How Not To Fly The Atlantic


After an hour a truck appeared with the benzoltwenty-two gallons of it. It wasn’t gasoline, but the Whirlwind would run on it. However, the truck driver’s funnel was too big to use on the cabin tank, and the wing tanks had been sealed to make any distance flight official. Obligingly, one of the women walked a mile across the fields and came back with a long-necked teapot. It took Chamberlin an hour and a half and a hundred trips back and forth with the teapot to feed the benzol into the Columbia ’s gas tank.

A boy who spoke fair English appeared to act as translator. He told them they could get a map in Eisleben, but as everybody agreed that Berlin was “that way,” the fliers decided to start without it. Unfortunately, they had left the inertia starter behind because of its weight. And Chamberlin was so weak he could hardly stand up.

A fellow who said he was an airplane mechanic offered to throw the propeller over by hand, but he proved to be so awkward that Chamberlin feared the man would be killed if the engine started. So the weary pilot himself hauled the blades around. With Levine manipulating the switch and throttle he toiled for half an hour—yelling “Contact!” and “Switch off!” time and again—before the Whirlwind took hold and began to roar.

The farm people held the wheel struts and tail skid while Chamberlin tested the engine with its new fuel. It seemed to be all right, and he signalled them to stand clear. Then he opened the throttle. The field was damp but not soggy, and the Columbia rose from it easily. It circled around the field and headed for Berlin, or at least in the direction the farm workers seemed to have pointed.

But exactly how had they pointed? The two men couldn’t agree. Levine thought they ought to bear more to the northeast, Chamberlin more to the east. The weather was clear, and Levine was now flying the ship some of the time. When he had the controls, they went northeast. When Chamberlin had them, they went east. It was one of the few times that Levine was right.

They should have reached Berlin in an hour. But after ninety minutes they saw only a small city with the name COTTBUS marked on its flying field. A map would have shown them they were already past Berlin and about seventy miles south of it. They flew on for about twenty-five miles. The country under them was getting swampy; the benzol was almost gone. Chamberlin banked around and headed back toward the Cottbus airfield.

Five miles short of it the engine stopped. Levine got behind the gas tank, using his weight as ballast again, but this time the landing place was a soggy pasture. As the plane rolled more slowly, one of the wheels sank in to the hub. The Columbia stood up on its nose, and the walnut-wood propeller, which had stopped in an up-and-down position, snapped off at the bottom. Every loose object in the cabin surged forward. Powdered milk and chocolate, parts of their emergency rations, cascaded down on Chamberlin, giving his head and shoulders a chocolate-milk-shake hue.

It was now about 11:30 A.M. As the two men slid out of the up-tilted plane, a peasant woman ran up and began to jabber at them in German. Pointing to the wheel ruts the Columbia had made in the field, she screamed “Pay! Pay!” (“ Bezahlen! Bezahlen! ”) A crowd quickly gathered around them.

They had come down near the village of Klinge, whose burgomaster soon arrived to welcome them. Apparently the Columbia ’s presence in Germany was now well-known. But before the burgomaster could drive them into Klinge, Burgomaster Kreutz, of Cottbus, drove up. Frowning terribly at his fellow mayor, he told the fliers it was a frightful mistake about Klinge. They had really landed at Cottbus, a town capable of giving them appropriate entertainment. Soon he had shoved his feebly protesting rival from Klinge into the background.

When the Columbia was eased down to its tail skid, Burgomaster Kreutz assigned two Cottbus policemen to keep off souvenir hunters and then whisked the Americans into town. At the Hotel Ansorges, the best hostelry Cottbus afforded, he plied them with crab soup, fried eels, roast goose, and beer. While they were eating, fifteen planes from Berlin arrived, eight of them carrying newspapermen and photographers. Cheering citizens of Cottbus massed outside the hotel, many of them to remain there till late at night.

Lufthansa offered to fly the Americans into Berlin. But both wanted to arrive there in the Columbia . In the afternoon Chamberlin went back to the plane and asked that it be towed to a nearby soccer field. He also asked for a new propeller and some gasoline.

The Lufthansa men were amazed at the small size of the Bellanca. Beside some of the German planes it looked like a toy. But they were positive that, small as it was, it couldn’t take off from a regulation soccer field. They wanted to dismantle the machine, take the parts to the Cottbus airport, and reassemble it there. Chamberlin finally convinced them he knew what he was talking about, and they had the plane towed to the drier ground. They also wired for a propeller to be taken from an experimental Heinkel plane that was fitted with two Whirlwind engines.