How Not To Fly The Atlantic


The Columbia ’s takeoff made big headlines both in the United States and Europe, even though the plane’s destination was uncertain. Its two most likely objectives seemed to be Berlin and Rome, though there also was speculation about Warsaw, Vienna, and Prague.

The German capital prepared for a welcome that would outdo Paris’ greeting to Lindbergh. High government officials, it was said, would meet the gallant fliers at Tempelhof Airport, where three thousand police would keep the immense crowd from storming the little monoplane. The Berlin field and other airports at Cologne, Hamburg, and Bremen would be kept lighted through the night. And Lufthansa, the German air trust, would send out planes to fly along the western border to meet the Columbia and escort it in.

Newspapers ran off extras about the flight, and hotels set up information bureaus to provide excited guests with the latest news on the plane’s progress. Attention centered on Chamberlin rather than on Levine, who was then known to few Europeans. It was considered a happy omen that the last two syllables of the pilot’s name spelled the name of the city toward which the Bellanca seemed to be headed.

But Rome saw itself, not Berlin, as the fliers’ goal. After all, for a plane designed by an Italian what could be a more appropriate destination than the Eternal City? Italian newspaper presses whirled out extra after extra, and crowds collected in front of the newspaper offices to get the latest bulletins.

Aboard the machine all was not entirely well. After the first hundred miles Chamberlin noticed that the earth inductor compass was misbehaving. He was attempting to follow a great-circle course modified in accordance with last-minute weather forecasts. Setting the indicator to match his course, he tried to keep the pointer at zero. But the pointer wouldn’t stay steady. At Newport, Rhode Island, they were four or five miles off course. And when they reached what appeared to be Cape Cod, the needle began swinging from side to side in a meaningless and maddening dance. Moreover, there seemed to be an extra hook on the arm of land below that didn’t appear on their chart. They couldn’t be sure they were really over the Cape.

Chamberlin circled about, hoping that the aberrant compass would return to normal. They had come about two hundred miles and had thirty-four hundred to go. Should they rely on their fifty-dollar magnetic compass? Or should they fly back to Roosevelt Field and have the thousand-dollar earth inductor compass adjusted? They talked it over and decided to go on.

Chamberlin kept circling till he got a bearing on what he thought was the tip of Cape Cod and had oriented himself with the help of the sun. Then, steering by the magnetic compass, which was jiggling from the engine vibration, he headed out over the water toward Nova Scotia. The air was smooth, and they flew along a few hundred feet over the ocean, sighting several sailing yachts and fishing smacks and waving to their crews. But a northeast wind was rising to slow them down.

In two hours, Chamberlin figured, they ought to hit Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. But the second hour passed with only blue water below. A third hour faded into the past. What if the magnetic compass had also failed and was prompting them to fly in circles on a crazy course that would end in a splash and a hiss and then silence?

The main gas tank was shaped like an upright piano, and the eleven 5-gallon cans were strapped on its shelf. Levine now emptied the first of these into the tank and then jettisoned it to clear the space on the tank shelf and give access to the back part of the cabin.

Finally, to their relief, they sighted Nova Scotia. Their magnetic compass was working properly after all. Chamberlin took the new bearing his charts called for and pointed the Columbia ’s nose for Newfoundland. The wind had now veered from dead ahead to quartering from the east and southeast. To counteract its thrust Chamberlin had to crab sideways into the wind.

By the time they reached Halifax, the wind was blowing across their course from the south, necessitating more crabbing and slowing their progress eastward by about thirty miles an hour. They were now two hours behind schedule because of the winds, but the air currents were shifting at last in their favor and starting to push the plane along. Things began to look up.

Chamberlin climbed to two thousand feet to let the plane take advantage of the tail wind and headed for Trepassey, Newfoundland. He had decided to go slightly south of the great-circle route to avoid a storm area shown on their weather map. By the time they reached Trepassey, Levine had emptied and thrown out the last of the five-gallon gas cans, and the way to the rear of the cabin was open. Chamberlin let his companion take over the plane and went back to put on his cold weather clothing—heavy woolen drawers to be pulled over his trousers and a woolen shirt with a parka hood. Then he stretched out on the shelf of the gas tank to get a little rest. But he couldn’t sleep.

Some twenty-five hundred feet below them stretched the last of Newfoundland they would see—rough, desolate country blotched with swamps and wasteland. After a while they sighted the ocean and, a few miles offshore, what seemed to be the white sail of a fishing boat.