The Tragic Ottawa Visit of Charles Lindbergh

The legendary triumphs of Charles Lindbergh – the United States airmail pilot who achieved world fame for historic transatlantic crossing – are well known, and inspired a generation of aviators and aviation enthusiasts. Philatelists and postal historians will be familiar with the stamps honouring the aviator, or the covers flown on his various  flights throughout the Americas.
What is lesser known, even to those of us in Ottawa, is Lindbergh’s visit to capital only a few months following his triumphant transatlantic flight, and the tragic events that befell the planned celebrations.

In honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation, Prime Minister Mackenzie King invited “Lucky Lindy” to lead a flypast over the Parliament Buildings. Thousands gathered downtown to catch a glimpse of the heroic pilot, while five hundred police and militia waited at the airfield, close to Ottawa’s present-day MacDonald-Cartier International Airport. Lindbergh was joined by twelve escort pilots, one of whom was a young aviator named Thad Johnson.

A moving article by Andrew King in the Ottawa Citizen takes the reader through the tragedy of that day. King writes:

“…Johnson, Lindbergh and the other escort planes flew into Ottawa after an uneventful journey from Michigan. Lindbergh landed first, arriving at the Uplands grass airfield in front of thousands of cheering fans. Johnson followed, beginning his landing descent in formation with the other escorts. Suddenly, Johnson’s plane dropped, and in a corrective manoeuvre, he brought his plane back up into formation. But he came up too high, striking the propeller of another escort aircraft, which shredded the tail of Johnson’s aircraft. Again Johnson bailed out, but this time luck was not with him. With only 300 feet between his doomed plane and the ground, Johnson’s parachute barely had time to open before he slammed to earth, dying instantly in front of the crowd.”

One can only imagine Lindbergh’s sorrow as an RCMP Mounted escort brought him to downtown Ottawa for the celebrations, where an enthusiastic crowd – unaware of the tragedy – awaited. As Lindbergh continued with the scheduled events of the day, a state funeral for Lt. Johnson was arranged. The following day, thousands lined Wellington Street to pay their respects to the fallen airman, as his flag-draped casket was drawn by horse to the Ottawa railway station, across from the Chateau Laurier, for the final journey home.

Lindbergh himself played a role in the ceremony, flying the Spirit of St Louis in such proximity to the procession as to allow him to drop a bouquet of flowers onto the passing cortege.

Despite the tragic and no-doubt emotionally draining events, Lindbergh carried on, to be hosted at Ottawa’s famed Rideau Club. At the time, long before fire destroyed the original premises, the Club was located on Wellington Street, across from Parliament Hill, with a balcony that would have overlooked the same route followed by Lt. Johnson’s funeral procession.

In honour of the pioneer aviator, guests were treated to Gaspé salmon and spring lamb chops, with a dessert of strawberries and whipped cream. I have yet to find any contemporary accounts of the event, though it was undoubtably a much more somber affair than was anticipated. And yet, one attendee found the opportunity to approach Lindbergh, menu in hand, to solicit the heroic pilot’s signature.

Lindbergh’s signature itself is not scarce, and a collector can, with relative ease, locate a signed photograph or flight cover. But many of these items were meant to be collectible, intended to be saved for posterity. Ephemera such as this dinner menu – such tangible connections to a historic event, never intended to be kept, but in this case rescued by one attendee from being thrown away at the end of the day – can very much transport one to another time and place. With a little imagination, one can picture the Club, envision the atmosphere, and feel what the mysterious guest must have felt when handing over this menu to the soon-to-be-Colonel Lindbergh for his signature. To one passionate about history, that is rare indeed.