April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
A few days after Lindberg's crossing, the second flight across the Atlantic carried the first passenger and was lucky to make it to Germany.
On May 20, 1927, when Charles A. Lindbergh took off on his famous solo flight, he was only one of several aspirants for the title of first man to fly an airplane nonstop between New York and Pans. Five men had already died attempting the feat. Two more planes were preparing to take off. For some weeks, Roosevelt Field on Long Island had been swarming with fliers, backers, and mechanics nursing, testing, and perfecting the planes that would attempt the unprecedented flight. Prize money had been put up, and the press had whooped up excitement about the contest m daily bulletins flashed all over the world. Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd, already famous for his North Pole flight, was the leader of one of the crews primed to go. Another interested party was Charles A. Leume, a slightly shady millionaire and promoter. Lemne, whose initials, by coincidence, were the same as Lindbergh’—one of the very few similarities between the two men—had in the tense weeks of waiting at Roosevelt Field managed to antagonize several prospective pilots and his plane ‘s designer by shabby financial dealings and his general arrogance and bombast.
As everyone knows, Lmdbergh made it, landing in Pans on the following night. Less well-known is what happened next at Roosevelt Field. In his forthcoming book, Oceans, Poles and Airmen , from which this excerpt is taken, Richard Montague tells of the second “successful” nonstop transatlantic flight. The book will be published this month by Random House, Inc.
Lindbergh’s spectacular flight, which brought him world fame overnight, did not dampen the enthusiasm of his rivals. For the aviators he had left behind at Roosevelt Field there seemed to be several additional aerial goals whose attainment would make them heroes in their turn.
Charles A. Levine’s Bellanca, the plane that held the endurance record, probably could fly farther than Lindbergh’s Ryan and might be used for a trip to Berlin, Rome, or Vienna. And Commander Byrd’s three-engined Fokker could symbolize the big, safe airliners of the future, thus advancing the cause of aeronautic science.
Levine had the last word of the legend New York→Paris on the side of his plane painted out. The machine still was going to fly to Europe, he said, but he refused to specify where or when.
Grover Whalen, vice president of the company that was backing Byrd, declared that Lindbergh’s triumph had failed to demonstrate that ocean flying was safe. He contrasted the trimotor Fokker with the single-engined Ryan and announced that the principal goals sought by his company, which was headed by department-store magnate Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, had not been achieved by the Spirit of St. Louis . It appeared that Mr. Wanamaker’s aim of advancing the cause of aeronautic science had numerous important ramifications. Many things of great value, said Whalen, remained for Commander Byrd to prove.
Four days after Lindbergh landed in Paris, James Dole, the Hawaiian pineapple king, came up with some prize offers of his own. He announced a first prize of twenty-five thousand dollars and a second of ten thousand for the first nonstop flights from America’s Pacific Coast to his island Elysium. He invited Lindbergh to enter the contest any time during the next year.
Levine promptly announced that his plane, the Columbia , might go after the money. In the meantime, he said, it might fly nonstop to Rome. On June 2 he had Clarence Chamberlin, his pilot, take him up in a climbing test in which they reached an altitude of nine thousand feet. During this and other flights Levine, who had already had a few flying lessons, took over the controls to familiarize himself with the plane’s performance.
Rumors were spreading that the Columbia was about to start for Germany. These were denied by Levine, but shortly after midnight of June 4 Chamberlin announced he would take off in a few hours. He refused to name his destination, but at the hangar he received a radiogram from Lincoln Eyre, Berlin correspondent of the New York Times , saying that all Germany was awaiting the Columbia ’s arrival. Chamberlin grinned. “Well, we’ll be glad to drop in on them on the way back,” he said, leaving reporters with the impression that he hoped to fly even farther. He did say he would keep the plane in the air as long as its engine functioned and its fuel held out.
He gave the Nassau County police the required takeoff notice, and a squad of motorcycle police escorted the Columbia as it was towed tail first from its hangar at the adjacent Curtiss Field to the Roosevelt Field runway. The police also kept a small crowd at bay while mechanics loaded the main gas tank with 390 gallons and put aboard the plane fifty-five additional gallons in fivegallon cans.
Who, if anybody, was going along with Chamberlin? When reporters asked the airman, he only smiled. Nobody paid much attention to a black limousine when it rolled up near the starting area at the western end of the runway. The vehicle contained Mr. and Mrs. Levine, but they had come, it was assumed, merely to see the Columbia take off.
Levine, in a pinstriped blue business suit and without a hat for his balding head, got out of the car with a roll of charts. He walked over to the plane and thrust the charts through the window. “Are you going?” somebody asked him. Levine merely looked at the questioner. Somebody else inquired who was going to be navigator. “He’s not here yet,” Levine replied. A few minutes later he disappeared in the crowd.
