March 17, 1897, is the birthdate of Charles A. Levine, a New York entrepreneur who became the first passenger to cross the Atlantic on a non-stop flight, just days after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight landed in Paris. Levine was a brash and aggressive businessman, who had entered a competition to fly across the ocean in the hope of promoting his aircraft company, and in fact he might well have beaten Lindbergh if he hadn’t gotten caught up in a lawsuit with one of his pilots.
Charles A. Levine was born in North Adams, Massachusetts, and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He left school early to follow his father into the scrap-metal business. Following World War I, he started his own company, which recycled brass shell casings.
By the age of 30, in 1927, Levine was a millionaire. That same year, he formed the Columbia Aircraft Company, together with aviation engineer Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, who had designed the 225-horsepower, single-engine WB-2 plane for Wright Aeronautical.
When Wright decided to focus on airplane engines, Bellanca took his prototype plane to Levine, who hoped they could put into production as a mail-transport plane (though that was not to happen).
Meanwhile, back in 1919, New York hotelier Raymond Orteig had announced a prize of $25,000 to the first person who piloted a plane non-stop from New York to Paris, or vice versa. When five years passed, and no one had claimed the prize, Orteig extended the contest for another half-decade.
In the spring of 1927, three contenders emerged as serious competitors for the prize money: Charles A. Lindbergh, a 25-year-old air-mail pilot and daredevil; the explorer Richard E. Byrd, Jr.; and Levine.
Beaten to the Parisian punch
Lindbergh was resolved to fly the ocean solo. Levine on the other hand contracted with two pilots, Clarence Chamberlin and Lloyd Bertaud, to fly the Columbia, as his plane was dubbed, to Paris. But while Lindbergh was quietly preparing to depart, Levine found himself slapped with an injunction by Bertaud, who was unhappy with the terms of his contract.
A court hearing was held on May 20, and the injunction was quickly lifted. But by then Lindbergh was already in the air. He landed at Le Bourget air field in Paris the following evening, on May 21, 1927, and won the Orteig purse.
Levine now decided to have his plane fly to Berlin, a longer distance than the route to Paris. As he had fallen out with Bertaud, he turned the question of who would be Chamberlin’s co-pilot into a public mystery, thus sustaining interest in his mission.
On June 4, 1927, the Columbia took off from Roosevelt Field, on Long Island, with Clarence Chamberlin manning the controls – and Levine himself as passenger, unbeknownst even to his wife until he was already in the air.
The pair were in the air for 43 hours. They ran out of fuel 100 miles short of Berlin, landing in a field in Eisleben, Germany.
A woman’s charity
For a brief time, Charles Levine was a focus of publicity, but as Lindbergh went on to become one of America’s most well-known and admired – at least for a time – hero-celebrities, Levine got caught up in one ignominious episode after another.
After the stock market crash of 1929, the U.S. government sued Levine for a half-million dollars in unpaid taxes. During the 1930s, he was arrested for counterfeiting French coins, for violating workmen’s compensation laws, and was sought by police in connection with the theft of stock from his company. In 1934, he tried committing suicide (and failed), and three years later, he was given a two-year prison sentence after being convicted of smuggling tungsten powder into the U.S.
Finally, in 1942, he was arrested for smuggling a German citizen from Mexico into the U.S. He claimed that the man was a Jew who had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp, and the man was released. Levine, however, disappeared without paying a fine, and for some years was pursued by FBI agents.
Levine lingered for nearly another 50 years, but out of the public eye. He apparently lost all his property, and survived only because a Washington, D.C., woman took him in. He died in Washington on December 6, 1991, at the age of 94.