A stiff breeze swirled around him as he reached down and adjusted the zipper of his chamois windbreaker. It was a hair-brained scheme, he relented, but when had he not brazenly attempted such daring-dos before? Novel, was another word, he reflected, he could utilize instead to describe what he was about to attempt. He reached down into his trouser pocket and pulled out his leather flying cap. He softly slid the leather cap through his fingers. He peered upward to his most favorite place. The sky was pregnant with rain clouds and the sun’s warmth had retreated from battle. He looked aft at the flag of the United States. This, he realized contemplating the feat he was about to embark upon, would be a first that no one could take from him. Weeks earlier, he had been grounded and kept from securing what could have and should have rightfully, in his opinion, been his prize. While he had gone on to establish an aviation record of his own merit, it had not been the record to which he had fought so valiantly to secure. That record, he demurred, was whisked from his clutches because of a stupid and petty legal battle. His aircraft had been ready, like he, but an injunction had kept him from reaching Europe before his fellow aviator. As he watched the flag flapping in the stiff and dewy southwest wind, he knew that after this flight, he would have one on his rival and one that could revolutionize not only the field of aviation but also the air mail service. “Mr. Chamberlin,” a white uniformed bedecked officer announced as he offered a sharp complimentary and respect salute, “Commodore Hartley has requested your presence on the runway. It is,” the young officer continued, “almost time.”
Upon his arrival on the runway, the aviator was met by the commodore. “We are nearing the launch point. I believe we will have the necessary headwind that you requested but we may,” he paused, “be forced to try and wait out the inclement weather and rain.” “It will be vital,” the young aviator replied as he continued to softly slide the leather flying cap through his fingers, “that the ship be steaming at full speed if I am to gain enough speed to take off successfully.” The two men paced the damp wooden slats of the one hundred and fourteen foot runway. Rain drops, as if attempting to dampen his attempt, congealed on the wooden slats. “I would hate to spoil the fun for the passengers,” the brash pilot offered as he turned back for an instant to see his Fokker aircraft lashed down to the deck. He returned his attention to Commodore Hartley who replied with a straight tooth solemn smile. “I would wholeheartedly agree with you.” The United States Coast Guard Cutter Wilkes and two U.S. Navy destroyers, Lawrence and Humphries were aside the S.S. Leviathan as it continued on its course toward Ambrose Light. Flashes of lightning and booms of thunder rumbled in the distance. The clouds began to spill their watery contents from above. A few blue-jackets, swiftly and in vain, continued to swab the runway to give the aircraft’s rubber tires the best grip possible. The two men stopped at the edge of the runway and looked out over the ocean. They peered over the side. One hundred and eight feet separated the runway to the surface of the sea. The Commodore and Chamberlin then turned to one another and looked at each other for a few moments in an awkward silence stimulated only by the spit of rain against the steel surface of the ship and the wooden runway. The young pilot finally broke the emotional stalemate by slapping his leather flying cap against the side of his leg. “Well then,” he offered confidently, “I best get ready to take off.” The Captain offered him his hand. “All the best Mr. Chamberlin.” The brash pilot shook the commodore’s hand heartedly. “Please Commodore Hartley, call me Clarence.” The aviator turned on his heel and headed toward his aircraft. History waited for no man. Clarence Chamberlin, of all men, knew all too well, that axiom of humanity.
Clarence Chamberlin was born in 1893 in Iowa. Son of a jewelry and watch-repairman, Clarence soon realized that he enjoyed anything mechanical when the family purchased their first motor-car. He loved tinkering with the temperamental contraption and soon realized that he had an almost natural affinity for anything that involved gears, levers, springs and pistons. After leaving college to establish a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle dealership in his home town of Denison, Iowa, he continued to fine-tune not only his business acumen but also his mechanical abilities. When asked by a local prominent businessman to serve as his personal chauffeur on a six-month sojourn from Iowa to the World’s Fair being held in San Francisco, California, Clarence jumped on the opportunity. The road-trip through the southwest of America to the edge of the Pacific Ocean would prove fruitful as he not only was he introduced to his wife but also to what would become the vocational love of his life, flying.
In 1917, with the United States finally involved in the war in Europe, Chamberlin joined the United States Army Signal Corps and requested flight training. With too many pilots scheduled for flight school, he passed on other assignments that were open for a commission. His goal, he determined, was attaining his set of golden wings. Several months passed and he was notified that there was finally an opening. Chamberlin reported and soon finished flight training. Upon his arrival in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he was to ship out to Europe to join a flight squadron, he learned that the War to End all Wars had officially ended. Chamberlin was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army and he returned to Iowa.