Harold Kinkaid asked that the engine be started. Kinkaid, known generally as Doc, was a Wright engine man who had accompanied Byrd on his North Pole flight and had tuned up Lindbergh’s engine. Now he listened with an expert ear to the roar of another Whirlwind engine. “Never heard a motor sound better,” he said. A mechanic shut it off.
Another mechanic discovered that the main gas tank would hold ten more gallons. These were poured in to make a total of 455, five more than Lindbergh had carried. Then John Carisi, a mechanic who had worked on the plane devotedly for months, started the engine again. Although he had often declared that he was not “one of those emotional Wops,” he was so overcome by the apparent certainty that the Columbia was really going at last that he climbed up to the window and planted a resounding kiss on Chamberlin’s cheek.
Chamberlin idled the engine for a few minutes and then opened it up. Its roar resounded down the field, and the plane trembled and strained against the wheel chocks. Then Chamberlin throttled it down again, looked at a knot of persons behind the ropes, and nodded. And suddenly out of the knot darted Levine. Keeping his head down and looking at nobody, he ran to the plane on the side opposite Chamberlin, opened the door, and climbed in. Quickly he closed the door and slumped down in his seat, keeping his gaze averted from his wife.
Grace Levine had once been known as the Belle of Williamsburg, for she had won two beauty contests in that section of Brooklyn. She had been a good wife to Levine, had borne him two children, and had stood by him in the face of criticism and ridicule. She and her husband had discussed recent rumors that he might fly to Europe with Chamberlin, and together they had laughed at their absurdity. Once she had said she would burn the plane if he attempted to fly across the ocean in it.
Now she turned to some friends who had come with her to see the takeoff. “What’s all this foolishness of Charles getting into the plane?” she asked. Nobody knew, and she became frightened and started to get out of the car.
Carisi ran up to reassure her. “It’s all right,” he said. “It’s only a test run.” And indeed for a while it seemed to be only that. When the wheel chocks were removed, Chamberlin gunned the plane down the runway for several hundred yards. Then, to avoid hitting some people who had pressed in too close to the takeoff strip, he turned off the course and returned to the starting area near Curtiss Field.
Carisi sprinted over to the machine and stood beside the window, one foot on a wheel. “What are you doing, Mr. Levine?” he yelled. “Your wife is going out of her mind! She has got the idea that you are going to Europe in the plane!”
But Grace Levine was now smiling happily. Her husband wasn’t going to fly after all. She laughed at her former nervousness. How foolish she had been! She was still laughing when Chamberlin opened up the engine again. The propeller blast blew Carisi away, and the Columbia started to roll.
Now the monoplane was roaring over the same strip Lindbergh had used, a runway that was dry instead of soggy. With six inches more of wingspread—46½ feet—and some five hundred pounds more load than the Spirit of St. Louis had carried, it took off in two thousand feet, about half the distance its rival had covered.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning. The sun was a glowing red ball, and the little clouds above it were edged with gold. But Grace Levine was sobbing hysterically as the small monoplane climbed into the air shortly after six o’clock. “He isn’t really going!” she cried. “He isn’t really going!” And then, as the plane became a dot and disappeared, she began to weep bitterly.
The faithful Carisi came over and put his arms around her. “He’ll make it,” he told her. “You should be proud of him. He’s a brave boy.”
Only a few people beside Chamberlin knew that Levine had planned to go. Giuseppe Bellanca, the plane’s designer, had suspected it and opposed the plan because he felt that Chamberlin needed a competent navigator. Still another who had had an inkling of Levine’s intention was Samuel Hartman, his attorney.
Hartmantold reporters later that Levine sat up most of the night before the takeoff writing notes to his wife and his lawyer and making a will disposing of an estate of five million dollars. The note to Hartman said: “Well, I’m off. Bet you’ll be surprised, but don’t worry. We will make it. Will cable you first moment I can and wish you would sail over to join me when I dine with Mussolini.”
In spite of his reputation Levine had shown courage in attempting a transatlantic flight, and many assumed he must be a good fellow after all. There was talk that whatever his faults, he had vindicated himself. Now that he was at least temporarily famous, people wanted to believe in his essential nobility, an attribute they had already accorded to Lindbergh.
The Columbia ’s takeoff made big headlines both in the United States and Europe, even though the plane’s destination was uncertain. Its two most likely objectives seemed to be Berlin and Rome, though there also was speculation about Warsaw, Vienna, and Prague.
