How Not To Fly The Atlantic


On May 20, 1927, when Charles A. Lindbergh took off on his famous solo flight, he was only one of several aspirants for the title of first man to fly an airplane nonstop between New York and Pans. Five men had already died attempting the feat. Two more planes were preparing to take off. For some weeks, Roosevelt Field on Long Island had been swarming with fliers, backers, and mechanics nursing, testing, and perfecting the planes that would attempt the unprecedented flight. Prize money had been put up, and the press had whooped up excitement about the contest m daily bulletins flashed all over the world. Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd, already famous for his North Pole flight, was the leader of one of the crews primed to go. Another interested party was Charles A. Leume, a slightly shady millionaire and promoter. Lemne, whose initials, by coincidence, were the same as Lindbergh’—one of the very few similarities between the two men—had in the tense weeks of waiting at Roosevelt Field managed to antagonize several prospective pilots and his plane ‘s designer by shabby financial dealings and his general arrogance and bombast.

As everyone knows, Lmdbergh made it, landing in Pans on the following night. Less well-known is what happened next at Roosevelt Field. In his forthcoming book, Oceans, Poles and Airmen , from which this excerpt is taken, Richard Montague tells of the second “successful” nonstop transatlantic flight. The book will be published this month by Random House, Inc.

Lindbergh’s spectacular flight, which brought him world fame overnight, did not dampen the enthusiasm of his rivals. For the aviators he had left behind at Roosevelt Field there seemed to be several additional aerial goals whose attainment would make them heroes in their turn.

Charles A. Levine’s Bellanca, the plane that held the endurance record, probably could fly farther than Lindbergh’s Ryan and might be used for a trip to Berlin, Rome, or Vienna. And Commander Byrd’s three-engined Fokker could symbolize the big, safe airliners of the future, thus advancing the cause of aeronautic science.

Levine had the last word of the legend New York→Paris on the side of his plane painted out. The machine still was going to fly to Europe, he said, but he refused to specify where or when.

Grover Whalen, vice president of the company that was backing Byrd, declared that Lindbergh’s triumph had failed to demonstrate that ocean flying was safe. He contrasted the trimotor Fokker with the single-engined Ryan and announced that the principal goals sought by his company, which was headed by department-store magnate Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, had not been achieved by the Spirit of St. Louis . It appeared that Mr. Wanamaker’s aim of advancing the cause of aeronautic science had numerous important ramifications. Many things of great value, said Whalen, remained for Commander Byrd to prove.

Four days after Lindbergh landed in Paris, James Dole, the Hawaiian pineapple king, came up with some prize offers of his own. He announced a first prize of twenty-five thousand dollars and a second of ten thousand for the first nonstop flights from America’s Pacific Coast to his island Elysium. He invited Lindbergh to enter the contest any time during the next year.


Levine promptly announced that his plane, the Columbia , might go after the money. In the meantime, he said, it might fly nonstop to Rome. On June 2 he had Clarence Chamberlin, his pilot, take him up in a climbing test in which they reached an altitude of nine thousand feet. During this and other flights Levine, who had already had a few flying lessons, took over the controls to familiarize himself with the plane’s performance.

Rumors were spreading that the Columbia was about to start for Germany. These were denied by Levine, but shortly after midnight of June 4 Chamberlin announced he would take off in a few hours. He refused to name his destination, but at the hangar he received a radiogram from Lincoln Eyre, Berlin correspondent of the New York Times , saying that all Germany was awaiting the Columbia ’s arrival. Chamberlin grinned. “Well, we’ll be glad to drop in on them on the way back,” he said, leaving reporters with the impression that he hoped to fly even farther. He did say he would keep the plane in the air as long as its engine functioned and its fuel held out.

He gave the Nassau County police the required takeoff notice, and a squad of motorcycle police escorted the Columbia as it was towed tail first from its hangar at the adjacent Curtiss Field to the Roosevelt Field runway. The police also kept a small crowd at bay while mechanics loaded the main gas tank with 390 gallons and put aboard the plane fifty-five additional gallons in fivegallon cans.

Who, if anybody, was going along with Chamberlin? When reporters asked the airman, he only smiled. Nobody paid much attention to a black limousine when it rolled up near the starting area at the western end of the runway. The vehicle contained Mr. and Mrs. Levine, but they had come, it was assumed, merely to see the Columbia take off.