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Aloft, in His Grandfather's Spirit

April 15, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — In hopes of replicating his grandfather's historic 1927 flight across the Atlantic and boosting interest in civilian aviation, Erik Lindbergh took off Sunday in a plane dubbed "The New Spirit of St. Louis."

Lindbergh, 37, an artist and executive with the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation, taxied alone down the runway at an airport named for his grandfather in a state-of-the-art single-engine Lancair Columbia 300.

"This flight is all about celebration of the past and hope for the future," Lindbergh said.

He touched down Sunday evening in St. Louis, en route to Long Island, N.Y., and finally a May 1 departure for Paris.

He wants to drum up interest for the high-stakes competition being staged by the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, dedicated to promoting science research and civilian space travel.

With heavy corporate sponsorship, the foundation is offering $10 million to the first group that can build an aircraft capable of sending three adults 62.5 miles into space and bringing them back safely, and then repeating the feat within two weeks.

"Charles Lindbergh's flight changed the public's mind-set about aviation," said X Prize Foundation Chairman Peter H. Diamandis. "We want the same from Erik--for people to say, 'Hey, there's no reason space travel is just for government employees or wealthy millionaires.'"

Competitions have long been part of aviation. Charles Lindbergh was motivated by a $25,000 prize being offered for the first nonstop New York-France flight.

Lean and self-deprecating in the manner of his famous relative, Erik Lindbergh has another reason for attempting the flight: to raise awareness about rheumatoid arthritis.

A star gymnast as a teenager, Lindbergh was diagnosed with arthritis in his early 20s and soon could barely walk without canes. But now with new medication and a devotion to exercise and diet, he shows few effects of the crippling condition.

"This mission is also about the future of medicine," he said. "It's about overcoming obstacles and [about] perseverance."

That the flight should start in San Diego is historically proper. Although the money to back Charles Lindbergh's flight came from St. Louis--hence the name of his plane--the expertise and determination came from San Diego.

A financially struggling company called Ryan Airlines built his single-engine monoplane on a shoestring budget and without blueprints. A full-size replica resides in the rotunda of the San Diego Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park.

At an average cruising speed of 184 mph, Erik Lindbergh estimates that his 3,600-mile Long Island-to-Paris leg of the flight will take about 18 hours. At 108 mph, his grandfather took 33 1/2 hours in the original Spirit.

The all-composite Lancair has a satellite phone and Global Positioning System technology--a far cry from the submarine-like periscope that Ryan designers put in the original Spirit to overcome the fact that an oversized fuel tank blocked his view.

Bend, Ore.-based Lancair Co. wants to gain a niche in the private market as a faster (maximum cruise speed of 219 mph) but less expensive ($325,000) alternative to better-known brands.

Erik Lindbergh said he remembers little of his grandfather--who died in 1974--except that he was reluctant to talk about the flight that had made him internationally famous.

"If anyone in the family asked him about the actual flight, he would say, 'Read the book,'" his grandson said. "I knew there was something different about him, but I'm still learning about how he and my grandmother [Anne Morrow Lindbergh] affected the world."

Although solo trips across the Atlantic are not unusual, the effort still remains "the Mt. Everest" of civilian aviation, Diamandis said, because of the distance and the fact that most of the trip is over water.

Lindbergh's plane has a life raft, but--like his grandfather--he decided not to take a parachute. He plans to cruise at about 11,000 feet; Charles Lindbergh got so close to the waves that sea-spray hit his face.

Although aviation has changed greatly in the 75 years since Charles Lindbergh made the world's first solo flight across the Atlantic, one factor remains as important as ever: luck.

Erik Lindbergh figures he has something that will work as a good luck charm: a Swiss Army knife given to him by his grandfather.

"Very little of their effects are still with the family," he said. "They donated most of their things to museums."

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