When the United States cut off diplomatic relations with China, the Chinese government in turn cut off diplomatic relations with the United States.

The Columbia Triad was a term coined in the early 20th century to describe the evolutions of three railroads in the United States: the Northern Pacific Railroad, the Great Northern Railway, and the Union Pacific Railroad. Although the three lines never connected in a single rail network, they did fold together to form a common company in 1883. This union allowed the three lines to better compete with the two larger railroads, the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern, and allowed them to compete with each other as well, making it the largest railroad system in the world at the time. The three lines would later become part of the Burlington Northern, and this is the modern day Columbia Triad.

In the mid-1800s, many newly-arrived immigrants from Europe–the United States–found themselves stranded in the port city of Baltimore, Maryland. Unable to afford passage on the large, deep-sea clipper ships that carried people and trade goods, they were forced to take whatever transport might be available. For many, that meant walking across the city to slums on the other side, where wagons and carts were available to carry them to places far less costly than the train.

The ‘convertible’ Columbia Triad was one of Charles Levine’s aircraft businesses’ revolutionary products.

From the Wright brothers to today’s military pilots, the list of aviation heroes that America has embraced is infinite. The United States has a thing for adventurers, and has almost universally accepted the smiling, clean-living, swashbuckling aviator. Even those with perceived character flaws, such as the acerbic Douglas “Wrong-Way” Corrigan, the unapproachable Howard Hughes, the libidinous and bibulous Bert Acosta, or the occasionally unverifiable and often aloof Richard Byrd, were largely accepted with good humor, valued for what they accomplished rather than how they behaved.

However, there have been a few, a very few, who have struck the wrong note and alienated the public, never achieving the success they clearly desired. Foreigners such as Jules Védrines and René Fonck are among them, but Charles A. Levine is the most prominent among American fliers.

Levine was born in 1897 in North Adams, Massachusetts, but grew up in Brooklyn, where he worked at his father’s scrap metal business. In 1917, he founded his own company and became a millionaire in his early twenties thanks to a salvage contract with the War Department that involved purchasing and disposing of old shell casings. (He was also said to be a “arms czar” who dealt in live munitions.) He got into airplane manufacture and took flying instruction in the mid-1920s. He, like many others before him, lost money in aviation, but he also made some profitable investments.

The Columbia Aircraft Corporation was founded by Levine, who also acquired the exquisite Wright Bellanca WB.2 Columbia and the talents of its genius designer, Giuseppe Bellanca. The Columbia, which first flew in 1926, was a better-looking and performing plane than the Ryan N.Y.P. Spirit of St. Louis, and it was Charles A. Lindbergh’s first choice for his planned transatlantic journey. When Lindbergh was given Columbia for $15,000, he rushed to Levine’s opulent offices on the 46th story of the Woolworth Building to purchase it. Lindy’s disappointment and outrage when Levine insisted that he would only sell if he could pick the pilot has been reported many times. On April 12, 1927, Levine planned to utilize Clarence Chamberlain, who would set an endurance record of 51 hours, 11 minutes, and 20 seconds with Bert Acosta in Columbia. Of course, Lindbergh went on to assist in the design and construction of Ryan’s Spirit of St. Louis, winning the Orteig Prize for flying from New York to Paris on May 20-21, 1927.

The ‘Convertible’ Columbia Triad Clarence Chamberlain (left), hand-picked to pilot his Bellanca WB.2 ‘Columbia,’ traveled from New York to Berlin with Levine as a surprise co-pilot. (Getty Images/Ullstein Bild) )

One of Levine’s regular legal issues kept Columbia out of the transatlantic race. He had made a deal with Lloyd W. Bertaud to fly with Chamberlain, but Bertaud and Levine evidently had a falling out. After Levine threatened to replace Bertaud, the latter obtained an injunction barring Columbia from attempting the transatlantic crossing without him. On September 7, 1927, Bertaud, airmail pilot James D. Hill, and Philip Payne died in an ill-fated transatlantic attempt with the Fokker F.VIIA Old Glory.

Levine was disappointed but not disheartened by Lindbergh’s success, and he resolved to use Columbia’s superior endurance to outshine him by flying from New York to Berlin. He piqued media interest even more by refusing to reveal the identity of the “mystery passenger” who would accompany Chamberlain on the flight. Levine solved the puzzle on June 4, 1927, by getting into the seat next to Chamberlain, who cranked the motor and took off. It had obviously been kept a closely guarded secret; when Levine’s wife understood what had transpired, she passed out.

