My Perfect Adventure: Erik Lindbergh

Erik Lindbergh isn’t just Charles Lindbergh's grandson. He’s also the son of one of the world’s first aquanauts. He sets his own sights beyond earth’s skies and seas, however: His mission is to make space exploration accessible to everyone.

Erik Lindbergh.     Photo: Courtesy of Air Charter Service

"A true explorer keeps an open and curious mind and is always seeking to learn."

According to Erik Lindbergh, Charles wasn’t his most adventurous grandfather. His mother’s father, Jim Robbins, was also a pilot, and so gung-ho that he crashed his bush plane and died before his grandsons could meet him.

Though Erik is a Lindbergh, it didn’t occur to him to become an aviator until he was in his mid-twenties, and then only because a friend insisted. His father, Jon, having been advised by his father—Charles—not to pursue aviation, became one of the world’s first aquanauts.

Erik, however, sets his sights beyond earth’s seas and skies: He’s on the board of the X Prize Foundation to promote space tourism. The X Prizes are inspired by the Orteig Prize, which spurred Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in 1927.

In 2002, on its 75th anniversary, Erik thumbed his nose at his decades-long struggle with rheumatoid arthritis to recreate his grandfather’s pioneering feat. It took him 17 hours (it took Grandpa more than 33) to solo-pilot a single-engine aircraft, the New Spirit of St. Louis, non-stop from New York to Paris, a stunt Erik used to raise more than $1 million for charity.

His deep passions for aviation and space exploration notwithstanding, he has some decidedly down-to-earth hobbies as well: woodworking, mushroom hunting, and hacky-sacking all make him happy. During this interview, he discusses how your inner ear can lead you astray, the scourge of noise pollution, the promise of electric aircrafts, and why, above anyone else living or dead, he’d choose to meet the author of The Little Prince. He also very much wants to meet a few people who haven’t yet been born: his future grandchildren. So he works to balance his urge to be as adventurous as his grandfathers were with the forbearance it’ll take to live a good deal longer.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I’m a die-hard backcountry skier, so a perfect day begins with coffee and a nice breakfast, then a couple-hour climb with a small horde of my ski pals. I’ve learned to love the climb almost as much as the descent, but a perfect day would be bluebird sunny with deep, cold smoke-powder turns—the kind of run that gives you a perma-grin for days. Then I’d motor out to the nearest airport and go soaring in a glider, like a hawk scouting for rodents. Only I’d be scouting for the optimum foraging spot. After landing and the obligatory hangar flying session with the local pilots, I’d dive off into the forest with my girlfriend to hunt for wild chanterelles, morels, or cauliflower mushrooms—it’s such a treasure hunt. Sometimes you hit the bonanza and other times you come up empty. But at the very least you have a romp through the forest. I’d fill my basket, then have a romantic gourmet feast. Afterward, I’d walk on the beach and collect pieces of interesting driftwood while watching the sun set. The perfect ending would be a creative session in my wood shop puzzling together a sculpture or a piece of furniture.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go?
Indonesia, for the scuba diving. I understand that the diversity of species is unparalleled there. To explore something so wild and colorful would be mind-blowing. Since diving is perhaps the closest we can get to weightlessness here on earth, I could imagine it would be like exploring an alien world.

What’s the best place you've ever visited?
Perhaps Cataract Canyon in Grand Canyon National Park. Hiking down to Mooney Falls through the lava tube was epic, in the words of my 12-year-old. Swimming and exploring the travertine waters and lush river bottom in such an arid landscape was simply amazing. My best memories seem to come from rustic natural settings well off of the beaten path.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A true explorer keeps an open and curious mind and is always seeking to learn. The pretentious attitude of the faux explorer who has done everything and seen everything tends to sour the soup. I love this quote of his, from The Little Prince: “I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.”

What’s something you can’t travel without?
I have to travel with a hacky sack. I learned how to play as a kid trying to hone my soccer skills. I gave up soccer long ago, but I still play hacky sack, in airports, parks, ferries, even hotel rooms. It provides an excellent core workout and often others will join in, so it can be a great icebreaker.

When you arrive somewhere new, what’s usually first on your agenda?
I like to explore my immediate surroundings as soon as I arrive. This gives me a sense of place and gets me moving, which is helpful after a long trip. If I can exercise, I do that as soon as possible—it helps alleviate jetlag and promotes good sleep.

