Jewish World Review June 29, 1998 / 5 Tamuz, 5758

Pilot Clarence Chamberlin (L)
and Charlie Levine
Charlie Levine and
his flying machine

The saga of the first transatlantic air passenger

By Herb Geduld

WANT TO MAKE a fast hundred bucks? Find someone who, for some odd reason, isn't reading JWR and ask him to name the guy who, in June 1927, flew across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop from New York to Europe and whose initials are "C.A.L."

After he answers "Charles A. Lindbergh" collect your loot (if you want, pledge it to JWR, they really need help, as I'm sure you already know.) And then tell the poor sap it was Charles A. Levine.

Charles A. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic on May 20-22 1927, two weeks before Charlie Levine's flight on June 5. Lindbergh flew alone; Levine flew it as a passenger on a two-seater monoplane piloted by Clarence Chamberlin. Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris; Levine flew from New York to Germany, almost 300 miles further. Lindbergh's flight has never been forgotten. Levine's flight has never been remembered.

Charles A. Levine was a hustler. Born in 1897, he grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. His education ended with his graduation from P.S. 32. He worked in his father Isaac's scrap yard for a few years, but tired of it and got a job as an apprentice mechanic at the Morrisant Aviation Co. on Long Island. This began his lifelong love of airplanes.

Charlie's father demanded he return to the scrap yard. Instead, Charlie, at age 19, struck out on his own, using his mechanical knowledge to repair and sell used cars. The United States was just entering World War I and Charlie and his business thrived. In a few years he was a wealthy man.

From salvage to aircraft

In 1921 he organized a company called Columbia Salvage to buy and reprocess old shell casings from war surplus. His business took him all over the country, kindling his interest in the possibilities of air navel. By 1926, he was a multimillionaire and when Wright Aircraft, the earliest major airplane manufacture, sought to divest itself of a new model Wright monoplane, the Bellanca, Levine snapped up not only the plane, but the services of its designer, an immigrant Sicilian, Giuseppe Bellanca, and its pilot, Clarence Chamberlin.

The three were the nucleus of Columbia Aircraft Company, which opened up its ostentatious offices on the 46th floor of New York's prestigious Woolworth Building.

Among the early visitors to Columbia Aircraft was a tall, lanky, pilot from St. Louis named Charles "Slim" Lindbergh, who offered to buy the Bellanca monoplane for a proposed solo flight from New York to Paris. Levine offered the plane to Lindbergh for $15,000 -- which was $10,000 less than it cost him, but more than Lindbergh could afford. Lindbergh returned to St. Louis and after consultation with his financial backers, flew himself back to Levine's sumptuous offices to buy the plane.

The deal was almost consummated when Levine mentioned that: "Of course, you realize Mr. Lindbergh, that my company, despite the sale of the plane, must retain final say so on who will fly the plane and who will make up the crew."

Lindbergh was infuriated and after some heated arguments stormed out of the office.

Alluring prize

In 1919, Raymond Orteig, the owner of the Lavish Lafayette Hotel in New York City, had offered a prize of $25,000 "to the first aviator who shall cross the Atlantic in a land or water aircraft from New York to Paris or Paris to New York non-stop." For seven years, this prize had gone unclaimed, and both Lindbergh and Levine were determined to claim it.

After their unsuccessful negotiations, Lindbergh and Levine parted company. Lindbergh had a plane built to his specifications at the Ryan Aircraft Co. in California. Levine, Bellanca and Chamberlin proceeded to modify the Bellanca for their flight.

During the first five months of 1927, while Lindbergh and the Ryan engineers worked feverishly to produce a suitable aircraft, Levine, who had an overwhelming lead, fought with his pilots, his designer, his navigator and himself. He was an irascible, pompous, difficult man to work for and he lost his advantage by engaging in trivial arguments on how to equip his plane and who should fly it.

In the week of May 15, 1927, three aircraft were in separate hangers at Roosevelt Field in New York waiting to compete for the Orteig Prize: Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis," Levine's "Bellanca" renamed the "Columbia," and Commander Richard Byrd's "America."

