Erik Lindbergh
Erik Lindbergh

In some ways, Erik Lindbergh may turn out to be as important to the evolution of aviation as his legendary grandfather, Charles.

He's a supporter of battery-powered flight, solar-powered flight, space tourism, and ultra-light aircraft that can be parked in our driveways and powered by renewable energy. Lindbergh's advocacy has already yielded some incredible results.
We caught up with Lindbergh in Toronto, where he was the keynote speaker at a travel writer's conference, speaking about ideas that will transform the future of travel, and some frustrations that may stand in the way.

Lindbergh may joke that, while his famous grandfather is "mostly known for being the first person to fly across the Atlantic solo, he really should be known for being the last person to fly across the Atlantic and arrive at the same time as his baggage," but he's serious about the impact of famous boundary-pushing pilots like his grandfather and those that followed.

The world of green aviation has been in the headlines lately, from the concepts shown recently at the recent Paris Air Show to the successful cross-country flight of the Solar Impulse.

Lindbergh gave that effort a giant thumbs up when we interviewed him for his take on emerging airborne technologies. He also supports the plan by pilot, motorcyclist, and electric vehicle enthusiast Chip Yates to duplicate his grandfather's history-making 1927 transatlantic flight, in a solar powered one-passenger plane with the wingspan of a Boeing 727.


From the Wright Brothers to his grandfather, "there were barnstormers and daredevils. After Charles, they became pilots and passengers," he says.

Lindbergh is using what he calls "prize philanthropy" (described in the video below) to push both space tourism and alternative fuel flight. It's what helped propel his grandfather Charles to fly from Long Island to Paris to claim the Orteig Prize, which is known mostly to aviation history buffs. Raymond Orteig owned hotels in New York and Paris, and bankrolled the prize to drum up business by reducing travel time by ship. Several other pilots made unsuccessful efforts before Lindbergh.

Years later, Erik Lindbergh recognizes the Orteig Prize and other early aviation competitions like the Bendix Prize as pushing development of faster and more reliable aircraft.



Modern prize philanthropy includes the X-Prize, which Erik Lindbergh helped launch in 1996 to promote space tourism. He admits the X-Prize Foundation didn't actually have the $10 million in prize money when they announced the prize, so they essentially made a bet with an insurance company.
"They talked to Lockheed Martin and Boeing and the French space agency, and said there's no way someone can come up with a small sub-orbital space launch vehicle," Lindbergh explains. Three months before the policy expired, aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and two other pilots--who Lindbergh says had been told they were too old to fly for the airlines--"flew this rocket ship into space, really jump-starting the modern era of space tourism," and claimed the Ansari X-Prize.

Lindbergh remains involved in the X-Prize, as well as "piloting" his own prize philanthropy effort. LEAP, the Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize, encourages high school and college students, as well as corporate engineers, to let their imaginations soar. Among the ten LEAP winners so far are the Antares 20E electric aircraft and e-volo, makers of ultralight battery-powered vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles.
Lindbergh predicts that "within two years" we'll have a basic two-seat electric aircraft with a two-hour flight range that can travel using small, local airports. It will take longer, he admits, to develop an infrastructure for fast-charging batteries in route, or a battery swapping system, an issue similar to electric vehicles.

Erik duplicated Charles' solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 2002, in honor of its 75th anniversary. Up to then, he pretty much avoided the limelight and what he describes as the "intense legacy" of his famous name, preferring to work as a sculptor, shaping driftwood found around the family home on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. That legacy includes grandma Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the author and environmentalist, who would appreciate his push for solar and electric flight.

Lindbergh imagines "creating a future where this little guy can not only fly a renewable aircraft to visit his family, but actually fly into space and see what astronauts describe when they look down on our planet."

Lindbergh began thinking about recreating his grandfather's flight while sculpting a small wooden version of the Spirit of St. Louis during recovery from what he describes as having some "carpentry" on his body. A statewide champion gymnast when he was twelve, he grew up skiing and climbing Mt. Rainier near home. When he was diagnosed at 21 with rheumatoid arthritis, that also ended his plan to water ski around Bainbridge Island.

"By 30, I could barely walk and had some other joint damage" from his athletic life. His first personal experience with futuristic technology likely was having both knees swapped with titanium replacements.

"Building this little sculpture in my shop allowed me to see the Spirit of St. Louis in a different way. It allowed me to think about the waves of grain" and the waves on the ocean that Charles flew over. And, he though about "what it was like for my grandfather in 1927 to fly this noisy and unstable airplane that is really just a flying gas tank," and push boundaries.

Erik Lindbergh dreams of seeing earth from space, preferably in a spacecraft powered by renewable energy, and flying an ultra-light solar-powered device into the back-country for "electri-skiing." One design he's been thinking about is a solar glider with an electric motor "for self-launch, so it doesn't need a tow." And recently he test piloted a small electric aircraft, seen in the video below.



Lindbergh is a realist. He knows that battery powered and solar powered flight depend on a combination of development of super-efficient, super-powerful batteries and more precise energy management technology. Batteries also require an infrastructure for pilots to recharge safely, without range anxiety.

He's also realistic enough to know there will be a "massive" shake-out in alternative fuel aviation, which includes privately funded start-ups like Yates and government-funded entities like NASA. He just can't predict "when, or whether it will be worse" than the development and adoption of electric cars.