Did Jews have a major part in developing human flight? The answer is yes and no.
PEACEFUL BIRD WATCHER
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.”
THE FLYING CIGAR
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.
WRIGHT BROTHERS’ JEWISH DISCIPLE
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 FLYING MILLIONAIRE
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!”