In the early 1920s, one Member of Congress flipped and looped over the Capitol in a biplane. But after famous pilot Charles Lindbergh took Representatives up for a ride in 1928, aviation soared in the Washington imagination.
Oklahoma Representative Manuel Herrick called himself the “aerial dare–devil” of Congress. A 1922 photograph shows him in a plane, standing behind the grinning pilot, before a high–altitude adventure. According to the caption, the pilot “took Herrick through the loop the loop, tail spin, falling leaf and every stunt known to aviation and the only loss was Herrick’s ‘trick tie.’” Herrick called himself a “pretty slick flier.” He gossiped to journalists that the War Department had forbidden him from flying over the Capitol “for fear that I might fall upon the skylight and fracture a pane or two” and injure a Congressman or Senator. (No injuries occurred as a result of his flights around Washington.)
Charles Lindbergh gained great fame in 1927 for his solo transatlantic flight aboard the Spirit of St. Louis. Later that year, he testified before the Appropriations Committee, advocating increased federal funding and regulation for the aviation industry. Lindbergh was familiar with Congress because his father had represented Minnesota in the House for almost a decade. Members quickly grew enamored of the young flier, awarding him a standing ovation on the House Floor, and in 1928, a Congressional Gold Medal.
The day before he received the medal, Lindbergh offered Members of Congress the chance to take a flight circling Washington. “Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, will o’ the wisp airman, had Congress up in the air for nearly four hours,” the Washington Post reported. Each flight seated up to eight Representatives and took 15 to 20 minutes. Despite stiff headwinds, the flights were so popular that they continued into a second day.
“The most exclusive group in Washington society just now is the little coterie who can proudly claim that they belong to the ‘I’ve Been Up With Lindy’ Club.” The Washington Post proclaimed that Lindbergh’s flights were the most stylish happening in the capital, where “Lindbergh has been engaged in taking Congress up in the air and not leaving it there.”
“‘It was perfectly wonderful,’ said Mrs. Rogers, herself an air enthusiast, on leaving the plane,” a New York Times reporter wrote. Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers had already flown aboard land and sea planes before she took up Lindbergh’s offer. The Congresswoman impressed newspapers with her affinity for flight, and they noted that she accepted Lindbergh’s offer “as a great many timid members of Congress have not.” A photograph shows her relaxed and waving, goggles pushed back over her helmet, as she prepared to set off for a 1929 flight to Dayton, Ohio.
Rogers, who supported veterans’ causes in Congress, enjoyed the speed of traveling by air. On October 23, 1934, she flew from Massachusetts to Washington for a quick chat with President Franklin D. Roosevelt about providing assistance for poor residents of her district. Then she hopped right on a plane and made it back to Wilmington, M.A., in time for an 8 p.m. campaign speech. She won the election and became one of the longest–serving women in Congress.
When most Members of Congress swooped into the aviation craze, they rode planes as passengers. But Abraham Lafferty boarded a plane as a pilot after he left the House. The former Representative from Oregon signed up for lessons at Curtiss Airfield in Valley Stream, N.Y., in 1930. The following year, at the age of 56, Lafferty passed an exam and received his pilot’s license. He told journalists that there was nothing remarkable about this accomplishment: “anyone who can drive an automobile can operate an airplane,” he maintained.
Back in 1911, Lafferty’s desk in the House Chamber was situated next to Representative Charles Lindbergh, the father of the future aviator. Lindbergh often brought his son, “a lively youngster” with freckles and messy yellow curls, to the House. Lafferty later recounted how the boy and a few other children at the House were spanked after they disregarded a warning and slid down a mail chute.
Lafferty made a speech in 1911 that referenced the nascent aviation industry. “We now see men sailing through the air, rivaling the eagle in his flight,” he marveled. Twenty years later, when he became a pilot, Lafferty chuckled about the speech to the Boston Globe. “‘Now that’s funny, isn’t it?’ he asks with a quizzical grin. ‘Neither Charley Lindbergh nor I thought then that this youngster would turn out to be the greatest eagle of them all.’”
Sources: New York Times, 26 May 1922, 21 March 1928, and 25 September 1930; Washington Post, 8 April 1923, 21 March 1928, and 25 March 1928; Los Angeles Times, 16 March 1928; Boston Globe, 20 March 1928, 13 March 1931, and 24 October 1934; Congressional Record, House, 62nd Cong., 2nd sess. (20 December 1911): 577.Follow @USHouseHistory