The weather over the North Atlantic was stormy and unfavorable --- almost as stormy as the personnel problems which surrounded the "Columbia. " On May 19, with a light rain falling in New York, Lindbergh checked with the weather bureau and got the news that the weather finally was clearing over the North Atlantic. He immediately raced back to Roosevelt Field to prepare the fueling on the "Spirit of St. Louis." He took off at daybreak that morning and the rest is history.

Levine, Bellanca and Chamberlin, who were still bickering on who would fly where with what, outwardly applauded Lindbergh's achievement, but were devastated by being beaten in the race. Nonetheless, on June 4, Levine, his wife, and a party of friends arrived at Roosevelt Field to see Chamberlin off on a flight they hoped would eclipse Lindbergh's.

Roaring into history

Levine was dressed in a regular suit. Unbeknownst to his wife, however, he had his flying clothes stored aboard his plane. Chamberlin climbed into the cockpit and started the plane. Suddenly, Levine broke away from the small crowd of well-wishers, and jumped into the co-pilot's seat as his wife and friends looked on incredulously.

Mrs. Levine screamed "Stop him! Stop him!" It was too late. The engine roared full throttle and Charlie Levine roared into history as the world's first transatlantic passenger.

The flight was harrowing at times because the Bellanca had a tendency to stall and buck. Levine, whose bravery bordered on foolhardiness, was not perturbed by the aircraft's aberrations.

Although he was not a pilot, Levine relieved Chamberlin at the controls a few times during the night, but otherwise enjoyed his passenger status. En route, they flew over the cruise ship Mourclonia, which gave them a spirited welcome. Incredibly enough, they also flew over the U.S. cruiser Memphis, which was returning Lindbergh to America. Some 43 hours after taking-off and traveling a total of 3,905 miles, the adventurous duo finally landed on a small field outside the town of Eisleben in Saxony, now in East Germany.

At Eisleben they refueled with 20 gallons of fuel brought up by a local farmer and had to use a quart-size coffee pot to fill the gas tank. They were headed for Berlin, but got lost and landed east of the city at the town of Kottbus, where they received a tumultuous welcome. They finally landed at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin the next afternoon to a crowd of more than 100,000 wildly cheering Germans. It was the apogee of Levine's aviation career.

No Jew was ever again to get this type of welcome to Berlin. It was only six years before Hitler.

Levine spent the next three months in Europe where he did not exactly endear himself to his European hosts. He hired and fired a number of British and French pilots and generally delighted in being brash and obnoxious to the press, the pilots and the public.

Despite his wife's pleading, he intended to fly the "Columbia" back over the Atlantic from Europe to America, something no one at that point had ever done. His plans were thwarted, however, when after a night to Italy in September, 1927, the "Columbia" crash landed and was so severely damaged she was unable to continue flying. Levine, unhurt, packed up his plane and returned to America by boat.

In New York, on Sunday, Oct. 16, he was given a tickertape welcome down Fifth Avenue and taken in triumph to City Hall. At a banquet in honor of Levine, U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish -- who was later to become at arch isolationist -- orated; "Levine," he said, "typifies 100% unadulterated courage. He represents what the Jewish people have been doing right down through their history."

Levine was greeted and feted in the coming months and then quickly passed into obscurity. The "Columbia," however, had one last fling. It was purchased in 1930 by two Canadian pilots, renamed the "Maple Leaf," and flown from Canada to London, thus becoming the first plane to cross the Atlantic twice.

Levine was often called incorrigible, stubborn, contrary, and insolent by his critics, but nobody ever questioned his courage --- and his chutzpah. He certainly enjoyed the thrill of flying and opened the door to the hordes of travelers that cross our oceans each day. He died in obscurity, an almost forgotten figure in aviation history.

Jewish historian, cultural maven, and JWR contributor Herb Geduld lives in Cleveland.


4/98: We nearly had a planet named 'Herschel'
3/98: FLASH! How two nice Jewish musicians created color film
2/16/98: Isachar Zacharie, Presidential Corn-cutter and confidant
2/3/98: When Monticello had a mezuzah

©1998, Herb Geduld