Levine, as unpleasant as he may be at times, was not without courage. At the controls, he periodically misspelled Chamberlain as they flew nonstop to Eisleben, Germany, roughly 100 miles southwest of Berlin, traveling 3,911 miles in 43 hours, 49 minutes, and 33 seconds. After being congratulated by the locals, the daring duo sipped some coffee, filled up their virtually empty tanks with 20 liters of gasoline, and set off again, this time for Berlin. This time they arrived in Kottbus, which would subsequently become the home of a Focke Wulf manufacturing. A third effort landed them at Tempelhof Airport, where they were met by a mob of 10,000 applauding Germans. Levine and Chamberlain were celebrated with a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue when they returned home.

Chamberlain was received by President Calvin Coolidge at the White House, while Levine was ignored. The Jewish community, which had been honoring Levine as its own first hero of the air with song and story, was angry. His accomplishment is recognized on the website http://www.yiddishradioproject.org/exhibits/levine, which also has some of the songs created in his honor.

Chamberlain, on the other hand, was as well-liked as Levine was despised. He would go on to have a prominent career in aviation, setting several records, serving as an industry consultant, and forming his own firms, one of which purchased twin-engine Curtiss Condor biplane transporters to use in barnstorming shows.

By 1928, Levine’s personal fame had peaked, but he had yet to provide the biggest service to American aviation. He had met Alexander Kartveli, Armand Thiebolt, and Edmund Chagniard while in Europe, and they had tried to persuade him of the benefits of a seven-engine, 100,000-pound gross weight airliner that would fly people nonstop from New York to Paris. Even the flamboyant Levine found their grandiose scheme a little much. However, recognizing the three men’s abilities, he decided to bring them to the United States to work for his new company, Columbia Air Lines Inc.

The ‘Convertible’ Columbia Triad The shapely, all-metal monoplane dubbed “Uncle Sam” was the first of Levine’s trio of engineers’ three aircraft. The underpowered plane barely flew a few times before being sold for a pittance to assist Levine pay off his debts. (Image courtesy of HistoryNet Archives)

Kartveli rose to prominence as a result of his work with Alexander de Seversky and later Republic Aviation, whilst Thiebolt worked for Fokker, General Aviation, and Fairchild. Chagniard would be involved in the design of one of Levine’s own planes. There would never have been a Republic P-47 or a Fairchild C-119 if Levine hadn’t noticed their potential.

Levine’s renamed company, Columbia Air Liners, would only produce three planes, one of which would be a collaboration amongst the three engineers he had brought over from Europe. Uncle Sam was the first of them, a lovely high-wing, all-metal monoplane with a Packard 2A-1500 engine that was hopelessly underpowered. Uncle Sam, who was severely overweight, cost Levine nearly $250,000. His riches were slipping in other areas as well. Uncle Sam was first flown by Roger Q. Williams on April 18, 1929, and was only flown a total of 20 times (including one by Charles “Speed” Holman) before being relegated to the Columbia hangar. Kartveli, Thiebolt, and Chagniard all left the company after the Uncle Sam affair.

The Triad was the firm’s second effort. The Triad, designed by Lee Worley, was significantly influenced by Columbia’s aerodynamics. The new design’s claim to fame was that it could be transformed from a landplane to a seaplane to a “amphibion,” as the business called it, with comparatively little effort. The aircraft’s performance data were not publicized, which tells us a lot about the design and building process at Columbia. It flew for the first time in late 1929 or early 1930, according to documents.

The Triad was a high-wing, strut-braced monoplane with a green and cream finish. The Loening amphibian-like location of the 225-hp Wright J5 Whirlwind engine high on the fuselage nose was the single distinctive characteristic of the landplane version. The aircraft was placed on jacks, the float and stabilizing wing floats were removed, and the landing gear was mounted to convert it from a seaplane to a landplane. The amphibious variant was said to include hydraulically controlled retractable gear, although there are no photos of how it worked. It’s conceivable that the amphibious variant was never developed further than a brochure.

