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The Spirit of St. Louis vs. The Columbia

Lesson: Honor your relationships

When Charles Lindbergh returned to St. Louis, Harold Bixby noted the despondent despair evident all over his face. Levine of Columbia had dealt a crushing blow to Lindbergh after stipulating that the only way to attain their Bellana single-engine plane, was to allow Levine the privilege of choosing the pilot. Levine wanted control over every aspect of the mission. Despite Lindy’s experience in flying long stretches at night, his hard months of work building a team to attain the money, and his idea to use a single-engine plane rather than a 3-engine one, Levine did not believe Lindbergh capable of accomplishing the arduous task.

Added to this was Levine’s hubris. Levine believe he and his company should be at the helm, not some mail carrier from St. Louis. This was to be a historic event and the man to do it should be worthy of it. Inasmuch as Lindbergh was excited and motivated to expand mankind's’ capabilities, Levine was motivated by avarice and fame.

The Spirit of St. Louis, team, however, was not “whipped yet.” At least according to Harold Bixby. He had seen first hand how competent a pilot Lindbergh was, and he had grown to admire his steadfast determination, along with the courage it would take to cross the Atlantic in a single engine plane. Bixby was not going to allow Lindy to quit so readily.

When Lindy attempted to persuade the team to switch their focus to a record-breaking distance flight over the Pacific, Bixby said with equanimity, “Let’s stay with the Paris flight.”

Lindbergh had inspired his team, and now, seeing the audacious young pup beaten down, they chose to lift him up. There were hurdles ahead, but hardly daunting considering what Lindbergh had already overcome. They now had money, they had a support team, but they had no plane.

Charlie Levine had it all. He took Lindbergh’s concept of a single-engine plane and he added a passenger seat so that he could join as a passenger. Levine was bound and determined to be the first man to fly over the Atlantic.

He sent telegrams to promoters all over America, stating that he, Charlie Levine, CEO of Columbia Aircraft Company, was now in the race to Paris. He spoke of the courage it would take to accomplish this with a plane that had only one engine. He spoke of his training and experience. He hired two pilots, but refused to speak about which one would actually pilot the Bellanca plane. His reasoning being that he desired both men to put all their hearts into the effort. He even named the plane after his company, Columbia.

As always The Spirit of St. Louis team set out with singular determination. They did not shout about their efforts. Lindbergh did not praise himself. His team would do that for him. Within a few weeks they found a company called Ryan Air, which was as unknown as Lindbergh. They sold a single engine plane to the Lindbergh team for $10,000. This would be the plane that on May 16, 1927, Lucky Lindy would make his historic flight.

On that same day, while Lindy and his team were prepping for flight, Charlie Levine and his team was prepping for flight too. Just as Lindbergh exited the terrestrial plane into a heavenly one, Levine was yelling at his team like a tyrant to servants. His two pilots were bickering about who should fly the plane. Both men, after all, had worked equally hard. Mr. Bellanca was weary of Levine’s self-promotion. Even their navigator defected to the crew led by the polar explorer, Admiral Byrd.

On June 4th, 1927, after settling the disputes the best he could, Levine and pilot Clarence Chamberlin lifted off—to make the second nonstop flight from New York to Paris. About as admirable as the five millionth one.

In a twist of historical irony, Levine’s plane would pass directly over the U.S. Memphis. Aboard the ship was a resplendent Lindbergh, returning home to a parade in his honor.



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