Clarence Chamberlain: The Race to Cross the Atlantic

Iowa’s Pioneers of the Air

Early airplanes were crude and often unreliable. Flying was dangerous, but many saw the air as a new American frontier. These pioneers of the air were willing to take the chance. Out of their adventures and inventions the science of aviation was born.

One man who earned the title "pioneer of the air" is Clarence Chamberlain, an Iowan who became a hero.

There were three contestants waiting in New York City that spring of 1927. The goal: to be first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. The prize: fame and $25,000. Two flyers had tried and been killed in attempts to fly the Atlantic. Now, three pilots waited for the bad weather over the Atlantic to clear.

Clarence Chamberlain was an experienced flyer from Iowa. He had made his living selling and flying planes since his World War I flight training. He and the Columbia were the popular favorites in the race. The America had a four-man crew led by Richard E. Byrd, who had made the first flight over the North Pole a year before. Finally, there was the Spirit of St. Louis with a former airmail pilot from Illinois, Charles A. Lindbergh.

The pilots waited around the field for days, checking weather reports and making mechanical adjustments on their planes. Then the weather cleared briefly, and Lindbergh took off. Flying alone, he crossed the Atlantic (a distance of 3,610 miles) in thirty-three hours and thirty-four minutes (about a day and a half). The minute he landed in France, Lindbergh became an international hero.

Only two weeks later, Clarence Chamberlain headed out over the Atlantic on a flight which broke Lindbergh's record. With him was the airplane's owner, Charles A. Levine. Levine had kept everything about this flight a big secret, including the destination. No one even knew that Mr. Levine planned to go as a passenger! By the time Chamberlain ran out of gas near Berlin, Germany, he had flown 3,911 miles, in forty-two hours and forty-five minutes. Byrd's effort twenty-four days later failed when fog forced him to land in the ocean near the French coast.

President Calvin Coolidge sent a message of congratulations to Chamberlain. The Brooklyn, New York, Chamber of Commerce gave Wilda, his wife, a check for $15,000. Wilda then took a ship to Europe (which took ten days) to join her husband, who had received $25,000 from Levine for making the trip.

The Chamberlains vacationed in Europe before returning to Iowa. Clarence had been born and raised in Denison, and spent two years at Iowa State College. Now he was coming home a world-famous flyer. The whole town turned out to celebrate!

In the years that followed, Clarence Chamberlain remained one of America's finest aviators. He designed New York City's new municipal airport, Floyd Bennett Field. He manufactured aircraft parts. And, when World War II began, Clarence Chamberlain trained young men and women to fly, just as he had been trained thirty years before.

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 2, No. 1 (September 1980). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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