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This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions, readers vote on which questions they want answered and VOSD investigates.
Kelli Moors asks: What happened to the Spirit of St. Louis Charles Lindbergh mural that used to be on the side of the old commuter terminal?
Moors’ question intrigued us so we skipped putting it up for a public vote and went right to answering it. The query led us to explain where the mural is now, but also inspired us to explore what San Diego International Airport’s relationship is with Charles Lindbergh.
To submit your question or vote on our next topic, click here.
Charles Lindbergh was an aviation hero – and an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer.
His name has nonetheless been part of the San Diego Airport’s unofficial moniker for years. The airport removed a large outdoor mural of Lindbergh a few years ago, suggesting the public agency that runs the facility was moving away from him.
It’s more complicated than that.
In 1927, Lindbergh became a national hero when he made the first-ever solo nonstop transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, a custom single-engine plane built in San Diego. Over the years, he also made anti-Semitic statements and, in his own speeches, diaries and letters, has discussed his support of eugenics and the superiority of the white race.
Because of that history, public agencies elsewhere are being asked to erase Lindbergh’s name and likeness from public view.
The San Diego International Airport says it has no reservations about honoring Lindbergh’s achievements.
When the airport opened in 1928, it was named after Lindbergh. The name has since been changed, but the airport is still often referred to as Lindbergh Field by local media and residents. There was also a prominent 40-foot mural depicting the pilot on the airport’s former commuter terminal that has since been taken down.
But the Airport Authority has explanations for both the removal of the mural and name change, and says neither is related to Lindbergh’s personal views. Officials said they removed the Lindbergh mural because it was damaged. And Lindbergh Field was dropped from the name when the Airport Authority was formed in 2003 because San Diego International Airport was a better fit for a major commercial airport.
In fact, the airport will likely soon reinstall a piece of public art honoring Lindbergh. “Charles A. Lindbergh: The Boy and the Man,” a bronze statue previously located curbside at the airport’s Terminal 2, was temporarily removed due to construction, but the airport has plans to put the statue back on display.
Airport leaders refused to address the issue about the pilot’s anti-Semitic past.
“The Spirit of St Louis, the plane Charles Lindbergh flew solo nonstop across the Atlantic for the first time, was built in San Diego by Ryan Air,” Rebecca Bloomfield, an airport spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “The statue acknowledges these significant achievements in aviation and their connection to San Diego.”
Tammy Gillies, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of San Diego, said the airport should reconsider installing the statue without at least acknowledging his political views.
“There’s no question that Charles Lindbergh was an anti-Semite,” Gillies said. “It would be nice to see some context about that around the statue. I’m not going to say they shouldn’t put up the statue, but I do think it would be beneficial for the community to at least understand the greater context of who this person was.”
Gillies said the Airport Authority should have a conversation with the community before reinstalling the statue.
The aviator still has many fans and supporters. The airport’s old Charles Lindbergh mural was so popular, for instance, that it found another home elsewhere in the county.
The painting of Lindbergh holding a model of the Spirit of St. Louis plane he famously flew from New York to Paris was installed on the airport’s commuter terminal in 1997, then removed in 2012. But John and Jeanne Whalen, the artists who painted the mural on several detachable panels, bought it back from the Airport Authority and sold it to a group of business owners and community leaders in Ramona, who refurbished it and in 2016 mounted it on a building in downtown Ramona, where it remains.
The Union-Tribune wrote about the mural’s removal back in 2012 and took a poll asking readers if the airport should put the mural back up. Ninety percent of respondents said yes. Supporters of Lindbergh argue that the pilot was just a man of his times and point to his eventual involvement in U.S. combat missions in World War II as proof that he eventually fought against Nazis and therefore doesn’t deserve to be denounced for his politics.
The airport isn’t alone in continuing to honor Lindbergh. The San Diego Air & Space Museum has displays featuring Lindbergh’s aviation achievements without mentioning his political views.
Terry Brennan, the chief curator and director of restoration at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, said Lindbergh was such an important piece of aviation history that it is appropriate to honor his contributions without clouding them with political context.
“We are an aircraft museum, our concentration is on providing aeronautical history of heroes, explorers and veterans,” he said. “We don’t delve too deeply into politics, otherwise we’d open too big of a can of worms.”
But Benji Fried, a rabbi educator at San Diego’s Temple Emanu-El, said opening that can of worms can be a good thing. He said it forces an important conversation about whether it’s possible to separate historical achievements from the people who achieved them.
“I don’t demonize the decision to try to divorce them, although I wouldn’t make that decision myself,” he said.
This story came from an audience question. Submit your question below and we might answer it in a future People’s Reporter story.