- Historic Sites
How Not To Fly The Atlantic
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
Levine, in a pinstriped blue business suit and without a hat for his balding head, got out of the car with a roll of charts. He walked over to the plane and thrust the charts through the window. “Are you going?” somebody asked him. Levine merely looked at the questioner. Somebody else inquired who was going to be navigator. “He’s not here yet,” Levine replied. A few minutes later he disappeared in the crowd.
Harold Kinkaid asked that the engine be started. Kinkaid, known generally as Doc, was a Wright engine man who had accompanied Byrd on his North Pole flight and had tuned up Lindbergh’s engine. Now he listened with an expert ear to the roar of another Whirlwind engine. “Never heard a motor sound better,” he said. A mechanic shut it off.
Another mechanic discovered that the main gas tank would hold ten more gallons. These were poured in to make a total of 455, five more than Lindbergh had carried. Then John Carisi, a mechanic who had worked on the plane devotedly for months, started the engine again. Although he had often declared that he was not “one of those emotional Wops,” he was so overcome by the apparent certainty that the Columbia was really going at last that he climbed up to the window and planted a resounding kiss on Chamberlin’s cheek.
Chamberlin idled the engine for a few minutes and then opened it up. Its roar resounded down the field, and the plane trembled and strained against the wheel chocks. Then Chamberlin throttled it down again, looked at a knot of persons behind the ropes, and nodded. And suddenly out of the knot darted Levine. Keeping his head down and looking at nobody, he ran to the plane on the side opposite Chamberlin, opened the door, and climbed in. Quickly he closed the door and slumped down in his seat, keeping his gaze averted from his wife.
Grace Levine had once been known as the Belle of Williamsburg, for she had won two beauty contests in that section of Brooklyn. She had been a good wife to Levine, had borne him two children, and had stood by him in the face of criticism and ridicule. She and her husband had discussed recent rumors that he might fly to Europe with Chamberlin, and together they had laughed at their absurdity. Once she had said she would burn the plane if he attempted to fly across the ocean in it.
Now she turned to some friends who had come with her to see the takeoff. “What’s all this foolishness of Charles getting into the plane?” she asked. Nobody knew, and she became frightened and started to get out of the car.
Carisi ran up to reassure her. “It’s all right,” he said. “It’s only a test run.” And indeed for a while it seemed to be only that. When the wheel chocks were removed, Chamberlin gunned the plane down the runway for several hundred yards. Then, to avoid hitting some people who had pressed in too close to the takeoff strip, he turned off the course and returned to the starting area near Curtiss Field.
Carisi sprinted over to the machine and stood beside the window, one foot on a wheel. “What are you doing, Mr. Levine?” he yelled. “Your wife is going out of her mind! She has got the idea that you are going to Europe in the plane!”
But Grace Levine was now smiling happily. Her husband wasn’t going to fly after all. She laughed at her former nervousness. How foolish she had been! She was still laughing when Chamberlin opened up the engine again. The propeller blast blew Carisi away, and the Columbia started to roll.
Now the monoplane was roaring over the same strip Lindbergh had used, a runway that was dry instead of soggy. With six inches more of wingspread—46½ feet—and some five hundred pounds more load than the Spirit of St. Louis had carried, it took off in two thousand feet, about half the distance its rival had covered.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning. The sun was a glowing red ball, and the little clouds above it were edged with gold. But Grace Levine was sobbing hysterically as the small monoplane climbed into the air shortly after six o’clock. “He isn’t really going!” she cried. “He isn’t really going!” And then, as the plane became a dot and disappeared, she began to weep bitterly.
The faithful Carisi came over and put his arms around her. “He’ll make it,” he told her. “You should be proud of him. He’s a brave boy.”
Only a few people beside Chamberlin knew that Levine had planned to go. Giuseppe Bellanca, the plane’s designer, had suspected it and opposed the plan because he felt that Chamberlin needed a competent navigator. Still another who had had an inkling of Levine’s intention was Samuel Hartman, his attorney.
Hartmantold reporters later that Levine sat up most of the night before the takeoff writing notes to his wife and his lawyer and making a will disposing of an estate of five million dollars. The note to Hartman said: “Well, I’m off. Bet you’ll be surprised, but don’t worry. We will make it. Will cable you first moment I can and wish you would sail over to join me when I dine with Mussolini.”
In spite of his reputation Levine had shown courage in attempting a transatlantic flight, and many assumed he must be a good fellow after all. There was talk that whatever his faults, he had vindicated himself. Now that he was at least temporarily famous, people wanted to believe in his essential nobility, an attribute they had already accorded to Lindbergh.