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Clarence D. Chamberlin Recalls Historic Flight, Explains Why Lindbergh Beat Levine Across Atlantic
In a 1965 interview with Bill Van Dusen, Clarence Chamberlin sketched the most vivid portrait we have of Levine in the ripeness of fame, from the days leading up to his historic transatlantic flight to his portentous crash on the outskirts of Rome just a few months later.
How Levine Lost the Race Across the Atlantic
It all started when Raymond Orteig put up this $25,000 prize for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris. This was in a period when it wasn't safe to offer an aviator $25,000 for anything.
At the time, there was no plane capable of making the flight. Mr. Bellanca [the airplane designer] and I often talked about what we could do if we had the money. The big problem was that it cost about $50,000 to build the airplane to win the $25,000 prize.
I interested the Wright Aeronautical Company in Patterson, NJ in building this new type Bellanca plane, but when it came to the Atlantic flight, someone at the board of directors meeting said, "Well, supposed you land in the middle [of the ocean]-- that won't be such a good ad." So they called the flight off.
Then Colonel Lindbergh tried to buy the airplane and fly it alone, but the Wright Company thought he should have a co-pilot and a navigator, and refused to sell it to him.
It was not until Charlie Levine came along and bought the manufacturing rights to the Columbia that we were able to go forward with the plan for the flight. It wasn't long, though, before we ran into legal difficulties. Mr. Bellanca, insisted that I be one of the pilots, but Mr. Levine was leaning towards Lloyd Bertaud and J.D. Hill.
Then someone told him that anyone with blue eyes didn't photograph well and wouldn't get any movie contracts. I had blue eyes, so Charlie definitely didn't want me. Now he wanted Bert Acosta, who was more of a dashing movie type. When Lloyd Bertaud heard about it, he got a temporary legal injunction to prevent the flight at all unless he went.
The hearing was at 10 a.m. on a certain morning. The injunction was thrown out of court, and we were free to go. But Lindbergh had taken off about 6 a.m. that same morning, and as everybody knows, he made it. …
Then the Brooklyn chamber of commerce put up $15,000 prize for the first non-stop flight between New York and Berlin, and we decided to go after that.
By this time there had been so much adverse publicity in connection to this lawsuit and injunction and criticism of Charlie, that he said to me, "Go ahead, you pick your crew, take anyone want. I don't want anymore criticism of my handling of the flight."
Well, my first choice was Bernt Balchen, but he couldn't do it. After Balchen was ruled out, my wife said to me, "I'd rather come with you than stay home and worry." So I say, "Okay, if I can't have a really good pilot why, I'd as soon take you."
But when we told Charlie, Charlie says "If she can go, why can't I go." Well, I couldn't answer that one. He owned the airplane and was putting up the money.
A few days later, his wife became a little suspicious. And we overheard her saying "If I thought my Charlie was going on the airplane I'd burn it up." So from then on, it was a deep secret as to who would be my navigator.
On the morning of the takeoff, we were getting all set to go, when Noville drove onto the field in his Navy uniform in a taxi to watch the take off. Well, all the newspapermen thought he was the navigator, so they all rushed over to start taking his picture. So Charlie and I stood out in front of the airplane, shook hands goodbye, and then we both got in. And that was the first anybody new Charlie was going on this flight. Mrs. Levine fainted.
Well, before we got to Cape Cod the vibration from the engine on the instrument panel broke the indicator on the compass. I suggested we go back and have it repaired, but Charlie said "--And meet my wife?!" So with that, we went on.
We had a headwind for the first 1000 or 1500 miles, but the weather bureau had promised that the wind would change after we got in the middle of the ocean and we'd have a tailwind at the finish. And it worked out just as he had predicted.
As we left Newfoundland, it was a very red sunset, a really beautiful sight. The sea was full of icebergs floating from the Greenland curb. They looked like sailboats out there.
Late the second day I spotted a big ship with four smokestacks. Well, I knew that was a real transatlantic liner. I flew down low and circled the boat and found it was the Mauritania -- which Lindbergh was taking back from France to New York. Well, I wanted to go where he came from, so I came out in front, flew down the middle, out over the wake, and took a compass reading which gave me my true course, with all allowances for wind, drift, magnetic variation, and everything.
We hit Land's End in England just at sundown the end of the second day. The last thing we saw in England was Plymouth. I remember after that the clouds kept building up and we kept climbing higher and higher, until finally, we were right up about the top of our ceiling, around 20,000 feet. Now in these days, pilots take oxygen from 8,000 or 10,000 feet, but we had nothing up there and I finally started getting a bit woozy from the high altitude.
Charlie, while he never did takeoffs or landings, could hold a fairly straight course. So I told him to take it for a few minutes, and if he came to an extra high cloud bank, to circle and not go into it.
Well, we were trying to make a long distance record, and Charlie didn't want to waste any time circling. So as the clouds got higher, he kept pulling up higher and higher until we finally reached the maximum altitude it would go -- 25,000 feet.
The plane got so high, it stalled and went off into a tale spin in the dark of night at 21,000. The pedals were flying back and forth and the stick was flying all over the cockpit, the wings were fluttering. I finally got the turn stopped and got it into straight dive and gradually worked it out, but by this time, we had fallen 17,000 feet. Fortunately, we still had another 3,000 or 4,000 feet to go -- or so we thought.