While a few failed attempts at odd career choices were the norm for most young men, most were unlike Chamberlin who knew all along where his passions lay. He wanted to fly and nothing, he finally realized, was going to stop him. Clearing the various vocational obstacles from his path, he set his focus on his lifelong goal and finally amassed enough funds to purchase a Bellanca Model CE aircraft. After gaining relative confidence with the airplane, he went aloft and joined in the aerial theatrics of the traipsing “barnstorming” circuit. Like the caravans of performers and animals who went town-to-town aboard trains peddling their circus entertainment, the barnstormers offered entertainment in the blue hued skies of America instead of the dust-filled canvas tents of the carnivals. Chamberlin, his skills fine-tuned with his U.S. Army training, quickly gained popularity amidst the strained-necked sky-gazing gawkers who paid measly entrance fees to see the daring swashbucklers of the skies defy gravity and life. While his feats normally ended with a successful landing, his prowess in the aerial entertainment field were solidified to his burgeoning fan-base after a spectacular crash at the New York Internal Air Races in 1925. After walking away from the crash unscathed, Chamberlin set his sights on the newly announced Orteig Prize.
The Orteig Prize, established by Raymond Ortieg, the owner of the Lafayette Hotel of New York, offered a twenty-five thousand dollar prize to the first aviator who could successfully fly non-stop between New York and Paris. A host of aviators, from the craziest of aloft anarchists to the solemn and stoic, tossed their hats into the media-fueled band of brothers that would publicly vie for the chance at claiming the much heralded historical event. Chamberlin realized that he would be a contender but first he had to prove his mettle with an endurance flight that would assuredly secure him the necessary financial backing that would provide him the necessary support to make the jaunt over the pond. To gain the advantage, Chamberlin decided that he would beat the standing endurance record set by two French aviators, Drouhin and Landry, of forty-five hours, eleven minutes and fifty-nine seconds.
On April 12, 1927, Chamberlin and a fellow aviator and friend Bert Acosta, alighted from Roosevelt Field, in New York. On April 14th, despite a few close calls and after fifty-one hours, four minutes and twenty-five seconds, their Bellanca-Wright aircraft successfully touched down at Roosevelt Field. A new endurance record had been attained. Chamberlin was convinced he was one step closer to securing the coveted prize money of the Ortieg prize and the historical record as the first pilot to fly non-stop across the Atlantic to Paris. Charles Levine, a wealthy salvager and president of the Columbia Aircraft Corporation then entered the scene. Levine would prove to be a harbinger of destiny as well as a welcome, though unexpected, godsend.
Purchasing the aircraft, Levine would be the determining factor in all aspects of the proposed flight of the newly christened Miss Columbia on the upcoming Trans-Atlantic flight. While he was relatively comfortable with Chamberlin at the controls, Levine had his own thoughts on a navigator. Choosing Lloyd Bertaud soon led to unavoidable squabbles and fights between the flight crew and Levine. The infighting ended with Levine dismissing co-pilot and navigator Lloyd Bertaud from the roster. Bertaud was furious with Levine and filed an injunction based on the contractual obligations that Levine had attempted to impose upon him for the flight. Levine was not happy with the fact that he had stipulated that if Chamberlin and he failed in their attempt that their families would receive a settlement and that if they were successful they would receive the prize money. What exactly Bertaud was looking for is unclear. Despite the lack of clarity in his argument, the courts honored Bertaud’s request for injunction and all involved were quickly enslaved in the mire of legal proceedings. While the wheels of justice moved at their normal incremental pace – miniscule – other aviators took the strategic advantage and jockeyed into position to take the pole position. With the grounding of the Miss Columbia, Charles Lindberg, a corn-fed boy originally born in Detroit, Michigan and later raised in Little Falls, Minnesota, with a square jaw and a mother-friendly smile, boarded his Ryan NYP adorned with the name Spirit of St. Louis, and set out down the airstrip at Roosevelt Field bound for Paris and for the pages of aviation history.
Chamberlin’s chance at the coveted prize were dashed when “Lucky Lindy” landed amidst thousands of Parisians at the airfield at Le Bourget on May 21st, 1927. History had eclipsed him, Chamberlin exclaimed as he tossed the newspaper into the waste-paper basket aside his hotel desk. It would never, Chamberlin reflected, happen again.
