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Chamberlin, Clarence Duncan

Published onJul 30, 2021
Chamberlin, Clarence Duncan

(November 11, 1893- October 30, 1976)

Quick Facts

In the 1920s Chamberlin set several aviation records. He was the first pilot to take a passenger across the Atlantic Ocean and the first to fly non-stop from New York City to Berlin.

Chamberlin and Thea Rasche circa 1927-28. Source:

The aviator Clarence Duncan Chamberlin was born and raised in Denison, Iowa. He graduated high school and studied at the Normal and Business College there before studying engineering at Iowa State College. He took an interest in engineering from childhood. According to a retrospective published in his home town's newspaper after his death, "As a boy he worked in his father's jewelry store and helped him operate the first automobile ever seen in Denison, a one-cylinder Oldsmobile that had a handlebar instead of a steering wheel." After college he returned to Denison to operate "a motorcycle shop and Reo automobile agency." He was also a chauffeur during this time and "a guide to motorists pioneering on the cross continental highway through Denison."

It was the First World War that acquainted him with flying machines. Indeed, he was eager to serve. On a questionnaire filled out in April 1917 he estimated that he would need only "10 minutes" before leaving his "business for an indefinite period should the Government need" him in the war. He enlisted in Des Moines on Dec. 1, 1917 and, although he was not sent to Europe because of the Armistice, had been promoted to Second Lieutenant in the Air Service's Aeronautics Regiment by the time he was discharged in May 1919. (Another account of his service states that, when volunteers were requested at the outbreak of the war, he sold his business and enlisted in the Balloon Corps in Omaha, Nebraska and was later transferred to the Aviation Corps.) After the war, he began his career in aviation taking the visitors of local fairs and celebrations on rides and performing stunts. He would return to this venture during the Great Depression in order to make a living.

In the 1920s Chamberlin set several aviation records. He was the first pilot to take a passenger across the Atlantic Ocean and the the first to fly non-stop from New York City to Berlin (making him the second pilot, after Charles Lindbergh, to cross the Atlantic). With "another famous flyer of that day, Bert Acosta," set the record for keeping a plane aloft – 52 hours and 11 minutes, above Long Island. He was also the first pilot to deliver mail by airplane from an ocean liner to land.

Chamberlin's passenger on the flight to Berlin was his backer, Charles Levine, who manufactured aircraft in New York. He paid Chamberlin $10,000 for the flight, in addition to the $15,000 that he would earn from a prize offered by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce to fly to Berlin. The flight lasted forty-two hours and thirty-one minutes. The journey included as much adventure as any of Lindbergh's, and perhaps more drama. It began on June 4, 1927 when the weather became favorable enough. Levine arrived at the airfield that day in a business suit and either had informed no one of his plans to fly with Chamberlin as a passenger or decided to do so at the last minute. Early in the flight the earth indicator compass, which cost $1,125, broke. Over England Chamberlin encountered clouds, rose to 20,000 feet, and passed Levine the controls; "After 15 minutes the plane went into a steep and dizzy spiral that threatened to tear off the tail." He flew low over Dortmund, Germany, to ask the way to Berlin. It was not in sight when the gasoline ran out, so they landed in a wheat field near the village of Mansfeldt, near Eisleben. A woman and two boys who encountered them ran away, believing them to be kidnappers; one boy later came back and bicycled to Eisleben to order fuel. The pilot and his passenger departed, but without having been able to find a map of Germany. They flew past Berlin and landed in a soggy field at one of its suburbs, where the plane's wheels sank and its propeller broke.

Chamberlin and Levine's relationship was occasionally difficult. Levine owned Chamberlin's plane and, although Chamberlin perhaps could have beat Lindberg to Paris – and collected the $25,000 prize instead – Levine frequently changed his mind, even deciding "that Chamberlin would not be his Trans-Atlantic pilot because he was not a 'movie type' and 'would not film well after the big adventure,'" according to the retrospective published in Denison after Chamberlin's death. However, the airplane's designer, Guiseppe M. Ballanca, insisted that Chamberlin be Levine's pilot. This decision was made before Lindberg departed for Paris, but due to the scheduling of a court hearing to consider an injunction won by another pilot with whom Levine had a contract, Lloyd W. Bertaud, he could not be challenged. These tensions inspired the secrecy of the flight to Berlin.

Congress authorized the President to present Chamberlin and Levine with gold medals for the feat. Chamberlin was feted upon his arrival back in Iowa. He toured the state and visited the Iowa State Fair. In Denison, according to the city's newspaper, a crowd of 20,000 greeted him. Governor John Hamill commissioned Chamberlin a lieutenant colonel. Iowa State College awarded him an honorary certificate, Distinguished Engineering Service. Although aviation in the 1920s is commonly regarded as part of the forward-looking, modern side of the decade, after his successes Chamberlin was praised for being an exemplar of traditional values and masculinity. For example, the Denison Review wrote that, "The youth of today can look to Chamberlin as an example of an ordinary country boy who without financial backing has risen to prominence in his chosen field of endeavor" who "does not indulge in either smoking or the use of intoxicating beverages" and was "possessed however of grit and determination and has always shown the spirit of accomplishing anything which he starts out to do."

In 1928 Chamberlin became the city aeronautic engineer of New York, his first task being the establishment of a municipal airport on Barren Island, Floyd Bennet Field. He also served on a special committee with Orville Wright and Lindberg to investigate the army's carrying of the airmail, especially its usage of flying with and without navigation and at night. The technological aspects of flying were one of Chamberlin's major interests. He said of his flight to Berlin that, “it was about 10 per cent courage and the rest confidence in the work of the greatest aeronautical engineer in the country.” Resolving the army's airmail difficulties with improved technology would allow the United States to enter "a new era in commerce," he said in 1934.

Chamberlin encouraged aviation's technological development through his own enterprises. He was president of the Crescent Aeronautical Corporation, which manufactured an airplane designed for training pilots and another to transport passengers, called the "Chamberlin." The Chamberlin Technical Bureau served as a source of information on all subjects related to aviation for anyone interested in it. The bureau encouraged flying through the Chamberlin flying clubs, in which people bought a plane together (often the "Chamberlin") and learned to fly. He also planned to develop a series of flying schools attached to a network of airports around the country.

Chamberlin's colleagues appreciated his interest in aeronautical engineering and instruments. When Richard E. Byrd flew over the south pole, none of the three compasses on board his plane worked. This reminded him of the compass that broke at the beginning of Chamberlin's flight to Berlin, so Byrd named a new harbor that he ended up discovering after his colleague. On July 24, 1976, a few months before his death, Chamberlin was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame at Dayton, Ohio. Chamberlin died due to complications from a routine flu shot, and was buried at Lawn Cemetery in Huntington, Connecticut.

Selected Sources

Clarence Chamberlin: Fly First & Fight Afterward, a documentary by independent filmmaker Billy Tooma, covers, in great depth, Chamberlin's life and historic transatlantic flight. The film saw its world première on April 21, 2011 at the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival and was nominated for the National Aviation Hall of Fame's 2011 Combs-Gates Award. The documentary was recut in 2017, in honor of the 90th anniversary of Chamberlin's flight, and re-released under its new title.

The National Aviation Hall of Fame:

Iowa Aviation Museum:

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