Saturday, January 30, 2010

Louisburg Native Taught Lindbergh to Fly


It was May, 1927, and Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902-1974) had just completed his historic flight from New York to Paris in the "Spirit of St. Louis." In the back room of a Greek wiener stand in Wendell, Wake Co., NC, a group of men sat around a checkerboard. One of the checker players was William "Bill" A. Winston who had just lost his job because his company had gone under.

A reporter entered the room and asked for Winston. "I've been told you taught Lindbergh to fly," he said. "Anything to it?"

"Well, I did have a pupil by that name and he was a good one, back in 1924, it was, at Brooks Field in San Antonio, Texas, while I was an Army flying instructor," replied Bill Winston. And thus it was that Lindbergh's instructor rose into fame on the wings of a pupil who had been recorded as "satisfactory."

Charles Lindbergh

What led to Charles Lindbergh's remarkable feat? He saw his first airplane in 1910, and it was love at first sight. In 1922, he quit college to take flying lessons at the Nebraska Aircraft Co. He joined forces with E. G. Bahl, a barnstormer, in 1922, and learned to wing-walk and parachute from planes. In 1923, Lindbergh bought his first plane, a Curtiss JN4, at a government auction of "Jennies," World War I training planes. He paid $500 for it. He spent the next year barnstorming across the country.

In his autobiography, WE, Lindbergh recalled: "I had always wanted to fly modern and powerful planes. … The Army offered the only opportunity." He applied to the army and reported to Brooks Field in March 1924 where he joined a class of 104 cadets.

Actual flying began on April 1. Each instructor had 6 students. Lindbergh was assigned to Sgt. Wm. "Bill" Winston. Winston recalled that he was aware that Lindbergh could already fly small planes. On the first flight, after 55 minutes, Winston turned the controls over to Lindbergh.

Lindbergh said of Winston: "I had been particularly fortunate in my assignment of an instructor. Sergeant Winston held the record for flying time in the army with about 3, 300 hours. He was an excellent pilot and knew how to instruct if he wanted to. When my turn came he asked me how much flying time I had had and after I told him about 325 hours he turned the controls over to me with orders to take the ship around and land it. I had some difficulty in flying with my right hand. The wartime ships … were built to be flown with the left, but … it was decided to change the throttle over to the other side on the theory that the right hand was the natural one to fly with. After three landings, however, Sergeant Winston got me out of the cockpit and told me to fly around for thirty minutes and try to get used to right handed piloting." Lindbergh later described Winston as "one of the finest pilots on Brooks Field."

William "Bill" Avera Winston

How did Bill Winston end up at Brooks field in 1924, prepared to teach Lindbergh to fly? He was born in 1896 in Louisburg, Franklin County, NC where his father, John Preston Winston, son of Randall Sidney and Julia Winston, was a merchant and the owner of the Winston House Hotel in Louisburg. His mother was Lizzie Avera, daughter of Dr. Thomas H. Avera of Wake County, NC.

Bill Winston grew up in Louisburg and attended Louisburg Graded School. In 1912, the Franklin Times reported that William Winston had received the Orren R. Smith Medal for the best essay by a high school pupil on the topic of "The Stars and Bgars." He graduated in 1913.

Winston's childhood reflected his many-faceted personality. He loved to read, but he also played sports. The wide open spaces of Franklin Co. offered plenty of fishing and hunting. On hot summer afternoons, he could be found at the old swimming hole. He was musically talented as well. A newspaper article in 1906, describing his piano recital, said he "showed remarkable taent in music." His teachers went so far as to advise him to make piano playing his profession.

Winston's interest in aviation probably developed as a result of the Wright brothers' flight on the North Carolina coast in 1903 when he was about 7 years old, but a series of articles in St. Nicholas Magazine when he was 13 showed pictures and designs of aeroplanes.

"They fascinated him," said his mother. "He soon made a glider and had me out in the garden to see it fly."

In 1914, the Winston family moved to Eagle Rock near Wendell in Wake County, NC, the home of Bill's mother. By that time, the young man was enrolled at Wake Forest College. He later transferred to the University of North Carolina to study medicine.

At thje outbreak of World War I in 1917, Winston decided to become a pilot. He planned to enlist in the Navy Flying Corps. However, the naval recruiting officers in Raleigh, NC informed him that he would never make a flyer—and there was no use for the Navy to waste its precious time on him. He received the same treatment at the Army Recruiting Office. He was determined, however, and applied at the Greensboro, NC office and was accepted in the Army Signal Corps. He trained as a cadet at Caruthers Field, Texas, but he never went overseas. Instead, he became a trainer for other aspiring pilots, including Charles A. Lindbergh.

Brooks Field officials felt that Lindbergh would be a difficult pupil. He had first to un-learn many things before he could start learning up-to-date Army flying technique. However, Bill Winston found him to be a satisfactory student.
After the Army

During the Sesquicentennials Exposition at Philadelphia, PA in 1025, the Philadelphia Transit Co. decided there would be big business in transporting visitors from Norfolk, Washington and other areas to the big show. Bill Winston gave up the army and became a pilot for the company. It was not a good choice. The company went broke. Bill Winston was out of a job, and ne ended up playing checkers in Wendell.

Winston's notoriety followed Lindbergh's, on a lesser scale. The Curtiss Flying Service made him National Director of Flying. The company had hundreds of flying fields and was engaged in passenger and express transportation as well as teaching aspiring pilots to fly.

In 1933, Winston joined Pan American Airways as a pilot. He remained with the company for 15 years. During that time, he logged more than 3,000,000 miles and was one of the first pilots to cross the Atlantic 100 times, all without incident. He also flew over the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, as well as throughout Central and South America. Winston was the pilot who flew the bodies of Will Rogers and Wiley Post back to the U.S. after their crash in Alaska in 1935.

Bill Winston married his first wife, Kathryn Cosby, about 1925. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Helyn Merrell "Merrie." He later married Elizabeth Riebel of Columbus, Ohio. Winston died in Miami, FL in 1948 at th3 age of 52.

1. News and Observer, Raleigh, NC; Aug. 26, 1948
2. The Franklin Times, Louisburg, NC; Jan. 1899.
3. The Heritage of Wake County.
4. Spirit of St. Louis, by Charles Lindbergh.

This story was published in The Connector, newsletter of the Tar River Connections Genealogical Society in the Summer 2004 issue.

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