BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE WINTER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
The 50th anniversary of the first moon landing seems to have everyone thinking about America’s great accomplishments in flight. And right up there with the names of heroes like Neil Armstrong and Chuck Yeager is Charles Lindbergh, the first person to make a solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927. At a time when long-distance flight was relatively sketchy, Lindbergh flew his single engine plane, Spirit of St. Louis, from New York to Paris in a mere 33-1/2 hours covering approximately 3,500 miles, mostly over open water. Only 25 years old at the time, Lindbergh collected the $25,000 prize offered by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig for completing the flight. His remarkable feat instantly propelled him to mega-celebrity status and worldwide acclaim and renown.
Predictably, merchandisers were quick to cash in on the enormous popularity of Lindbergh’s accomplishment. Up for sale were Lindbergh postage stamps, commemorative coins, buttons, pins, plaques, plates, medals, picture puzzles, souvenir beanies, fans, flyswatters, spoons, ashtrays, gum dispensers, and tin toy reproductions of the Spirit of St. Louis. His flight was also celebrated in song and sheet music, with titles including: “Lucky Lindy,” “Lindy Did It,” “Lindbergh the Hero of Our Heart,” “Oh, Charlie is My Darling,” and “Like an Angel You Flew Into Everyone’s Heart.” Most of these sheets included ukulele chords.
As the Lindbergh flight perfectly coincided with the peak of America’s first ukulele craze, it’s not surprising that uke makers were also eager to capitalize on it. There was a soprano-sized “Lindy” uke (likely made by Regal), its top stenciled with an image of the Spirit of St. Louis and the words: “New York – – – – – Paris.” Harmony also got in on the action with a new airplane-shaped bridge that they fitted to their Johnny Marvin signature model ukuleles.
But the most interesting and unusual Lindbergh-related instrument was undoubtedly the Aero Uke, a concert-sized ukulele designed to look as much like an airplane as practically possible. Its wide, slightly trapezoidal body (14-1/2″ wide, 5-5/8″ long and 2-1/2″ deep at the center, tapering down to just 9/16″ at the narrow ends) resembles the wings of a plane, while its mahogany neck acts as the fuselage. The uke’s headstock is surmounted by a shapely center vain that simulates a plane’s horizontal stabilizer and rudder. A turned-mahogany propeller is mounted on the bottom edge of the body with a center spinner that extends beyond the prop to serve as an anchor for the strings.
The sides of the Aero’s body are made from solid mahogany, while thin mahogany plywood covers its curved back. The solid spruce top is adorned with three decorative transfer decals (the center one says aero uke in small letters). The stylish mahogany bridge has a small screwed-on metal bar that holds the strings down against the saddle and increases their break angle. The uke’s twin 1-1/2″ diameter soundholes are located on the neck-side of the body, one on either side of the neck. On deluxe Aero models, these soundholes featured semi-circular trim pieces marked to simulate aeronautical air speed and altitude gauges.
The construction of the Aero Uke is as unusual as its overall shape. Instead of the neck attaching to the body via a traditional neck block, there’s a thick wood dowel that extends from the base of the neck to the bottom end of the body—construction more commonly used in banjo-ukes.
Often misidentified as a Harmony-made instrument (possibly because of Harmony’s airplane bridge Johnny Marvin), the Aero Uke was actually produced by the Stromberg-Voisinet Company (SVC) of Chicago, Illinois. Like uke manufacturers Regal and Harmony, SVC made relatively inexpensive instruments that were mostly sold through mail-order catalogs. Although to my knowledge, no instruments have been found bearing company stamps or identifying paper labels, the origins of the Aero are easily confirmed by SVC’s vintage print advertisements. The Aero’s fanciful headstock further confirms its maker as it’s exactly the same shape as the headstocks found on the many banjo-ukes SVC produced. This distinctive headstock shape was not used by any other ukulele manufacturer.
Despite the Aero Uke’s odd appearance, it’s remarkably comfortable to play. As its vintage ad states, the Aero is: “Handy to hold, it cuddles naturally into the crook of the arm, leaving the wrist free for all styles of strumming.” Given its relatively small body size, it’s also impressively loud, with a tone that’s pleasantly warm and well balanced.
Given the relative rarity of Aero Ukes today, it’s little wonder that at least two contemporary luthiers have created accurate reproductions: Peter Hurney of Pohaku Ukuleles in Berkeley, California, and Marc Schoenberger of Ukiyo Ukuleles in Grover Beach, California. Marc’s repro features a clever bronze stand that resembles wheeled landing gear.