SEATTLE — Of all the things Erik Lindbergh remembers about his famous grandfather, one that sticks with him best is their debate over how to pronounce the word “helicopter.”
Charles Lindbergh, who had made the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, brought a toy helicopter to his grandson on Bainbridge Island in the early 1970s, and Erik thanked him for the “HELL-i-cop-ter,” the pronunciation used today.
But Charles Lindbergh, who had long ago collaborated on projects with helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky, said “HEE-li-cop-ter,” the pronunciation he’d heard from the man many consider the father of the modern helicopter.
“We were both stubborn and wouldn’t give in. And in a way we were both right,” said Erik Lindbergh, adding with a smile: “But my pronunciation won out over time.”
One gets the impression that even if Erik Lindbergh, 46, weren’t a grandson of an aviation icon, he still might be dedicated to making the world a better place.
He just might not have as large a microphone.
As it is, this pilot, artist and philanthropist is parlaying his famous surname, along with his connection to other aviation pioneer families, into endeavors reaching far beyond what he could achieve on his own. At an air show in Germany this week, he will announce the second set of winners of the Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize (LEAP), created to honor and encourage achievement in the development of electrically powered aircraft.
The nonprofit organization he founded is creating “LEAP Student Teams” — which are at three high schools to date, two of them in the Puget Sound area — to explore the work of innovators in a variety of fields, and tell their stories in video productions.
Among the luminaries gathering in Germany at the Aero Friedrichshafen convention this week is Prince Albert II of Monaco, a well-known booster of clean-flight technology.
He’ll join Lindbergh on a panel with a veritable who’s who of aviation-history names, including Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of Orville and Wilbur Wright; Sergei Sikorsky, son of Igor Sikorsky, who created the first single-rotor, mass-produced helicopter; and Wolfgang von Zeppelin, great-great-grandnephew of airship developer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.
It promises to be a busy week, not just for Lindbergh but also for Kevin Schilling, a junior at Aviation High School in Des Moines, the first school to host a LEAP team.
“This will be amazing,” said Schilling, 17, of Burien. “I’ve never been to Europe and I’ve never seen something on this scale.”
Schilling will work with other students from the U.S., Germany and Monaco to shoot and edit videos telling stories of the Friedrichshafen air show.
LEAP awarded its first set of Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prizes last summer, honoring China-based Yuneec, makers of a small, electrically powered plane; Wisconsin-based Sonex Aircraft for an electric propulsion system; and Axel Lange of Germany for the development of an electric production aircraft, the Antares 20E.
The three winners split a prize pool of $25,000 — the same amount Charles Lindbergh won for his trans-Atlantic flight. Erik Lindbergh said the cash award was a last-minute feature of the prize, and two of the honorees immediately donated their winnings back to LEAP, a nonprofit formed in 2007.
Subsequent LEAP prizes, to be announced twice a year, will not carry cash awards, said Lindbergh, who hopes the recognition alone is sufficient motivation.
Efforts to make flight cleaner, greener and more sustainable are being pursued by a variety of companies and agencies, including 13 teams from around the U.S. that are competing for $1.65 million in NASA’s CAFE Green Flight Challenge. The goal is to create an aircraft that can fly 200 miles in under two hours, using less than the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline per occupant.
LEAP also has established teams at Eagle Harbor High School on Bainbridge Island and Hale Academy in Ocala, Fla.
As the organization expands, Yolanka Wulff, a co-CEO of LEAP with Lindbergh, said she expects the range of topics it explores to broaden. “The topic can be anything. The key is that students become creative, critical thinkers by looking at a problem, looking at the people who are coming up with real solutions, and sharing their story with the wider world.”
Lindbergh added, “The only way we can solve the problems of today is to create a whole generation of students motivated to seek out to solutions to problems as potential opportunities. If we can do that, there’s hope for the future.”