What motivates you to keep flying?
I love to fly! Small planes still hold the magic of flight for me, and the challenge of making a good landing in a stiff crosswind is an exhilarating thing. The search for lift in a glider, while keeping an eye on altitude and on the airport you need to get back to, provides a delicious tension that adds a layer of challenge. My 2002 flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris was a 17-hour solo endeavor on the 75th anniversary of my grandfather’s historic flight. It was challenging and really illustrated to me the difficulty of his flight in 1927, which changed the world’s perspective on what aviation could be. It jump-started the modern era. I want to help jump-start the space-travel industry by focusing on the X Prize. As a result of that effort, the public will soon be able to buy a ticket and fly into space. It’s been empowering to know that I played a small part in changing the way the world thinks about space travel. I can’t wait to go, and to look back and see our planet from space.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
In high school, I planned to start a business called Hard Core Luxury Backcountry Tours after a snow-camping ski trip with two friends. After a long day of skiing, we dug a snow cave into a vertical cornice ridge and spent a cozy night eating gourmet sandwiches and hot soup. We had a candle and a bottle of wine each carved into its own snowy niche and were struck by the thought that more people would love to have this experience. The idea was that the host could ski or snowmobile a cache of food and gear into a snow cave so that guests wouldn’t have to deal with skiing in with a full pack. I started working in resorts to learn more about the industry and studied snow and avalanche dynamics, but life has a funny way of changing your path. No regrets—I’m guessing that liability issues and consistent income needs would have been problematic.

When and how did you get into aviation?
I never thought about flying as a career. Perhaps it was too obvious growing up as a Lindbergh. I was 24 when a friend of mine started bugging me about going up. He was relentless and became so annoying that I gave in and took a demo flight. I loved it and decided to get my pilot’s license. During that process of absorbing what my flight instructor was doing, I started to think about what it would be like to sit in his seat and teach others how to fly. That led to my commercial pilot certificate and a career that morphed from teaching to charters to marketing, mentorship, and working for advocacy groups and green-aviation programs with the Lindbergh Foundation. Most recently, I joined forces with Air Charter Service to revolutionize private aviation with the Lindbergh Card, a jet card that lets you charter any type of aircraft anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. The hub-and-spoke system of commercial airlines is truly a barrier to getting to the out-of-the-way places that I love.

What advice you would give to an aspiring pilot?
Learn when to trust your body and when to trust your instruments. There are times when your body—your inner ear, for instance—will give you signals that are just wrong. You need to overcome your instinct to trust your body. Sometimes, however, you do need to listen to what your body is telling you and turn around before you lose the option. Get-there-itis has killed many a pilot who pushed too hard.

Who has been your most influential role model?
[Space pioneer] Gregg Maryniak has been one of my best mentors. We worked on the X Prize Foundation together for 10 years, and he helped me hone my business and public-speaking skills tremendously. It was so gratifying when the tables turned and I was able to mentor him in a small plane.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Breathe deep, fly high. This is more of a motto, but it reflects my philosophy of being present in the moment and moving forward from there.

Have you ever made a mistake that made you think twice about getting in the air again?
Yes. I picked up a lot of ice over the southern Cascades during a flight from Seattle to Bend. It was a series of poor decisions on my part that led to the situation and I should have turned around. But I learned a lot about myself on that flight and knew I’d never make that mistake again. It held a powerful reminder that I really want to meet and know my grandkids. I don’t have any yet, but I hope to someday. You see, in 1959, my maternal grandfather, Jim Robbins, who was an experienced Alaskan bush pilot and jade miner, crashed his plane into a mountain on the Idaho-Wyoming border and died. I hiked to the crash site with my brother about 10 years ago and we both cried our eyes out and had a range of powerful emotions. Why did he take that risk? He took away my chance to know him, love him, and hear his stories. It remains a poignant reminder that my freedom to take risks can have far-reaching consequences. But I also know that he lived a good life rich with experience. Eliminating risk from life is not living at all. So I try to balance my Robbins need for adventure with my Lindbergh risk management.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
My job with Air Charter Service is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s an excellent business, but beyond that, they support all the philanthropic work I do inspiring and incentivizing kids to become innovators and helping to grow the fledgling electric-aircraft industry. Between all that and my passion for woodworking, I don’t need any other career.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Hiking into “One Square Inch of Silence” in Olympic National Park’s Hoh rainforest. Because I’m coming to understand that silence is one of our most endangered resources. The Hoh river valley is one of the quietest places left in America. As a pilot—planes make lots of noise—I believe we should participate in the dialogue of creating a solution to noise pollution.

Helicopter skiing in British Columbia or New Zealand. A serious contradiction? Yes. It’s noisy and has a high carbon footprint. But flying in a helicopter is a stunning experience. Adding the euphoria of powder-skiing into the mix would make it just too good to pass up.

Flying an electric aircraft. I anticipate doing this within the next six months. Imagine: Safe, simple, quiet, efficient, renewable-powered aircraft. With vertical takeoff and landing, we can go electri-skiing.

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