How Not To Fly The Atlantic


Back at the hotel, Levine, basking in his sudden fame, was talking volubly to newspapermen while the hastily assembled Cottbus band serenaded him from the street. At his very first press conference on German soil Levine was inadvertently emphasizing the difference that can exist between heroes.

Lindbergh had done everything right. He had made a magnificent flight—alone—to his announced destination and had arrived there on schedule. Thereafter he had been modest, generous, and gracious. He had made his first call in Paris on the mother of Charles Nungesser, one of the fliers lost while trying to make the transatlantic flight a few weeks earlier. Lindbergh had told her how much he admired her son and had expressed hope that the famous French ace might yet be found. He had taken 150,000 francs (then worth about $5,850) that a French aeronautic club had awarded to him and donated it to swell a fund for families of lost French fliers. He had turned down a million-dollar purse that some Americans wanted to raise for him. And he had refrained from publicly criticizing his transatlantic rivals and from disparaging their often questionable activities.

The Columbia group’s performance—thanks largely to Levine—had been a comedy of errors for months. He had battled with associates, schemed, lied, and nearly killed himself and Chamberlin in a fatal spin. Yet in spite of everything—thanks largely to Chamberlin—the Columbia had crossed the Atlantic. Now Levine was close to exhaustion after eighty hours without sleep and from the excitement and alarms of the journey. Characteristically, however, he was still able to say the wrong thing. “We’ve made a record even if we haven’t reached Berlin,” he told the first American newspaperman who got to him. “Believe me, if we had had Lindbergh’s luck we would have reached Berlin with enough gasoline for three or four hundred miles more.” Then he added, with a grin, “We had plenty of luck, only it was all hard.”

When Chamberlin returned from the field, they had a big dinner and after that eased themselves into hot tubs. Then, oblivious to the booming of the band outside the hotel, they slipped into bed and sleep. Lincoln Eyre, of the New York Times , who had flown down to Cottbus to greet them, wrote that their sleep was sound and happy because they had carried through to completion “one of the most splendid enterprises ever achieved by man on land, or sea or in the air.”

The next day, everybody agreed, was the greatest in the 997-year history of Cottbus. Outside the Hotel Ansorges people massed on all sides of the square. The Americans emerged from the building to a tremendous ovation from the crowd. “ Hoch! Hoch! ” the admiring townspeople shouted. Then the airmen rode in state to the town hall, where they signed the guest book, whose pages are opened only to distinguished visitors. The old building’s reception hall was bursting with still more people, who cheered them from the floor and from the galleries. On the wall above the rostrum hung a new flag, made during the night. It had thirty stars and no stripes, but its colors were red, white, and blue.

Burgomaster Kreutz led the heroes to seats on the rostrum. “Has the music arrived?” he asked an aide. The music had, and the band, which provided it, had been working—like the flag makers—far into the night. It burst into a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with an enthusiasm that almost drowned out the mistakes.

The burgomaster made a speech of welcome and praise. Then the counselor of the American Embassy, who had flown down from Berlin, read a speech of acknowledgment in German. After that the band again broke into its version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and everybody stood up in the anthem’s honor.

Now Burgomaster Kreutz presented the visitors with two splendid silver salvers and made them honorary citizens of Cottbus. This meant, he explained, that they could return to the city and live there rent free for the rest of their lives.

The band was so pleased with its performance to date that it now attempted to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” a third time. But the burgomaster shushed it before the assembly could rise again. Several other dignitaries made speeches, and the ceremony ended with “Deutschland über Alles,” which the Germans sang with great enthusiasm and considerable volume.

The crowd outside the town hall gave the visitors another big hand, and two little girls curtsied and presented them with bouquets. Then they drove to the soccer field, where Lufthansa mechanics had replaced the broken propeller and put some gasoline in the Columbia ’s, tanks.

Chamberlin found that the new prop, which was larger and more sharply pitched than the other, would turn at only 1,350 revolutions a minute, three hundred less than its predecessor. He wasn’t sure how well it would work, so he left Levine to proceed by car. The Lufthansa men, who were sure he couldn’t take off in such a small area, were amazed when he used hardly a third of the available space. He flew to Cottbus in about three minutes. At the White Horse Hotel there he and Levine were luncheon guests of Burgomaster Kreutz.