A new book by a Berkshire resident explores the life of his grandfather – a major player in the development of aviation in the 20th century.
The name ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ conjures up sepia-toned images of Charles Lindbergh gallantly posed beside his famous airplane in a flight jacket after the first transatlantic flight. But a Berkshire man is shining a light on a key figure who worked behind the scenes on that and other crucial moments in aviation history.
“The title of the book is the ‘The Spirit Behind The Spirit Of St. Louis,'" said Benjamin Barrett. He lives in Great Barrington, and his new 466-page book is a collection of documents, records, and journals from the storied life of one of his ancestors.
“Harold M. Bixby was my mother’s father, so my grandfather, who was one of Charles Lindbergh’s primary backers in 1927, when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic,” the author told WAMC.
The son of a wealthy St. Louis industrialist, Bixby relished supporting one of aviation’s earliest breakthroughs.
“Picture the early 1920s, when aviation was a fledgling industry, his father ultimately wanted him to be a banker, and Harold really didn’t care for the banking industry at all," said Barrett. "He was really jazzed about aviation.”
Starting out as a balloon pilot in the 1910s, Bixby was quickly out of work once planes surpassed the gas-filled orbs.
“Aviation was his passion, and he loved flying," explained Barrett. "And so when Lindbergh came in 1923 to St. Louis and got a job moving airmail from St. Louis to Peoria to Chicago and back and forth is when he got the idea to do the transatlantic flight for a $25,000 prize.”
The former balloonist worked to bankroll the project with his ties to the city’s industrial elite until the technology finally caught up in 1927. Bixby even had the honor of naming the one-of-a-kind single engine monoplane that Lindbergh would fly into immortality.
“Part of the reason he named the plane ‘The Spirit Of Saint Louis’ is because his goal ultimately was to try to promote St. Louis as the central hub of the country, being centrally located in the country,” Barrett told WAMC.
After the transatlantic success, Bixby went to China in the 1930s with Pan American to develop its passenger and airmail infrastructure.
“Harold’s goal in the beginning was negotiating with the Chinese, and the Chinese were very leery of foreigners," said Barrett. "They’d been fleeced before, taken advantage of by American businessmen. Harold was no different, he was seen as being as just another foreigner trying to come in and take advantage of the Chinese.”
After negotiations stalled, he realized that it would take a true showing of commitment to win over the Chinese officials.
“That’s when he moved his family there," Barrett went on. "He brought his wife and his four daughters and moved them there. And then sat across the table from the Chinese counterpart and said ‘OK, I’m here, my family is here. We’re serious, we’re not going anywhere.’”
Bixby was then tasked with establishing the China National Aviation Corporation’s southern route for its mail and passenger service – no easy task in the pre-radar world.
“Starting from Shanghai, flying south, they would just leapfrog down from city to city," Barrett said. "Wenzhou to Fuzhou, Swatow, all the way down, and then land ultimately back in Canton.”
During his time in China, Bixby expressed the belief that his work validated the risky decision to throw himself into aviation all those years ago.
“This is Harold in March 28th, 1933, writing from Shanghai to his wife back in New York, and he says, ‘It’s really worthwhile, Debs, this job,'" read Barrett. "'You feel as though you’re dealing with something which vitally concerns the lives of 400,000,000 people. That’s worthwhile, isn’t it? It’s better than standing around a brokerage office and expressing the thought that steel is due for a rise or a decline. I really feel as though I were sitting on big world affairs, dealing with the reconstruction of a nation.’”
Bixby died in 1965 at the age of 75.
While his exploits are cinematic, Barrett says he found plenty of evidence that his grandfather would be satisfied with the simple presentation of the facts alone: “I found a doodle in one of his documents that says ‘fact should be glory enough without further claims.’”