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Texas History

Unlucky Lindy

Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh experienced bumpy flights in 1920s Texas

In 1923, Charles Lindbergh had yet to gain international fame as a celebrity aviator. On his first trip to Texas, he piloted a run-down World War I surplus biplane to Texarkana and whimsically touched down just long enough to say he’d been in Texas. A year later, with 250 hours of recorded flight time, he applied to advanced flight school at the Army’s Brooks Field air base in San Antonio. While he awaited word in Missouri, his friend Leon Klink invited him on a tour of the Deep South.

Klink, a St. Louis car dealer, owned a yellow World War I surplus Curtiss JN-4C biplane, known as a “Canuck.” It was a 90-horsepower, single-engine plane that barely reached 75 mph. Klink wanted Lindbergh to take it for a spin through the Gulf states—and teach him how to fly as they went.

Lindbergh accepted.

The pair took off from St. Louis on January 24. They flew through Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida. Lindbergh learned that he’d been accepted into the Army’s flight program and was to report March 15. With a month and a half to spare, Lindbergh and Klink decided to fly to California.

After flying over Louisiana and crossing into Texas, they got lost. Lindbergh misread his map and mistook the Uvalde and Northern Railway along the Nueces River for the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway along the Rio Grande. Lindbergh realized his mistake when the tracks ended at an unmapped town. They were low on fuel. Lindbergh landed in a plowed field near Camp Wood in Real County.

The next morning, they found that the plowed field was not long enough for the loaded craft to take off. Klink climbed out, taking their luggage, the toolbox and the passenger seat with him. If Lindbergh could get the lightened Canuck off the ground, he would meet Klink at Camp Wood, and they would try their ascent from Uvalde Road, the town’s main street.

Uvalde Road had a utility pole on each side, 46 feet apart. The Canuck’s wing-span was 43 feet, leaving little margin for error. Lindbergh was confident he could squeeze through.

When the Canuck lurched forward, everyone in Camp Wood (and many residents of Real County) had gathered to watch. The takeoff created quite a show.

As the craft picked up speed, a wheel hit a rut, the Canuck veered, and one pair of wings clipped a telephone pole. Lindbergh lost control and crashed into a hardware store. The store was unoccupied, and Lindbergh and Klink emerged from the wreckage unscathed.

The aviators needed parts from Houston to complete repairs. They stayed at the Fitzgerald Hotel and passed time with Camp Wood locals. After making repairs, they gave folks $5 plane rides to mitigate their unforeseen expenses.

Their next landing was at dusk in Brewster County, near Maxon Creek. Daylight revealed an inhospitable landscape littered with sagebrush and cactus. Lindbergh and Klink spent the whole morning and early afternoon clearing a runway.

By the time the Canuck reached the end of the makeshift runway, it was only a few feet off the ground, and the top of a Spanish dagger plant passed through part of a lower left wing. Lindbergh landed immediately.

By the time they again made the necessary repairs, Lindbergh was due at Brooks Field. They doubled back to San Antonio.

Lindbergh graduated from flight school at the top of his class. On May 21, 1927, he became an aviation icon when he piloted the Spirit of St. Louis on the world’s first nonstop, transatlantic flight, from New York to Paris.

Today, Lindbergh has a park named after him in Camp Wood, and Klink a street.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.