The German capital prepared for a welcome that would outdo Paris’ greeting to Lindbergh. High government officials, it was said, would meet the gallant fliers at Tempelhof Airport, where three thousand police would keep the immense crowd from storming the little monoplane. The Berlin field and other airports at Cologne, Hamburg, and Bremen would be kept lighted through the night. And Lufthansa, the German air trust, would send out planes to fly along the western border to meet the Columbia and escort it in.
Newspapers ran off extras about the flight, and hotels set up information bureaus to provide excited guests with the latest news on the plane’s progress. Attention centered on Chamberlin rather than on Levine, who was then known to few Europeans. It was considered a happy omen that the last two syllables of the pilot’s name spelled the name of the city toward which the Bellanca seemed to be headed.
But Rome saw itself, not Berlin, as the fliers’ goal. After all, for a plane designed by an Italian what could be a more appropriate destination than the Eternal City? Italian newspaper presses whirled out extra after extra, and crowds collected in front of the newspaper offices to get the latest bulletins.
Aboard the machine all was not entirely well. After the first hundred miles Chamberlin noticed that the earth inductor compass was misbehaving. He was attempting to follow a great-circle course modified in accordance with last-minute weather forecasts. Setting the indicator to match his course, he tried to keep the pointer at zero. But the pointer wouldn’t stay steady. At Newport, Rhode Island, they were four or five miles off course. And when they reached what appeared to be Cape Cod, the needle began swinging from side to side in a meaningless and maddening dance. Moreover, there seemed to be an extra hook on the arm of land below that didn’t appear on their chart. They couldn’t be sure they were really over the Cape.
Chamberlin circled about, hoping that the aberrant compass would return to normal. They had come about two hundred miles and had thirty-four hundred to go. Should they rely on their fifty-dollar magnetic compass? Or should they fly back to Roosevelt Field and have the thousand-dollar earth inductor compass adjusted? They talked it over and decided to go on.
Chamberlin kept circling till he got a bearing on what he thought was the tip of Cape Cod and had oriented himself with the help of the sun. Then, steering by the magnetic compass, which was jiggling from the engine vibration, he headed out over the water toward Nova Scotia. The air was smooth, and they flew along a few hundred feet over the ocean, sighting several sailing yachts and fishing smacks and waving to their crews. But a northeast wind was rising to slow them down.
In two hours, Chamberlin figured, they ought to hit Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. But the second hour passed with only blue water below. A third hour faded into the past. What if the magnetic compass had also failed and was prompting them to fly in circles on a crazy course that would end in a splash and a hiss and then silence?
The main gas tank was shaped like an upright piano, and the eleven 5-gallon cans were strapped on its shelf. Levine now emptied the first of these into the tank and then jettisoned it to clear the space on the tank shelf and give access to the back part of the cabin.
Finally, to their relief, they sighted Nova Scotia. Their magnetic compass was working properly after all. Chamberlin took the new bearing his charts called for and pointed the Columbia ’s nose for Newfoundland. The wind had now veered from dead ahead to quartering from the east and southeast. To counteract its thrust Chamberlin had to crab sideways into the wind.
By the time they reached Halifax, the wind was blowing across their course from the south, necessitating more crabbing and slowing their progress eastward by about thirty miles an hour. They were now two hours behind schedule because of the winds, but the air currents were shifting at last in their favor and starting to push the plane along. Things began to look up.
Chamberlin climbed to two thousand feet to let the plane take advantage of the tail wind and headed for Trepassey, Newfoundland. He had decided to go slightly south of the great-circle route to avoid a storm area shown on their weather map. By the time they reached Trepassey, Levine had emptied and thrown out the last of the five-gallon gas cans, and the way to the rear of the cabin was open. Chamberlin let his companion take over the plane and went back to put on his cold weather clothing—heavy woolen drawers to be pulled over his trousers and a woolen shirt with a parka hood. Then he stretched out on the shelf of the gas tank to get a little rest. But he couldn’t sleep.
Some twenty-five hundred feet below them stretched the last of Newfoundland they would see—rough, desolate country blotched with swamps and wasteland. After a while they sighted the ocean and, a few miles offshore, what seemed to be the white sail of a fishing boat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All this time, plans for the official reception in Berlin were under way. The dignitaries in Berlin wanted the Tempelhof ceremony to start at 6 P.M. And so fearful was Burgomaster Kreutz that they might be late for it that he got the fliers started from the Cottbus airport at 4:30 for the seventy-mile flight to the capital. This time the Americans had an escort of fifteen planes, so they could hardly get lost. In fact, they reached Berlin ahead of schedule and had to circle over the city for twenty minutes before the welcoming committee was ready.