The ‘Convertible’ Columbia Triad By eliminating the centerline float and wing sponsons, the Columbia “Triad” could be converted to a “landplane.” (Image courtesy of HistoryNet Archives)

Regardless of his problems or personality issues, Levine was a master at promotional brochures. The sales leaflet in this case was fashioned in the same green and cream colors as the plane, and he eloquently invited potential buyers to contemplate themselves. “Cruising into an infinite sky—luxuriously, complacently, quickly—to land in a shaded lagoon of a sea island, a large brown meadow, a meandering river, or the great gray shimmering strips of a contemporary airport….This is the goal and achievement of the new Columbia ‘Triad’ Amphibion…. Cruising like a large blue goose….Circling like a gull, with the elegance of a gull….Fleeing like a pigeon, with the speed of a pigeon.” (In retrospect, the choice of the terms “escaping” and “pigeon” in the final line may have some Freudian meaning, given that Levine spent most of the remainder of his life fleeing from pigeons with whom he had done business.)

Two Triads were manufactured and then housed in the same hangar as Uncle Sam, which was already dusty. Roosevelt Field’s administration secured a court order permitting it to sell the contents of the hangar after Levine fell 14 months behind on the hangar rental.

On January 19, 1931, an auction was held, with Uncle Sam fetching $750 and the two Triads and other equipment fetching barely $2,160 more. However, these bids were rejected, and a speculative bid by Paul Gillespie, a director of the Roosevelt Flying School at the time, bought everything for $3,000. Three weeks later, however, a fire at Roosevelt Field destroyed the wooden hangars and all three Columbia planes inside.

After then, Levine’s life did not get any better. His enterprises and marriage fell apart, and the one-time millionaire vanished from the public eye. In 1934, he gained some popularity after being discovered asleep in the kitchen of a friend’s home. The once-famous headliner was back in the news in 1937, this time in connection with a Federal allegation of smuggling 5,000 pounds of tungsten powder from Canada into the United States. He was arrested and found guilty, and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and a $500 fine.

In 1942, Levine got himself into difficulty on a separate border, this time for a cause that would now be regarded justified. He was accused of facilitating in the illegal admission into the United States of an alien, Edward Schinek, a German Jew escaping Adolf Hitler’s Germany, who had been previously denied entry.

To sneak the émigré into Laredo, Texas, Levine collaborated with Schinek’s son, Peter Joseph Walter. Walter procured an American citizen’s birth certificate, Edward Siegel’s, unlawfully. Schinek (appearing as Siegel) was an American businessman and an old acquaintance of Levine’s, according to a letter he sent. Schinek’s wife was later smuggled into the United States via a phony fuel tank put inside a car in San Ysidro, Calif.

This time, Levine was found guilty, fined $500, and sentenced to 150 days in prison with a 150-day suspension. He was unable to come up with the fine money, and he vanished from view once more.

Because the elusive Levine had not paid his punishment for smuggling tungsten 15 years before, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reopened his case in 1952. In April 1956, the FBI was able to track down the former aircraft executive thanks to a tip from a former business associate. In court, Levine seemed unkempt and unkempt, and he was unable to pay anything toward his fine. In 1958, the matter was ultimately closed.

Levine met a woman at some point along his downward spiral who agreed to support him for the majority of his remaining years— and he did have many years left. He had a brief reunion with his daughter at one point, but he was soon returned to the woman’s care, who had evidently picked him up from the street. When Levine died on December 18, 1991, at the age of 94, his New York obituary highlighted that he was the first transatlantic flying passenger.

The ‘Convertible’ Columbia Triad The XJL-1, Columbia’s proposed monoplane replacement for the Grumman J2F Duck, can be seen in the foreground of this photo, demonstrating Levine’s impact. (Navy of the United States of America)

Charles A. Levine, despite his personal problems, made a positive contribution to aviation. His record-setting journey as a transatlantic passenger in Columbia was the first shot in the arm he gave. Then he did the United States a huge favor by bringing two top flight engineers, Kartveli and Thiebolt, to the country. After the company he started had passed out of his hands but been renamed Columbia Aircraft, it went on to manufacture Grumman J2F amphibious assault ships for the US Navy during WWII.

The Columbia XJL-1 is a monoplane variation of the basic design that can still be seen at the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona. Commonwealth Aircraft bought Columbia Aircraft in 1946.

 

The article first appeared in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, go to this link.  

The Columbia Triad is an old term that often gets used in discussions of the Civil War, but it is not actually well understood. I recently came across an article that claims the Columbia Triad was a group of three Confederate officials who were in cahoots with each other – but it was really only a three-man team. The article goes on to say that the idea that there was a three-man team is a myth created by the Union during the war, and that the real truth is that there were only two men in the team.. Read more about triad healthcare partners and let us know what you think.

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