When we broke out of the clouds we were 1000 feet over water. Charlie thought it was the North Sea. I had no idea where we were. But as we got lower we found we were over a river and there were mountains sticking up into the clouds all around us. A quarter mile on either side and we would have hit a mountain.
Well, now there was a little difference of opinion as to which way Berlin was, because somewhere in this tailspin, our map had either flown out the window or fallen into the tank, so we were in Germany with no map. The result was that Charlie thought it was one way, and I another. So we settled it: while Charlie was flying he went the way he thought it was, and when I flew I went the way I thought it was.
We finally hit a railroad, and well, we followed the only railroad that didn't go to Berlin -- and went beyond it.
I wanted to land while we still had an inch of gas, because it's very handy on a forced landing to have a little power. But Charlie said, "No, we started out to set a long distance record. Run her till she quits." I say "Okay brother, it's your airplane, if I smash it up, don't blame me."
So I set it down in a wheat field, bounced over a road and stopped rolling in the sand. About a half later, a crowd had gathered around, and a boy on a bicycle went to town and got us 20 gallons of benzyl. We put it in the motor and it sounded pretty good, and once more we started off towards Berlin with no map. They said it was up over the hill. Again we went by Berlin.
But the next day we got to Berlin and got a marvelous reception, and made a tour of Europe, eventually reaching Paris.
Levine had been the first passenger across from West to East. So he thought he would like to finish thing up right and be the first one to make a round trip. Well, this was late June, and by the time we had finished preparing, we were getting into the heavy westerly winds. And in order to take the wind out of the east, you would probably have to take bad weather. I thought we weren't prepared for it.
So Levine got a Frenchman, Maurice Drouhin, to take my place. Charlie offered him $10,000 to fly him back to New York if the flight was successful and $4,000 if the flight was called off for any reason. Well things dragged along -- Charlie met the "Queen of Diamonds," Mabel Boll, if you recall -- and whenever Drouhin was ready to go, Charlie had a date and couldn't go, and when Charlie was ready to go Drouhin didn't like the weather. Finally, it ran on into September and the weather bureau announced that heavy westerly winds were coming on and they should not try it that year. So they called the flight off.
So the Frenchman wanted his $4,000 and wanted it right now. And Charlie was this sort of a guy: If you tried to force him to do something, he'd spend his last nickel to keep from doing it.
The argument finally made the front page. Senator Lockwood happened to be in Paris at the time and offered to arbitrate the matter. They arranged for everybody to be at a lawyer's office to see if they couldn't reach some settlement. Well, everyone went to the meeting except Levine.
Levine went to the airport. When he got there they had two guards watching the plane night and day -- because the Frenchman had attached it for $4,000. Well, Charlie gave each guard a 100-franc note, and that spoke a universal language and they helped him role out the plane and start the motor.
Charlie had never made a takeoff or landing before, but he'd watched me do it and he had it all figured out. When the motor started up, the airport police, hearing the engine and knowing the plane was not to be touched, came rushing down on motorcycles. Charlie heard them coming, and he gave it the gun and, much to his surprise, he got it in the air.
He figured that if he landed back in France, they not only would put the attachment back on the plane, but probably put him in jail for stealing his own airplane. So he thought if he flew it to England, at least he could talk to the people over there and then leave it the Frenchman to collect his $4,000.
He didn't have a map, but as he remembered it, London was north of Paris. So he set the compass on North and started out. When he got to the English Channel, he wasn't sure if it was the channel or the Atlantic. So he decided, I'll fly for 45 minutes, and if I don't see land, then it isn't the channel. Well about, a half-hour later he saw land. And he finally found a city that looked big enough to be London.
When Charlie spotted the field, he picked out a runway, and came in for his landing. Well he forgot just two things: on the Columbia you had to adjust the tail stabilizer -- otherwise, with no load in the back, you couldn't get the tail down for a three point landing. And besides he tried to land with the wind -- he forgot to look at the wind sign.
So here he came, with the wind and his tail up. When he got to the end of airport he was still in the air doing about 75 mph. But he said he wasn't worried, he'd just try it again -- he had plenty gas. The second time, same thing: the end of the airport and still flying good.
About this time the English got a little worried. So they sent up a plane and had it come down in the opposite direction. Charlie got the message. He says maybe that's the way to do it. So the next time around, he came in against the wind, and because he was going against the wind, he was able to slow down inside the airport, but he couldn't get his tail down. He bounced about 100 feet in the air, then gave it the gun and decided to come around once more.
The fourth time, he made up his mind, was to be his last -- that no matter what happened, he wasn't going to open the throttle again.
Well, he was getting better and better all the time. Till this time he only bounced 25 feet, then 15,10, 5 and so forth. Finally he came to rest just inside the fence. Everyone rushed over expecting to find him trembling, white as a sheet, and just scared to death. Instead, he stepped out of the plane just as calm as could be and asked if they wouldn't take him to a telephone. He wanted to call up that lawyer's office and see what kind of settlement Lockwood was able to make with the Frenchman now that the plane was out of the country.
Later that summer, Levine decided to fly down to Rome and see if he could have an audience with the Pope. Well now it seems that when you have audience with the pope, you have to wear certain robes. Well Charlie had been received by presidents and kings and queens in the same business suit that he flew the Atlantic with and he didn't see why he should change it for the pope. Well, after about 10 days he aroused the Pope's curiosity and he let him come in in his gray business suit. After the interview, the Pope blessed all Charlie's future flights and when they took off later that afternoon the motor quit and the plane crashed at the end of the field.
Levine really was a remarkable guy.
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