Airplanes – Jewish flyers and inventors

Did Jews have a major part in  developing human flight? The answer is  yes and no.

The best-known Jewish flight pioneer  is the German, Otto Lilienthal, the first  man in history to design controllable  gliders. As one article titled, “A Jew Flew  before the Wright Brothers,” explains,  “During the course of over 2,000  flights, he gathered the aero-dynamical  information of his book, ‘Birdflight as  the Basis for Aviation,’ that helped the  Wright brothers launch their first powered  plane in 5663/1903.”

One of his great discoveries was that  the curved shape of birds’ wings helps  significantly in providing the lift that takes  them to the heavens. This is due to the  “Bernoulli Principle of Fluid Dynamics,”  which, although only discovered in the  eighteenth century, had been helping  birds take wing since maasei Bereishis. 

Like many nineteenth century  inventors and scientists, Lilienthal  believed that modernity would lead to  universal world peace and unity, writing  in a letter that:      “I, too, have made it a lifelong task  of mine to add a cultural element to my  work, which should result in uniting  countries and reconciling their people.

“Our experience of today’s civilization  suffers from the fact that it only happens  on the surface of the earth,” he continued.  “We have invented barricades between  our countries, custom regulations, and  constraints and complicated traffic laws  and these are only possible because we  are not in control of the ‘kingdom of the  air’, and not as ‘free as a bird’…”

Lilienthal was convinced that once  aerial flight destroyed the artificial  borders between countries, linguistic  differences would disappear as human  mobility increased. National defense  and warfare would cease to devour the  resources of nations since it would, in  any case, be impossible to mount any  defense against aerial attack and “the  necessity of resolving disagreements  among nations in some other way than  by bloody battles would, in its turn, lead  us to eternal peace.”

He would have been appalled to learn  that, in future years, the chief impetus  to aircraft development would be their  utilization as ruthless war machines.  Although Lilienthal planned to attach  motors to his flimsy contraptions, no  engines in his time were light enough for  aircraft use and his plans came to nothing.

Then, during August 5656/1896, his  dreams of reaching the clouds evaporated  when one of his gliders stalled and  crashed. He died in a Berlin hospital the  next day.

However, it is by no means certain  that Lilienthal was Jewish after all. As  one author writes, “There is nothing but  the name to support the belief that Otto  Lilienthal, who advanced the idea of a  heavier-than-air flying machine, was a  Jew.”

If the belief that a Jew flew airplanes  before the Wright brothers is indeed a  legend, credit to being the first Jewish  aeronaut must go to David Schwartz,  inventor of the aluminum coated,  rigid, cigar-shaped Zeppelin that, by  all rights, should have been called the  Schwartzellen.

David Schwartz, a Hungarian Jew,  was an inventor though he earned his  living in the timber trade during the  5640s/1880s. He busied himself on  the side with aeronautical engineering,  eventually spending so much time on this  project that his wife had to support the  family. Schwartz’s first attempt to build  his craft was in St. Petersburg, Russia,  during 5653/1893. It failed when the  whole framework collapsed as it was  being filled with gas.

Afterwards, his manufacturer, Carl  Berg, procured a contract to build the  contraption for Prussia, and work began  in 5655/1895 at the Tempelhof Field  in Berlin. Schwartz never lived to see  the first successful test flight that took  place on November 3, 5657/1897, as he  had died from heart failure ten months  earlier.

According to popular reports of  his life, when the German government  became interested in his flying and he  was handed their official telegram, “the  excitement was too much for him… he  collapsed and died in the street.” This  is patently false; work on the Prussian  project had been underway for over a  year by that time.

Eventually, Count Ferdinand Graf von  Zeppelin took over the rigid balloon idea,  some claiming that he bought the patent  from Schwartz’s widow while others  argued that he did not. The fearsome  aircraft he developed became known as  Zeppelins. No one watching swastika emblazoned  zeppelins sailing through  pre-World War II skies would have  believed that a Jew invented them.

The first Jew to fl y motorized heavier than-  air flying machines was Russian born  Leibel Wellcher. After a stint in  the US navy, where he was known as Al  Welsh, and after a few more years slaving  behind a desk as a bookkeeper, he became  fascinated by the Wright Brothers’ aerial  feats and wrote to them, begging for  a flying job. When they turned down  his written applications due to lack of  qualifications, he personally traveled to  their headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, and  persuaded them. He joined their first  flying class in 5670/1910 and became a  top-flight instructor at the Wright Flying  School.

Like many early aviators, his flying  career did not last long. Shortly after six  o’clock on June 11, 5672/1912, American  soldiers wheeled the most advanced  Wright Model C machine out in front of a  long line of army hangars. The army was  willing to buy airplanes on condition they  could climb 2,000 feet within ten minutes  while carrying a payload of 450 pounds.  Welsh’s job was to push the machine to  its limits.

