- Historic Sites
How Not To Fly The Atlantic
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
These antics, the rush of air, and the instruments told Chamberlin that they were headed toward the ground at terrifying speed. The altimeter needle was racing past hundred-foot marks as if they represented inches. The needle on the air-speed indicator was jammed against the pin that marked 160 miles an hour, the most the instrument was capable of showing.
Chamberlin knew that if he tried to pull out too suddenly he probably would rip the wings off the plane; that if he pushed too hard against the rudder bar it would break the control cables. He set about the second task gingerly, pushing at the bar with increasing strength as it neared the end of its swing. Gradually he tamed the berserk bar and was able to steer out of the spiral. Then he slowly flattened the dive till the plane lost its dangerous speed.
By this time the altimeter showed four thousand feet. They had dropped more than three miles. Still they were in the gray mist. All they could see through the windshield were the blue spurts from the Whirlwind’s exhaust pipes. The flames turned the haze into an eerie blue blur.
Chamberlin figured they were somewhere over Germany. He knew that the Harz Mountains were several thousand feet high and thought they must be somewhere near. Nevertheless he decided to go lower and try to find some landmark shown on their chart. They slid down below a thousand feet before they came out of the gray to find themselves flying in rain over a river. Soon they saw the glare of blast furnaces. Chamberlin thought they must be over Essen. Levine disagreed. He said the lights below were those of Bremerhaven. As proof, he added that he had been in Bremerhaven once.
They flew around in the rain, looking for a name on a factory roof. From the air the scene was like the traditional concept of hell. Flames flared up from the blast furnaces, painting the low clouds a lurid red. Even if they had wanted to land in the area, it probably would have been impossible in that storm. They didn’t know till next day that the city was Dortmund.
Soon they saw white flares being fired into the air not far away. They headed toward them and saw a flying field. On it, in the growing light, they could make out some figures. Chamberlin idled the engine, came down to about twenty feet, stuck his hand out the window, and yelled down at the top of his voice to the men on the ground, “ Nach Berlin? Nach Berlin? ” He swept over their heads and banked around to see if they had understood him. All of them pointed in about the same direction. Chamberlin headed that way.
It was now shortly after 4:30 A.M. Their fuel was getting low. They were actually pointing eastward from Dortmund on a course that would take them south of the German capital; but both men thought they were heading for Berlin, and Chamberlin held the course till the gasoline gauge neared zero.
He wanted to land near some large village while he still had some fuel left and could use the engine in landing. But Levine insisted on going on till the last drop was used. So Chamberlin told him to go to the rear of the cabin and act as ballast, for with empty tanks the Bellanca was nose heavy. A few minutes later the faithful engine coughed and stopped. Chamberlin brought the plane into the wind and came down in a pretty, dead-stick landing. Shortly before six o’clock the Bellanca rolled to a smooth halt in a small wheat field near the town of Eisleben.
They had been in the air for forty-three hours and were still 110 miles short of Berlin, though their straight- line distance from Roosevelt Field was 3,905 miles—295 longer than Lindbergh’s. Actually their zigzag course had taken them well over four thousand miles. Indeed, Chamberlin estimated later that in the last ten hours of their journey they had moved eastward only three hundred miles, though they must have flown a thousand in that time.
They had come down safely, however, and there was plenty of reason to be thankful. In the sudden silence they heard the singing of birds. Gratefully they got out of the plane and stretched their stiff limbs. Chamberlin found he couldn’t stand upright unless he kept moving. When he stood still he swayed drunkenly.
Nobody was in sight. Nearly half an hour passed. The bird song was beginning to pall. Then a woman with two boys crossed the field and came up to them. She spoke to the two men in German, apparently complaining about the wheat they had smashed. Chamberlin replied with the few phrases he remembered from his highschool German. Then Levine tried. Suddenly the anger on the woman’s face gave way to fear. She spoke urgently to the boys, and all three turned and ran. Long afterward Chamberlin learned that she had taken them for some kidnapers who had been terrorizing the area.
Other field workers appeared. Within an hour a small group of men, women, and children were looking curiously at the strangers and the plane. They didn’t seem to believe that the two men were “ von New York gekommen ”; but they finally comprehended that the Columbia needed fuel, and one of the boys volunteered to bicycle four miles and arrange for ninety liters of benzol to be sent to the field. Chamberlin wanted to ask him to fetch a map, too, but he couldn’t think of the German word.