The Columbia Triad: Chamberlin and Levine

Chamberlin & Levine

Chamberlin & Levine

The list of aviation heroes America has taken to heart is endless, from the Wright Brothers down to the latest heroes from Iraq. The country has a penchant for adventure lovers, and the smiling, clean living swash-buckling aviator has been embraced almost without exception. Even those with human relations flaws, such as the acerbic Douglas “Wrong-Way” Corrigan, the unapproachable Howard Hughes, the libidinous and bibulous Bert Acosta, or the sometimes unverifiable and often aloof Richard Byrd, were accepted with good humor, valued for what they did rather than for the way they acted.

There were also a few, a very few, who somehow struck the wrong note and alienated the public, so that they never gained the popularity that they obviously sought. Among these you can find foreigners, such as Jules Vedrines and Rene Fonck, but among American flyers the most notable is Charles A. Levine.

Levine was born in North Adams, Mass., in 1897 but grew up working for his father’s scrap metal business in Brooklyn. He set up his own company in 1917 and became a millionaire in his early twenties with a salvage contract for the War Department, buying and disposing of spent shell casings. (It was rumored that he was also an “arms czar” dealing in munitions.) In the mid-1920s, he ventured into aircraft manufacturing and took flying lessons. Although, as with many before him, he lost his money in aviation, he also did some good things, and it is instructive to examine them before looking at some of the many reasons for his unpopularity.

He is most well known, of course, for creating the Columbia Aircraft Corporation and acquiring the beautiful Wright Bellanca WB.2 Columbia aircraft along with the services of its brilliant designer, Giuseppe Bellanca. The Columbia, which debuted in 1926, was in many ways a better looking, better performing aircraft than the Ryan Spirit of St. Louis, and was Charles A. Lindbergh’s first choice for his intended flight across the Atlantic. When the Columbia was offered to Lindbergh for a bargain price of $15,000, he hurried to Levine’s luxurious offices on the 46th floor of the Woolworth Building to buy it. The story of Lindy’s furious disappointment when Levine stipulated that sale was conditioned on the premise that only he could choose the pilot has been often told. Levine intended to use Clarence Chamberlain, who, with Bert Acosta, would set an endurance record of 51 hours 11 minutes and 20 seconds in the Columbia on April 12, 1927. Lindbergh went on to help design and build the Ryan Spirit of St. Louis, winning the Ortieg Prize by flying to Paris from New York on May 20/21, 1927.

The Columbia was kept from starting by one of Levine’s frequent legal problems. Levine had an agreement with Lloyd W. Bertaud to make the flight with Chamberlain. They apparently quarreled, and when Levine threatened to replace Bertaud, the latter got an injunction to prevent the Columbia from making the trans-Atlantic attempt without him. (Bertaud, air mail pilot James D. Hill and Philip Payne lost their lives on September 7, 1927, in the ill-fated trans-Atlantic effort of the Fokker F VIIA Old Glory.)

Disappointed but not discouraged by Lindbergh’s success, Levine determined to use the Columbia’s greater endurance to upstage Lindy by flying from New York to Berlin. He enhanced the publicity by declining to name the “mystery passenger” who would accompany Chamberlain on the flight. On June 4, 1927, Levine solved the mystery by slipping into the seat next to Chamberlain, who then applied power and took off. The surprise was apparently complete, as Levine’s blond wife fainted when she realized what had happened.

As irritating as Levine may have been to one and all, he did not lack courage, for the North Atlantic was as cold and threatening to him as it had been to Lindbergh. Levine occasionally spelled Chamberlain at the controls as they flew non-stop to Eisleben, Germany, about one hundred miles southwest of Berlin, covering the 3,911 miles in 43 hours, 49 minutes and 33 seconds. After being congratulated by the locals, the intrepid pair drank some coffee, put twenty gallons of gasoline into their near empty tanks and took off again, heading once more for Berlin. This time they wound up at Kottbuss, later the home of a Focke-Wulf factory. A third attempt brought them to Tempelhoff Airport, where a crowd of some 10,000 cheering Germans greeted them.

When they returned home they received a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue, but Levine’s career was already on the skids. The first indication was when President Calvin Coolidge received Chamberlain at the White House, snubbing Levine. The Jewish community was properly outraged, as they were in the midst of celebrating Levine in song and story as “The Greatest Hebrew Ace.” His achievement is still commemorated at an interesting web site, where some of the songs saluting him may be heard.

Chamberlain was as well liked as Levine was disliked, having a modest, genial personality and possessing great flying skills. He held air transport pilot certificate number 130 and would go on to an influential career in aviation, setting more records, acting as a consultant to industry, and forming his own companies, one of which purchased twin-engine Curtiss Condor biplane transports to use as barnstorming airplanes.

Although the peak of Levine’s personal fame had already passed, he had yet to render his greatest service to American aviation. While in Europe he met Alexander Kartveli, Armand Thiebolt and Edmund Chagniard. They tried to sell him on the merits of seven-engine, 100,000 pound gross weight airliner to carry fifty passengers non-stop from New York to Paris. This was a little much even for Levine, but he saw how capable the three men were, and brought them to the United States to be part of his new firm, Columbia Air Lines, Incorporated.

Kartveli would become immortal with his work for Seversky and Republic, while Thiebolt would do equally well for Fokker, General Aviation and Fairchild. Chagniard would have a hand in one of Levine’s products to be mentioned below. Had Levine not invested in them, there might never have been a Republic P-47 or a Fairchild C-119!