“I am going to make that climb tonight  or know the reason why,” he exclaimed,  as he tuned up the prototype’s engine. “I  am tired of fooling.”

A few minutes later, he and a  passenger were climbing upwards at  the almost unprecedented speed of 45  miles an hour. Then, as he dived to gain  increased momentum, the plane’s wings  buckled under the strain, and it dropped  nose first into a field of daisies, killing  its occupants. Welsh was buried in the  old cemetery of the-then Orthodox Adas  Israel Synagogue of Washington.

The next Jewish birdman was rough  and ready millionaire Charles Levine,  born in Massachusetts in 5657/1897 and  raised in Brooklyn. After helping his  father in the junk business and making his  fortune disposing of spent shell-casings  for the War Department, Levine became  an avid flying enthusiast.

Then in 5679/1919, came a challenge  that gripped the interest of dozens of  flymen worldwide, when Raymond  Orteig, a New York hotelier, offered a  $25,000 prize to the first persons to fl y  non-stop between New York and Paris,  or vice versa. Years passed and six well known  aviators died in the attempt.

By 5687/1927, Levine was determined  that his airplane, the 225-horsepower  Columbia should win the challenge.  There was every reason that he should  have succeeded since his machine had  been ready for weeks by the time Charles  Lindbergh took off on May 20, reaching  Europe the next day. The snag was that  Lloyd Bertaud, who was supposed to  have been the co-pilot of Levine’s plane  but got laid off, filed a suit against his  boss in court that grounded the Columbia  for weeks until it was too late.

Not a man to accede defeat, Levine  then announced that his plane would  travel even further than Lindbergh’s  and carry a passenger in the bargain.  The identity of the passenger remained  a mystery until June 4 of that year, the  day of his historic flight, when Levine  himself climbed into the cockpit with  his pilot, Clarence D. Chamberlin. As  the huge crowd yelled in adulation, his  wife screamed in anguish, convinced he  would perish beneath the cruel Atlantic  waves and her fears were not unfounded  – Levine himself had prepared a will for  that eventuality.

About a day later, Levine and his pilot  were greeted by a 100,000 strong crowd  in Berlin and celebrated as heroes by the  media and world. One Jewish songster  of the time even composed a rousing  Yiddish doggerel titled Hurrah far  unzer held Levine, “Hurrah for our hero,  Levine,” lauding the Jewish conqueror of  the skies:

“Rejoice Jews, Rejoice all/ Because  we have a right to brag. The news has  just come in from Berlin/ A Jewish son  has just arrived. The greatest hero of  airplanes/ The greatest ocean he did fl y.  Oy, fl y, fl y, fl y, Levine/ So all should see  the difference. How much farther flies a  Jew…  “His bravery defies description/ He  put his life on the line. By all he will  be regarded/ As the greatest flier in the  world. They tried to undermine your  plans/ And keep you down on the ground.  But Charlie had no time to listen/He just  flew over them. Oy, Fly, fl y, fl y Levine…”

Despite all Jewish efforts to keep  Levine in the limelight, no one could  deny that flying the first plane across the  Atlantic was far more daring than being  carted across as the first passenger. So  while Lindbergh’s and Chamberlain’s  fame burnt on, Levine’s job of acting  as human ballast for the flight was soon  forgotten. Although he managed to survive  the Wall Street crash of 5689/1929 and  continued his passion for airplanes, he  eventually lost his fortune and fell afoul  of the law and tax authorities.

The next time he reached the limelight  was when he tried to smuggle Edward  Schinek, a Jewish refugee who had been  incarcerated in a Nazi concentration  camp, into the US during 5702/1942.

As the Los Angeles Times reported  that January, “Charles A. Levine, the  ex-junk dealer who claimed the now obscured  fame of being the first trans-  Atlantic airplane passenger in 1927,  was jailed in New York yesterday on a  Los Angeles indictment of conspiring to  smuggle a German alien into the United  States. The confessed alien and an  asserted accomplice of Levine are held in  the County Jail here. The man, who called  himself the ‘Millionaire Stowaway’  when he and Clarence Chamberlin flew  the huge plane Columbia to Germany,  waived removal proceedings in New  York Federal court and was held in  $1,000 bail.”

Instead of receiving a medal for  helping a refugee from Nazism, Levine  was fined $500 and given a suspended  150-day sentence.

After a life of hardship and obscurity,  Levine passed away in New York in  5751/1991. Much the same can be said  of most early Jewish aeronauts; except  for Otto Lilienthal, who was most likely  not Jewish, few people remember their  fleeting days of fame. As Reverend  Samuel Glushak mentioned in his  eulogy over Al Welsh’s tallis-draped  coffin, “What is man that he shall be  remembered!”

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