- Historic Sites
How Not To Fly The Atlantic
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
As they flew along abreast of the liner, Levine noticed a group of officers on the bridge. He leaned out the window and made motions with his hands as if he were punching a telegraph key. The officers nodded, and the Mauretania did what was asked, giving the United States the first news that the plane was nearing Europe.
Levine leafed through a copy of the New Tork Times that they had aboard. Its marine page told them that the liner had left Southhampton at noon the day before. Then he looked again at the chart. It showed the lanes that transatlantic liners were using that June. From this data they calculated they were four or five hundred miles west of Land’s End (actually the distance was about 350) and pretty well on course.
Then Chamberlin opened the throttle, pulled ahead of the liner, banked, and came back right over the ship and along her wake. This invisible air path would lead him to Land’s End.
Half an hour after leaving the Mauretania Chamberlin sighted the Memphis , which was bringing Lindbergh home. But she was about ten miles to the south, and he turned down Levine’s suggestion that they fly over and “jazz her up” a bit. The afternoon was waning and so was the perfect weather. A haze dead ahead was thickening, low hanging clouds had appeared, and flashes of lightning heralded rain squalls.
Before sunset they saw other ships, and at last, through the haze, they saw the low cliffs of Land’s End, lighted by the long rays of the setting sun.
The wind behind them had strengthened; and while their air path over the sea was smooth, it became turbulent over the land. They circled above the coast, checking its outlines with their charts. Dusk was moving in over the green countryside. With a black, stormy night in prospect there was a great temptation to land on the hospitable Cornish shore.
Now the clouds were becoming thick. Chamberlin climbed above them and headed eastward. Through a rift in the rack he saw Plymouth and got another bearing. In distance they were about five hours’ flying time from Berlin. But the clouds were rising higher. Chamberlin realized he was very tired, that he might not be able to find the German capital, and that even if he did, he might have trouble landing there in the dark. He headed in the direction of Berlin but decided that if he reached it, he would stay aloft till dawn. There was plenty of gas to last through the short night.
The Bellanca had climbed to fifteen thousand feet. With the cloud mass still rising in the east, the plane had to go higher. Chamberlin nursed it up to eighteen thousand, then twenty thousand feet. Still the cloud barrier to the east towered above them.
Should they try to fly through it? They might hit a mountain although their altimeter showed they had plenty of altitude. The only thing to do, Chamberlin felt, was to fly along the western side of the cloud range and kill time till he had enough light to see if it extended all the way down to the earth.
So he flew north for fifteen minutes, then turned and flew south for another fifteen, repeating the turnabout over and over until he realized he was nearing exhaustion. The thin air was making the plane hard to handle. He had to work the controls almost continually to keep the machine level. And insufficient oxygen, added to forty hours of sleeplessness, was making him lightheaded.
Dawn paled the east again, and Chamberlin was sure he would pass out soon unless he got a little rest. They were still flying at twenty thousand feet or higher, with the cloud floor visible below them. Surely Levine could handle the ship for a while.
“See what you can do with her,” Chamberlin told his companion. And he moved back in the plane and stretched out on the gas-tank shelf. Levine kept the plane level for about ten minutes. But in the thin air the machine was hard to control.
In some way, either by losing altitude or by following a canyon in the clouds, he got into the bewildering mist. Then, as inexperienced pilots sometimes do, he tried so hard to keep the plane horizontal that he pulled the nose up too far and the Bellanca stalled. Unable to rise higher, it pointed its left wing toward the earth and went into a deadly spiral. Levine, unable to see anything but mist, had no idea what was happening.
But Chamberlin, half asleep, sensed disaster. He slid off the tank and into his seat. The Bellanca’s wings had started to shiver. The rudder was flapping violently back and forth, shaking the rear end of the plane as if it would tear it off. It was also whipping the rudder bar to and fro so viciously that Chamberlin didn’t dare to try to stop it all at once.
Understanding their danger, Chamberlin was badly scared, but Levine seemed to enjoy the situation. He had taken his hand off the quivering stick and his feet off the jerking rudder bar and was sitting there chuckling at the antics of the plane. It was behaving, he said later, like a bucking bronco.