Photo Credit:
L-R: Clarence Chamberlin, Jacob Gould Schurman, and Charles Levine in Berlin.

Let’s play “Name that Aviator:” His initials are C.A.L. and, in June 1927 he sailed into the history books when he flew non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean from New York and, after landing safely in Europe, was proclaimed a hero and embraced by multitudes.

If you guessed Charles A. Lindbergh, you would be wrong. In fact, Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic on May 20-22, 1927, two weeks before the historic flight of one Charles A. Levine. Lindbergh famously flew solo, while Levine became the first passenger to fly across the Atlantic Ocean; Lindbergh flew to Paris, while Levine flew to Germany, some 315 miles farther and more than nine hours longer; and, while Lindbergh’s feat blazes through history, Levine’s has been all but forgotten.


Born in Massachusetts to Jewish parents who had immigrated to the United States from Vilna, Levine (1897-1991) helped his father in the junk business and sold scrap metal; formed his own company buying and recycling World War I-surplus brass shell casings for the War Department; and became a millionaire at age 30. Reminiscent of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, he was celebrated and idolized and was reputedly worth over $4 million at the time of his historic flight.

In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a New York hotelier, offered a $25,000 prize to the first aviator to fly non-stop between New York and Paris, but the prize had gone unclaimed for seven years. Six well-known aviators had died trying; one of the numerous failed attempts (non-fatal) was undertaken by Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who later successfully flew to Europe and became the first person to fly over the North Pole. (Whether he actually accomplished that feat remains the subject of great controversy).

Lindbergh and Levine were each determined to claim the prize. Lindbergh’s determination may have been fueled in part by his anti-Semitism and contempt for his Jewish opponent.

In 1926, Levine founded the Columbia Aircraft Company with one of the world’s leading aircraft designers, Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, creator of the Wright-Bellanca prototype, then the most advanced airplane in the world. And he hired pilot Clarence Chamberlin, who famously set the world’s endurance record for a flight when he circled above New York City for 51 hours nonstop.

Levine was certain the plane he dubbed the Columbia would cross the Atlantic Ocean, enabling him to claim the coveted Orteig Prize.

They began to plan the flight in earnest but, before they could leave, they were approached by another aviator who sought to purchase their plane – none other than Charles Lindbergh himself, who wanted to rename it “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

Levine offered the Columbia to Lindbergh for $15,000, but insisted that, as a non-negotiable condition of the sale, he retain the right to designate the crew for what would surely be a historic flight. Lindbergh refused, stormed out, and ended up buying a smaller, cheaper aircraft that became the “Spirit of St. Louis.” The rest, as they say, is history.

But there is much more to the story.

* * * * *


Menu card for dinner/dance in Berlin in honor of "the heroic American Aviators" Levine and Chamberlin.
Menu card for dinner/dance in Berlin in honor of “the heroic American Aviators” Levine and Chamberlin.

Levine would have beaten Lindbergh but for an unfortunate legal dispute. The 225-horsepower Columbia had been primed and ready for weeks, but Levine’s co-pilot, Lloyd W. Bertaud, filed suit against him, seeking reinstatement after Levine allegedly wrongfully discharged him. The court issued a temporary injunction grounding the Columbia in its hanger at Roosevelt Field on Long Island – right next to the Spirit of St. Louis – for a few weeks.

(Vowing to complete a transatlantic flight without Levine, Bertaud was killed three months later when he flew his monoplane, “Old Glory,” into the Atlantic.)

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].