Iowans Breaking Records: or, how Clarence Chamberlin almost gave Charles Lindbergh a run for his money–then outdid him

Here at Iowa State University, many of our students and staff as well as many of our other readers may be flying today to visit family and friends for the Thanksgiving holiday. In honor of Aviation Month, here is the story of an early Iowa State flier.

You’ve probably heard something about Charles Lindbergh… the Spirit of St. Louis, the solo trans-Atlantic flight to Paris, the international acclaim. But did you know that, but for legal squabbles, Iowa State University’s own Clarence Chamberlin might have beat Lindy to Paris?

Clarence D. Chamberlin in 1927

Clarence D. Chamberlin in 1927.

Who was Clarence Chamberlin? Born in Denison, Iowa, in 1893, Chamberlin studied electrical engineering at Iowa State College (University) for two years beginning in 1916. He learned to fly during World War I when he enlisted in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, and he had just received orders to head to Europe when the war ended. He was so taken with flying that after the war, he purchased his own plane and flew around the country barnstorming, which means giving sight-seeing flights to passengers and/or stunt flying.

Chamberlin had dreamed of making a trans-Atlantic flight ever since the New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize in 1919 for the first pilot to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris. It wasn’t until eight years later that he got a chance.

In 1927, Chamberlin began working as a test pilot for the Columbia Aircraft Corporation, founded by his friend Guiseppe Bellanca and Charles Levine. In April of that year, Chamberlin set a new world record for endurance by flying a Bellanca monoplane for 51 hours and 11 minutes straight with another test pilot, Bert Acosta. After this success showing what the plane was capable of, there was talk of trying for the Orteig prize.

Unfortunately, Bellanca and Levine, the owners of the company–and the plane they would be flying–argued over who should pilot the flight. Levine did not want Chamberlin to fly and chose as his replacement Lloyd W. Bertaud, a U.S. Air Mail pilot. Chamberlin explains in his book Record Flights, that Levine felt that “Acosta and Bertaud, who were both tall and powerfully built in contrast to my own slender physique, would make a much better screen impression than I and ought to make the flight together because of the motion picture offers that would pour in as soon as they landed in Paris” (23). Bellanca, the plane’s designer, flatly refused because Chamberlin was such a good pilot, weighed less, and knew his plane so well.

Yet, there continued to be disagreement over which two of the three men would pilot the flight until the christening of the Columbia, the plane that was to make the flight. Levine’s nine-year-old daughter Eloyse had the honor of performing the christening, and afterwards she asked if she and her friend, the fifteen-year-old Grace Jonas could be taken for a ride in the plane. As the plane took off, a pin in the plane’s left shock absorber came off, causing the landing gear to become useless. Mechanics on the ground saw what had happened and sent up another plane to signal to Chamberlin of the problem. He was able to make a safe landing, in spite of expectations of a crash, much to the relief of Eloyse’s mother! Shortly after this episode, Acosta sent a letter or resignation to Levine, noting that Chamberlin’s skill in safely landing the plane carrying his daughter and her friend was proof enough that Chamberlin should pilot the plane to Europe.

The Columbia was repaired, many test runs were taken, and other teams were trying without success to take the flight from New York to Paris. Finally all was ready for take-off when both weather and internal dissension stopped the proposed flight in its tracks. Bertaud objected to a contract Levine had forced on the two pilots, and legal action grounded the Columbia in its hangar at Roosevelt Field on May 20.

The very same day, from the very same airport, Charles Lindbergh took off in the Spirit of St. Louis bound for Paris. Chamberlin stood watching from the sidelines.

But that’s not the end of Chamberlin’s story. Levine proposed paying Chamberlin $25,000 (the amount of the Orteig prize) to go as Chamberlin’s passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight. Two weeks later, in the first week of June, the two finally set off in the Columbia. Anxious to show what the Bellanca plane was capable of, Chamberlin made Berlin his destination, a good distance further from New York than Paris.

The plane made it as far as Eisleben, Germany, before they had to land to refuel, flying some 300 miles further than Lindbergh and setting a new world record for longest non-stop flight and the first trans-Atlantic flight with a passenger. After refueling they pushed on to Berlin, landing on June 7, 1927, to a crowd of 150,000 admirers.

Clarence Chamberlin (left) and Mr. Charles Levine (right) leaving the President's Palace in Berlin, Germany, with Mr. Jacob Gould Schurmann, the American Ambassador on September 6, 1927

Clarence Chamberlin (left) and Charles Levine (right) leaving the President’s Palace in Berlin, Germany, with Mr. Jacob Gould Schurmann, the American Ambassador on September 6, 1927. P. & A. Photo.

Admirers were thick at home, as well. Iowa State College (University) Division of Engineering presented Chamberlin with an honorary Certificate of Distinguished Engineering Service in the fall of that year, in recognition of his achievement. He was also honored at a banquet in New York, along with the crew of America, another plane that made the trans-Atlantic crossing after Lindbergh.

For more information, including photographs, newspaper clippings, and correspondence, see the Clarence D. Chamberlin alumni file in RS 21/7/6. To read about his adventure in his own words, check out: Chamberlin, Clarence D. Record Flights. Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company, 1928. Iowa State University Library, General Collection and Special Collections, Call number TL540 C355r.

If you are interested in our other aviation related collections, check out our Aviation Collection Guide:

One thought on “Iowans Breaking Records: or, how Clarence Chamberlin almost gave Charles Lindbergh a run for his money–then outdid him

  1. Pingback: Introducing your 2014 ISU Special Collections Blog | Special Collections Department Blog, Iowa State University Library

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