In my last blog post, I wrote about the need for the U.S. airline industry to replace about two-thirds of its pilots over the next few years. This need, I said, is intensifying for several reasons. Among them: The industry will soon face large numbers of pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65; the government, as of next summer, will require airline pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time—up from 250 hours today; and the number of people choosing aviation as a career is declining.
I suggested that perhaps PR could help solve this problem by playing a role in encouraging more young people to become pilots and to earn the private, instrument, commercial and (now) airline transport pilot licenses needed to fly for the airlines.
Since I wrote that post, I have been reading Lindbergh, A. Scott Berg’s Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of the famous aviator who became the first person in history to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, and in doing so set in motion a public relations effort that transformed aviation from a shaky fledgling group of barnstormers and airmail pilots to a soaring transcontinental (and eventually global) endeavor.
In 1927, the year of Charles Lindbergh’s flight, several pilots had tried (and others were attempting) to make the air trip between New York and Paris—beginning at either of the two cities and hoping to land safely at the other within a couple of days. All were seeking the $25,000 reward offered by Raymond Orteig for the first person (or persons) to make the flight successfully.
Like the others, Lindbergh—who at the time was an airmail pilot flying between St. Louis and Chicago—was eager to win the prize. But he was more interested in the flight itself and in what his success would do for promoting aviation.
Unlike the others, he made two unusual and daring decisions: to make the flight alone and to do it in a single-engine airplane. Spirit of St. Louis, named for the city that funded the airplane, was built to his specifications. He personally oversaw its design and manufacture in San Diego and flew it to St. Louis and then on to New York from where he would head to Paris.
Neither he nor anyone else had any idea what his flight would set in motion.
When he landed at Le Bourget airfield just outside Paris on May 21—after 33 hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds in the air, alone—150,000 people were there to greet him. The next day a half million lined the route he rode through Paris. When he returned to the United States a few weeks later, following celebrations in many European capitals, about four million people gathered to see him in New York.
The press loved him. The New York Times, for instance, covered his flight and landing in Paris in every story on the first five pages of one edition. It covered his New York reception in every story on the first 16 pages of another edition.
Over the summer of 1927, Lindbergh wrote We, a brief autobiography, culminating with the flight. The book was published—just five months after his successful journey—and sold nearly 650,000 copies (including signed copies for $25 each and a special holiday boxed edition for boys) over the next few months, earning Lindbergh more than $250,000.
Soon after the flight, Lindbergh was offered almost every commercial opportunity imaginable—everything from endorsing candy and men’s clothing to starring in movies. Overall, they would have been worth an estimated $5 million for him—in 1927, when a million dollars was a lot more than it is today.
He turned down all the offers except one: flying Spirit of St. Louis throughout the United States on a three-month promotional tour, which, according to the press release for the event, would be “undertaken for the primary purpose of stimulating popular interest in the use of air transport.”
During the tour, from July 20 to October 23, Lindbergh covered more than 22,350 miles around the country, logging 260 hours of flight time. But more important for the future of aviation, about 30 million people—one quarter of the entire population of the nation at the time—heard him give 147 speeches and saw him ride along parade routes in 82 cities.
In a letter to Lindbergh just after the tour, Harry Guggenheim, an aviation enthusiast and the person responsible for the tour, wrote “. . . nothing has so much contributed to the promotion of aviation in America, with the exception of your own historic flight to Paris, as this tour, which you have just completed.”
Certainly Lindbergh’s flight to Paris helped change aviation history. But the PR surrounding and following the flight played a bigger role. Within weeks after Lindbergh landed in Paris, another plane flew farther, flying from New York to Germany non-stop, breaking two of the records set by Lindbergh. But who today knows those pilots’ names, anything else about them, or whether they contributed to the advancement of aviation beyond making that flight?
The long-term effect of Lindbergh’s flight and the following promotion can be seen around us every day by just looking up at the countless commercial and private airplanes flying overhead. The short-term effect has also been recorded: Ryan Aircraft, which built Lindbergh’s plane (the other part of “we” in the title of his book), saw its work force jump from 20 to 120 within weeks of the Paris flight. The month before the flight, U.S. pilots flew 97,000 pounds of airmail; in September, they carried 140,000 pounds. In 1927, the number of licensed aircraft increased by 400 percent, and number of people applying for a pilot’s license tripled.
The airline industry today needs such results. It needs what Lindbergh gave it: a sense of adventure and romance and pilots with the “right stuff” to encourage others to follow their path across the sky.