Levine’s firm, the little known Columbia Air Liners, would create only three aircraft, one of them the joint product of the three engineers he had brought over. The first of these was the “Uncle Sam” a rather handsome high wing all-metal monoplane, woefully under-powered by Packard 2A-1500 engine. Tremendously overweight, the Uncle Sam cost Levine, whose fortunes were sinking in other areas as well, about $250,000. First tested by the flamboyant Roger Q. Williams, the Uncle Sam was flown less than twenty times (including one flight by Charles “Speed” Holman) before being retired to the Columbia Airliners hangar.

After the Uncle Sam fiasco, Kartveli, Thiebolt and Chagniard all departed for new careers and we come (at last) to the aerial oddity, the Columbia Triad. Designed by Lee Worley, the Triad drew heavily on the aerodynamics of the Columbia. The Triad’s claim to fame was that with relatively little effort it was convertible from a land plane to a sea plane to an “amphibion” as it was termed by the firm. No performance figures were released on the aircraft, which tells you quite a bit about it.

A conventional strut-braced high wing monoplane, well finished in green and cream, the only unusual feature of the land plane version was the Loening-amphibian like placement of the 225 horsepower Wright J5 Whirlwind engine high on the fuselage nose. To change from a sea plane to a land plane, the aircraft was placed on jacks, the float was removed and the landing gear was installed. When the stabilizing wing floats were removed, the aircraft was ready to fly. The amphibian version reportedly had a hydraulically operated retractable gear, but known photographs do not reveal how this operated and the amphibian version may never have gone beyond the brochure stage.

Levine, whatever his faults, was good at brochures. Done in the same green and cream colors as the aircraft, he lyrically asked you to consider yourself “Cruising into an infinity of sky—luxuriously, complacently, speedily—to land in a shaded lagoon of an island in the sea, a wide brown field, a lazy river on the great gray glistening strips of a modern airport… This is the aim and the achievement of the new Columbia ‘Triad’ Amphibion. ..Cruising, as an amphibian, like a great blue goose… Circling as a seaplane, with the grace of a gull…Fleeing, as a land-plane, with a pigeon’s swiftness…”

The final line probably has some Freudian significance in the use of the words “fleeing” and “pigeon,” for Levine spent much of the rest of his life fleeing from pigeons with whom he had done business.

The two Triads were stored in the Columbia Air Liners hangar where the Uncle Sam was already gathering dust. Levine was fourteen months behind on the hangar rental, and the Roosevelt Field management obtained a court order authorizing it to sell the contents of the hangar.

An auction was held on January 19, 1931, with the $250,000 Uncle Sam going for $750, and the Triads and other equipment adding only $2,160 more. These bids were disallowed, and a speculative bid by Paul Gillespie, then a director of the Roosevelt Flying School bought everything for $3,000. Only three weeks later, a fire destroyed the wooden hangars at Roosevelt Field, and all three of the Columbia aircraft were destroyed. It is not known whether Levine had any musical talent or not, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had been seen playing a lyre.

Life did not get any better for Levine, as his businesses and his marriage disintegrated, and the one time millionaire was thrown into a life of petty scams. He disappeared from view, receiving some brief notoriety when in 1934 he was found unconscious in the kitchen of a friend. He had turned on five gas jets in an apparent attempt to commit suicide. In 1937 the erstwhile headliner was back in the news, this time in connection with a Federal charge of smuggling some 5000 pounds of tungsten powder from Canada. He was arrested and found guilty, fined $500, and spent eighteen months in jail.

Levine was fell into trouble on a different border in 1942, different border, this time in what would now be considered a worthy cause. He was charged with assisting in the illegal entry of an alien. The alien was Edward Schinek, a German Jew fleeing from Hitler’s Germany and denied entrance into America by the harsh immigration laws of the time.

Levine worked with the alien’s son, Peter Joseph Walter, to smuggle Schinek into Laredo, Texas from Mexico. Walter illegally obtained the birth certificate of an American citizen, Edward Siegel. A letter was supplied by Levine stating that Schinek, (posing as Siegel) was an American businessman and an old acquaintance of his. Schinek’s wife was later smuggled into the United States at San Ysidro, California, carried in a false gasoline tank built into a car.

This time Levine was found guilty, fined $500, and given a 150 day suspended sentence. He could not come up with the money for the fine, however, and once again disappeared from view. It was not until 1952 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation reopened his case, for he had not paid his fine for smuggling tungsten. A tip off from a former business associate (someone Levine was probably hitting up for a loan) allowed the FBI to find him in April, 1956. Levine, shabby and ill kempt, was unable to pay anything. The case was closed in 1958.

At some point in this sad career, Levine met an older woman who kept him for most of his remaining years. He had a brief reunion with his daughter, but later returned to the care of the woman who had picked him off the street. He died on December 18, 1991, at the age of 94, and his obituary in the New York Times noted that he was the first trans-Atlantic air passenger. They meant, of course, by aircraft.

For all his personal woes, Charles A. Levine gave aviation a Triad of good things. The first was the brief shot in the arm he provided with his record setting flight as a passenger in the Columbia. Next, he did the United States an important favor when he brought two top flight engineers, Kartveli and Thiebolt, to this country. Finally, the firm he founded had of course passed out of his control, but “under new management” as Columbia Aircraft, it went on to build Grumman J2F amphibians for the U.S. Navy during World War II. It also created one monoplane version of that basic design, the Columbia XJL-1, which may still be seen at the Pima Air Museum at Tucson, Arizona. Columbia Aircraft was acquired by Commonwealth Aircraft in 1946.

While Levine paid for his moral lapses by living a long, poverty stricken life in relative obscurity, we should probably be grateful for the positive things he did for aviation in his early years.

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