- Historic Sites
How Not To Fly The Atlantic
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
The red sun was sliding down behind the world to the west, and its last rays picked out the white triangle and turned it a luminous pink. It was like a great jewel risen from the blue of the sea. Then they realixed it was an iceberg. Chamberlin took a final bearing and headed east across the Atlantic. Levine grinned. “Europe next stop,” he said. “Well, here goes nothing.”
They flew on toward the night that was creeping over the northern sea. Soon they were looking down on a whole spattering of icebergs. While admiring their beauty, Chamberlin used them to check the plane’s drift till they faded like ghosts into the darkness.
The air was now so calm that the remarkably stable Bellanca was flying itself without the touch of human hand or foot. Chamberlin had attached to the rudder bar a spring he had devised to compensate for propeller torque, and left the controls alone for as much as two hundred miles at a stretch.
Presently they were soaring above clouds. And then, through a rift, they saw the lights of a ship three or four thousand feet down. Levine blinked a flashlight, but the boat gave no answering signal. The incident depressed them. They wanted to be sighted and reported often.
After an hour or so they saw the lights of another ship; this one instantly answered Levine’s flashlight blinkings. Immensely cheered, they flew on. Only later did they learn that no report from either vessel was ever received on shore.
Soon clouds blanketed the world below, and then the gray mass started up toward them. The Bellanca climbed till it could climb no more. With its still-heavy load of gasoline it couldn’t struggle higher than fifteen thousand feet, and the cloud bank ahead of it loomed three or four thousand feet higher.
The short northern night was fading ahead of them and giving way to a slow dawn. In this meager light the plane entered the gray mist. The temperature was one degree below freezing. A thin layer of ice began to form on the cabin windshield and on the leading edges of the wings.
Wing ice was a terror to the fliers of those days. They had no equipment to melt it or break it up. And many planes crashed because the thin film changed the contours and destroyed the lifting effectiveness of wings, as well as adding to the load the machine was carrying. So Chamberlin cut the throttle and headed down through the blankness, hoping for a space between the underside of the cloud bank and the sea. He also hoped that the altimeter would continue to work. A faulty reading could plunge them into the waves.
Ten thousand feet. Six thousand. Three thousand. Two. Still nothing visible below but gray. One thousand. Chamberlin flattened out a little. He would ease the plane down to a hundred feet but no farther. Then he would level off and perhaps leave the mist behind.
He had been revving up the engine at intervals to keep the sparkplugs free of oil so that the Whirlwind would be ready to use when he needed it. And suddenly he did need it. Below eight hundred feet the gray ghostly stuff thinned, and whitccaps appeared. There was enough light now to see that it was raining.
Apparently this was the storm area shown on their weather map. They could run out of it, they had been told, by turning south. Chambcrlin banked to the right, but for an hour the rain continued to beat against the windshield. Then they emerged into clear weather.
The water had a brown appearance, and the air was so warm that both men discarded their heavy clothing. Chamberlin decided they were over the Gulf Stream and coursing the steamer lanes to Europe. He set a new greatcircle course for Land’s End.
Their watches were still running on New York time, five hours later than London’s. So when the sun appeared out of the sea, they did some quick figuring. This sunrise was two and a half hours earlier than the June 5th sunrise scheduled for New York. Hurrah! They must be half way across the ocean.
The wind was still behind them, and the Bellanca was moving toward Europe at a speed they estimated as about 120 miles an hour. The magnetic compass, as far as they could tell from the position of the sun, was still giving accurate guidance. They celebrated with a Sunday breakfast of oranges, chicken soup, and coffee.
About nine o’clock they sighted a Scandinavian tramp and circled the ship. The crew waved. The fliers felt sure that the ship would report them—and learned later that she didn’t.
But at four thirty that afternoon they got one of the big thrills of the trip. The liner Mauretania appeared so suddenly and so close that it seemed as if she had sprung out of the sea. The big Cunarder, with her four red funnels, white superstructure, and black hull, and with flags flying and decks lined with passengers, was a glorious sight. Chamberlin pointed the plane down toward her and flashed by at the height of her top deck. Then he banked sharply and came up on the opposite side.
Throttling the plane, he kept just abreast of the liner, while her wildly excited passengers tossed hats, books, and umbrellas into the air. They had read about the Columbia ’s takeoff in the ship’s news bulletins and could readily identify it.