By Mitchell Gossman
As a fellow Minnesotan and private pilot, I felt compelled to get to know Charles Lindbergh better somehow. I considered flying my Mooney from New York to Paris, a route many, including his grandson Erik, have flown.
A few years ago, I was re-watching the movie The Spirit of St. Louis and realized what to do: I would fly to Ireland commercially, rent an airplane, and fly over where Lindbergh made landfall at the end of his trek. My son and I flew commercially to Ireland after arranging for an airplane rental and flight instructor at National Flight Centre near Dublin.
I hired flight instructor Dermot O’Brien, a retired airline captain with Air Lingus, and our airplane was a Cessna 172. I felt it was simpler and safer to have a CFI along because of my unfamiliarity with the local terrain and laws, plus liability issues. We took off from Dublin in clear weather and flew to the northwest at his recommendation because of the beauty of the coastline in the Donegal region.
We proceeded to Donegal Airport (EICA) for more fuel before the longest part of the journey, retracing Lindbergh’s flight. Dermot recommended starting this by flying over the Aran Islands, and we continued south along the rocky Irish coast, with too many beautiful sights to list, but among them was flying along the Cliffs of Moher—below the cliff’s edge.
My research showed that opinions vary on what piece of European land Lindbergh first saw. A strong contender is Great Skellig Island, also known as Skellig Michael, made famous to Americans by a scene in The Force Awakens episode of the Star Wars series. Tearaght Island has also been mentioned as potential landfall, a craggy peak 20 nautical miles north of Great Skellig. Finally, the “Three Sisters” is mentioned, a feature with three hills in succession on the northwest part of the tip of Dingle Bay.
Lindbergh himself specifically mentions “Dingle Bay” as being the first feature he identified, but never, as far as I can tell, did he mention a specific land feature. Lindbergh was involved in filming of The Spirit of St. Louis, which would give weight to Great Skellig because Lindbergh, played by Jimmy Stewart, first flew over Great Skellig island in the film. On the other hand, Tearaght Island is the most westerly point of Ireland, and a perfect great circle route from New York to Dingle Bay goes right over it, although Lindbergh went off course multiple times, so precisely where he crossed was a matter of luck.
Flying along the coast to the southwest, we saw the Three Sisters, and it is indeed easily identifiable. It was at this point that I learned that the division between VFR and IFR flight plans is blurred in Ireland since we were flying into deteriorating weather. You’re under air traffic control all the time, switching from IMC to VMC at will, while informing ATC. I also learned the peculiarity (to me in landlocked Minnesota anyway) of there always being a nearby escape route to a flat surface at zero msl—the sea.
Just in time, before we would have been forced to climb into IMC, we saw Tearaght Island, and flew over it. On the way to the Dingle Peninsula and Dingle Bay itself, we could also see Great Skellig Island in the murky fog and low ceilings, the weather making it unwise to overfly it. The weather was deteriorating, so we climbed into the safety of IFR altitudes in the clouds, returning to Dublin on top of a solid undercast, emerging in beautiful VFR with the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man, and Great Britain visible.
I was glad I had my experienced CFI, because I would not have dared to fly in instrument conditions, in a very unfamiliar location, alone, in a rented airplane.
“It could be Dingle Bay…” Lindbergh thought in that movie, and like him, my mission, a far humbler but enjoyable mission, was complete. I felt that much closer to him, just as Erik Lindbergh must have felt about his grandfather when he flew New York to Paris in his Lancair.
So, fellow pilots, give it a try. Fly commercially to an interesting location, rent an airplane, consider bringing a local pilot or CFI along to help stay out of trouble and enhance safety, and see the world from the air without ferry tanks, wet suit, raft, and worries. I’ll be doing this some more, elsewhere in Europe and Hawaii.
Mitchell Gossman is a private pilot and Mooney owner from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.