Exactly two weeks after Lindberg’s historical flight and after Bertaud had decided to withdraw his legal roadblock, Chamberlin was at the controls of the Miss Columbia as she was readied for take-off. With no co-pilot or navigator, Chamberlin’s only hope for the pages of perpetuity was that he could fly further than his rival Lindberg. What other historical record could he try and break under the circumstances? Levine, his wife at his side, watched as the Miss Columbia inched closer and closer to the start point of the flight. Suddenly Levine scurried to the aircraft and bounded inside. Within seconds, the heavily fuel laden Miss Columbia began racing down the runway. As the Miss Columbia alighted into the sky over Long Island, Mrs. Levine looked at the horde of photographers and reporters with an aghast expression. This, she offered hastily and in a huff, had not been discussed in the least. The bewildered and equally betwixt reporters submitted their bylines to their editors as the Miss Columbia scurried eastward across the sky.
After three thousand, nine hundred and eleven miles and after being aloft for forty-two hours, forty-five minutes, the Miss Columbia was set down in Eisleben, Germany. Chamberlin, though two weeks late in his ability to win the Ortieg prize, had established two new records that would be forever etched in the marble of man’s conquering of the environs of the sky - the longest flight (up to that point in history) and the first pilot to take a passenger across the Atlantic. While the records would be for the ages, it was clear to Chamberlin that the true laurels owed to him had been absconded by legal entanglements. His most recent accomplishments would forever be mired by regret and disdain.
Finally in Europe, Chamberlin and his last-minute passenger and history-dead-ringer-financier Charles Levine, set out on a public relations jaunt throughout the continent. Wherever the men went, the crowds of excited Germans followed. A few weeks later, Clarence Chamberlin boarded the S.S. Leviathan with sights on another first. On July 31, 1927, Clarence Chamberlin was handed a rain slicker from one of the ship’s crew. He quickly donned the jacket as the rain continued to fall and then jumped into the cockpit of his monoplane. The engine roared to life as handlers held onto the wings and fuselage of the craft. The S.S. Leviathan steamed at full speed, twenty-two knots, into the rain-slicked headwind. Heavily laden down with its pilot, fuel and a single sack of mail, Chamberlin was about to make history. A grin emerged on his pouty face as the last respites of rain pelted his skin. This, he reflected, would be just another notch in his legacy. He stared at the slippery seventy-five feet of wooden planking that would serve as his airstrip. Slanted awkwardly to the portside of the gargantuan cruise ship, it offered him the only possible chance of survival from the ship’s foremast. As the steam from her powerful engines whipped abaft, Chamberlin signaled the ground crew to stand clear. He then gunned the engine of his monoplane to full throttle. He would either end up attempting to escape the twisted wreckage of his plane in the wake of the S.S. Leviathan or he would greet the flash of camera bulbs on shore. There was, he contemplated, no room for error. After reviewing the gauges on his instrument panel, he offered a prayer to the Lord above, and then in a matter of seconds, began his race against fate down the rickety wooden airstrip. Reaching the necessary speed of fifty-five miles an hour, he alighted with nearly forty feet of decking left. The tail of the monoplane dipped as her landing gear freed themselves from the wooden aviator’s planks. Chamberlin scanned the horizon. The aircraft lurched and then gained altitude. With full control now in his hands, Chamberlin banked around the passenger ship. Passengers and crew aboard waved and cheered. Sailors and Coastguardsmen aboard the three escort ships lined the rails and waved as well. Chamberlin let out an audible hooray as the monoplane, her cargo of air-mail aside him in the cockpit, was bound for terra-firma and for destiny.
Seventy-five or so miles later, Chamberlin eased the monoplane to a soft landing on the airstrip at Curtiss Field on Long Island. After offering a round of thanks, Chamberlin went back aboard his charge and amidst a bevy of onlookers and reporters, he successfully took off and then summarily landed to deliver the first airmail “steamer to shore” mail in history when he landed safely in Teterboro, New Jersey. Secured in the single canvas bag, jumbled within the nine hundred and sixteen letters were six hundred especially encased letters embossed with the stamp of FIRST AIRMAIL Steamer via airmail a feat that marked another aviation history first for Clarence Chamberlin that started aboard the S.S. Leviathan, in our waters.