The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 19001950
I was twice footnote to the history of aviation. On July 7, 1929, still on the sunny side of four years old, I flew in the first commercially scheduled airliner (a Ford trimotor) across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles in forty-eight hours. Aviation was now so safe that even a little child could fly in comfort. I remember only two things about the flight: the lurid flames from the exhaust through the window; then a sudden loss of altitude over Los Angeles, during which my eardrums burst. Always the trouper, I was later posed, smiling, for the rotogravure sections of the newspapers, blood trickling from tiny lobes. Among my supporting cast that day were my father, the assistant general manager of the company (Transcontinental Air Transport), his great and good friend, as the never great, never good Time magazine would say, Amelia Earhart, as well as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose husband Charles was my pilot. Both Lindbergh and Amelia had been hired by the line’s promoter, one C.M. Keys (not even a footnote now but then known as the czar of aviation), to publicize TAT, popularly known as “The Lindbergh Line.”
My second moment of footnotehood occurred in the spring of 1936, when I was—significantly—on the sunny side of eleven. I was picked up at St. Albans School in Washington, DC, by my father, Eugene L. Vidal, director of the Bureau of Air Commerce (an appointee of one Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself mere tinkling prelude to Reagan’s heavenly choir). FDR wanted to have a ministry of aviation like the European powers; and so the Bureau of Air Commerce was created.
On hot spring mornings Washington’s streets smelled of melting asphalt; and everything was a dull tropical green. The city was more like a Virginia country seat than a world capital. The men wore straw hats in summer; white suits. There was no air conditioning. People used palmetto fans. As we got into my implausibly handsome father’s plausible Plymouth, he was mysterious, while I was delighted to be liberated from school. I wore short trousers and polo shirt, the standard costume of those obliged to pretend that they were children a half-century ago. What was up? I asked. My father said, You’ll see. Since we were now on the familiar road to Bolling Field, I knew that whatever was up, it was probably going to be us. Ever since my father—known to all as Gene—had become director in 1933, we used to fly together nearly every weekend in the director’s Stinson monoplane. Occasionally he’d let me take the controls. Otherwise, I was navigator. With a filling-station road map on my bony knees, I would look out the window for familiar landmarks. When in doubt, you followed a railroad line or a main highway. Period joke: a dumb pilot was told to follow the Super Chief no matter what; when the train entered a tunnel …