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Iowa History Daily: April 12 - Clarence Chamberlin Flies High

Iowa History Daily: On April 12, 1927, Denison’s own Clarence Duncan Chamberlin soared to national fame when he flew his monoplane for 51 hours and eleven consecutive minutes. The flight smashed the world nonstop flying record by six hours.

Chamberlin developed an interest in all things mechanical while working on his family’s car, the first automobile owned by a Denison resident. The son of a jeweler, Chamberlin also developed his fascination with intricate systems while tinkering with watches and clocks in his father’s shop. He went on to attend Denison High School and the Denison Normal and Business College.

During his time in college, Chamberlin worked nights at the Ankeny power sub-station for the Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern Railroad Company. Often eating, sleeping, and studying on trains in the times between classes and work, Chamberlin decided to leave college in 1914 to open a Harley-Davidson shop in Denison. The business thrived, and by 1916 he added automobiles and tires to the dealership. He also married Independence, Iowa’s Wilda Bogert during the years prior to World War I.

When the Great War started, Chamberlin enlisted in the Army Signal Corps in the hopes of training as an aviator. Encouraged by the recruiter to try his skills as a military balloonist, Chamberlin declined and returned to Denison while he waited for a slot in military flight school. On March 16, 1918, he received orders to report to the School of Military Aeronautics at Champaign, Illinois. By July 15, 1918, Chamberlin completed school and received commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Signal Air Corps. By the time he finished out flight school, the war also found itself at an end.

Returning to Denison, Chamberlin struggled to return to ground-bound life. After a year of frittering away in the family jewelry business, the young pilot decided to buy an airplane from famous early aviator Giuseppe Mario Bellanca for $4,000. Chamberlin made a living barnstorming around the county to showcase his plane and flying skills, even offering rides to daring individuals willing to shell out $15. He also supplemented his income working as a flight instructor, air-mail pilot, aerial photographer, and refurbisher of surplus Army planes.

Looking for greater riches and fame led to the famous April 12 endurance flight. Taking off from Roosevelt Field in New York City at 9:30 a.m., Chamberlin lifted off with 375 gallons of fuel and cruised the skies over Long Island for the following 51 hours, 11 minutes, and 25 seconds. The flight served as preparation for a hoped-for excursion from New York to Paris to capture the $25,000 Raymond Orteig Prize offered to the first aviator to complete the journey.

Ultimately, Charles Lindbergh captured the prize when he flew “The Spirit of St. Louis” across the Atlantic during May of 1927. Chamberlin did pilot “The Miss Columbia” from New York to Germany on June 4, marking the second fixed-wing Trans-Atlantic flight and the first to carry a passenger. The flight also set a new distance record of 3,911 miles in 42 hours and 45 minutes. A true aviation pioneer, Chamberlin accomplished another ‘first’ when he used the SS Leviathan as the first ship to serve as a runway. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar #IowaOTD


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