wait a full year for the next ship.’ The tank was for the boat that the doctor needed to get into remote villages. He had to cover several hundred miles to reach some of the villages.”
Another crate contained a bathtub. Until this shipment, the doctor had the only real bathtub in the village. The radiomen had ordered one for their own use and were shouting, “Now you won’t be able to lord it over on us anymore!” Orangeade, cookies, candy, fruit, vegetables and magazines filled with stories of Hollywood and the newly arrived aviators’ exploits were uncovered.
On the leg from Aklavik to Point Barrow, Alaska, the Lindberghs encountered maddening weather conditions punctuated by mist, rain and fog. Charles kept dropping down through the fog and drizzle, attempting to get a fix on their position. Each time he did so, Anne had to quickly let the aerial out, then pull it in just as quickly. The trailing antenna added drag on the aircraft, and it was vital that it not be damaged. At times it seemed the Sirius was just skimming above the waves.
Bad news awaited them at Point Barrow. The supply ship carrying their aviation fuel was stuck in the ice about 100 miles away, and it would take several days to reach them. The couple knew that if they were not airborne in another day or two they could be stranded for weeks or even months due to the weather moving in. So, on August 10, with Charles having calculated that the Sirius had enough fuel to make it to the next stop, the Lindberghs took off for Nome, Alaska. Halfway there, Anne wrote, “We are at the famous Point of No Return, not enough fuel to turn around and go back, and the mountains were ahead, and the darkness, fog was surrounding the aircraft.”
The Nome radio operator said he would light flares to help them find their way in to make a landing. Anne radioed back that they were going to land in an inlet below and wait until morning. It was a difficult downwind landing, but Charles made it. The couple then improvised a bed in the luggage compartment and went to sleep.
In the morning there was plenty of aviation fuel waiting at Nome, and Charles filled the tanks to the brim. At their next refueling stop on the Siberian island of Karaginski, the Lindberghs were greeted by fur trappers and the local mascot, a small orphaned brown bear. The two dined on wild strawberries and milk, and were informed that it was August 16, as they had crossed the International Date Line.
The most dangerous part of the entire flight now awaited the flying couple. The Kurile Islands were fogbound. Their next leg, to the Japanese island of Hokkaido, was one of the scariest of the entire trip, according to Anne. The fog became so thick that Charles was forced to descend, pull on his goggles and hang his head out the opened cockpit in an attempt to see some landmarks below. Somewhere in the fog ahead were mountains, and with one miscalculation the wreckage of the Sirius might never be found.
Employing his instruments and looking out the cockpit, Charles found a clear patch of sea 100 miles short of their destination. Anne’s radio skills proved vital, as she reached a Japanese radio operator who assisted in guiding them down. After several aborted attempts, Charles put the Sirius into a steep dive and landed on the water. Once again they spent the night sleeping in the floatplane on the water.
Luck was with them in the morning when they awoke to find a Japanese ship, Shinshur Maru, waiting nearby to provide assistance. Upon examining the Sirius for damage, Charles noticed that the spreader bar between the two pontoons had buckled. The ship attached a line and towed the aircraft to Brouton Bay, where the plane was repaired and refueled. Of the conditions once they were back in the air, Anne wrote, “Fog, fog, fog, more fog and more drizzle.”
The trip was beginning to take its toll on the husband and wife team. The past several stops had been difficult and at many points very dangerous. Stress, fatigue, lack of good meals and the cramped conditions in the Sirius for 12 or more hours each day made it difficult to stay focused and constantly on the alert for problems.
In Japan, enthusiastic, cheering crowds greeted the Lindberghs at each stop. In Tokyo Anne spoke of her excitement at being in the country, and said it reminded her of when she was a little girl and a friend brought her a present from Japan, a wooden box containing the most beautiful doll she had ever seen. “I believe in every Japanese there was an artist and the country was filled with beauty,” she remarked.
Prior to departing for China, Charles checked the Sirius and noticed that something in the cargo area was amiss. He discovered a canvas sack concealing a young man who had hoped to travel back to the United States with the famous aviators. Three police officers escorted the stowaway from the aircraft.
The weather for their departure from Osaka was hot and sunny, a welcome respite from all the days of fog and drizzle. The couple’s first sight of the Chinese countryside revealed a flooded landscape. The lower Yangtze River valley had been inundated by water, and thousands of people were homeless and in need of medical supplies and food. Upon landing at Nanking, Charles and Anne offered their services to aid the flood victims.
Charles took aboard the Sirius a Chinese doctor, an American doctor from the Rockefeller Foundation and several packages of medical supplies. In less than an hour they completed a trip that would have taken several days by boat. The floatplane was able to land on the flooded fields to distribute supplies during their relief flights.
As they moved on to survey the river valley, an unfortunate accident brought the Lindberghs’ journey to a premature end. The British aircraft carrier Hermes was anchored in the Yangtze at Hankow, the next stop on their flight. Since the river’s currents were strong, the decision was made to hoist the Sirius onto the carrier’s deck while the couple enjoyed
The next day Charles and Anne climbed into the Sirius’ cockpits wearing their life jackets, and the floatplane was hoisted over the side. When it touched the water, still attached to its harness, strong currents began to whip the aircraft around. Charles gave the engine full throttle, trying to break free before the Sirius was smashed against Hermes’ hull. But one wing dipped into the water and was caught in the current, and the aircraft began to flip over. Charles yelled to Anne, “Better get ready to jump free!” She climbed out and jumped into the raging river, soon followed by Charles. Both were picked up uninjured, though a sailor told them that the locals had said of the Yangtze, “No one who goes under its waters ever comes up again.” The two aviators were taken belowdecks and given Bovril, hot brandy and castor oil.
The Lindberghs were lucky, but their floatplane had been badly damaged and would be returned to the U.S. via ship. While they were in Shanghai on October 5, a telegram arrived informing Anne that her father had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. The couple sailed to America on SS President Jefferson, and upon docking in Los Angeles, immediately flew across the country to New Jersey.
Back home, Charles and Anne talked with newspaper reporters and newsreel crews about their trip. Charles wrote a report for Juan Trippe explaining that the northerly route to the Orient was possible, but that radio and weather stations and other infrastructure would have to be put in place before passenger service could be instituted. The biggest obstacle to such service, however, came soon after the Lindberghs left China, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, touching off war.
Trippe eventually decided that the best route to Asia was across the Pacific. Pan American Airways would build facilities for its Clippers in Hawaii, Midway Atoll, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and Canton, China. Pan Am’s Pacific route would prove more profitable for passengers and commercial cargo than the difficult passage across the Canadian north. Today, however, most jet airliners departing from the U.S. East Coast to Asia follow the northern great circle route—the same route the Lindberghs charted so long ago.
Freelance writer Jim Trautman resides in Orton, Ontario. His most recent book is The Pan American Clippers: The Golden Age of Flying Boats. Recommended reading: North to the Orient, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh; Lindbergh: A Biography; by Leonard Mosley; and Pan Am: An Airline and its Aircraft, by R.E.G. Davies.
This feature originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Aviation History Magazine. Subscribe here.