“Hello, I’d like to book a flight to Washington DC to visit my aunt. She urged me to insist you find a flight to Dulles airport, which would be the nearest to where she lives.”
Unfortunately, the agent understood “Dallas” (in fact, the agent had never heard of Dulles before) and turned towards the Global Distribution System to establish a booking to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW, some 2,171 km distant from IAD – Washington Dulles International Airport). No harm was caused by the mix-up: another agent sitting next overheard part of the conversation and fortunately decided to step in.
Cold comfort for the poor passenger from Saxony who fell victim to a mix-up triggered by the Saxon dialect’s sound shift from P to B and from T to D. When asking for a booking to Oporto (mumbling “bordo”), she was sold a flight to Bordeaux, and one can imagine her disbelieving glance upon arrival at Aéroport de Bordeaux–Mérignac (BOD – OPO: 876 km). If you expect the otherwise dialect-free world of internet bookings to be immune to such blunder, think twice and hear the story of the two Norwegian grecophiles excited about the cheap fares to Rhodes offered by a leading Irish LCC from Oslo-Torp: their search for Sorbas’ beach and sun ended up in the French Massif Central (Rodez, RDZ – RHO: 2,687 km). There are several spellings for Rhodes in languages, however excluding Rodez, fundamental knowledge for any internet user henceforth.
A friend once asked me to suggest an exciting destination served by our airline, which I replied “Beirut” to. Now, this was at a party with quite some noisiness, so I had to forgive his outcry “Who the hell would fly to Bayreuth, except for fans of Wagner?!”. (BYU Verkehrslandeplatz Bayreuth – BEY Maṭār Rafīq al-Ḥarīrī al-duwalī: 3,050 km).
This one works in German original text only “Es tut mir leid, aber ich musste mich noch um den Flug kümmern, der diverted ist und am Van-See gelandet ist.”, was the excuse of a colleague turning up late for a meeting, and almost putting the assembly on the alert: the Wannsee (identical pronunciation) is a well-known lake in Berlin’s southwest, however not quite suitable for fixed-wing aircraft operations of any kind, unlike Van Ferit Melen Havaalanı, the airport near the Van lake in eastern Turkey. (Berlin – Van: 3,211 km)
But whose merit was the first ever mix-up in aviation? The trophy shall be Clarence Duncan Chamberlin’s, who mastered the second Atlantic crossing, just weeks after Charles Lindbergh (21 May 1927, New York to Paris).
On 4 June, 1927, the aircraft type Bellanca W.B.2 named “Columbia” took off Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York, heading for destination Berlin, Germany (with the clear intention to outperform Lindbergh in range, but also by carrying the first transatlantic passenger: Charles A. Levine, General Director of the Bellanca Aircraft Company, who was keen to use the occasion for promoting his aircraft – in fact he even arrived in a lounge suit to Roosevelt Field and jumped on the aircraft last minute, so to avoid to unsettle his spouse).
This was early days, the dawn of air transport, quite pre-GPS and what have you; no wonder it turned out to an odyssee beyond belief: Mid Atlantic, the aircraft’s compass broke down. Chamberlin and Levine tried the best they could, using a makeshift pocket compass, later guessing orientation from rivers and other landmarks (they hadn’t packed any maps, however Chamberlin claimed to have these in his head).
When approaching continental Europe, they entered adverse weather conditions. Chamberlin had intended to fly a straight route from the Atlantic coast to Berlin, however whilst over Holland, he followed the Rhine (which he’d mistaken for the river Elbe). When turning left in search for Berlin (which would have worked nicely from the Elbe at some point, say Stendal), he actually overflew Dortmund, confusing it with Bremen (which is neither east of the Elbe nor the air-line Holland to Berlin, but apparently simply looked alike – so much for his photographic memory of maps, also, Dortmund is 217 km south of Bremen), he then decided to follow an east-southeasternly route from there (indeed roughly the course path from Bremen to Berlin – however absolutely not from Dortmund).
To his surprise, he then approached a low mountain range (in fact, Thuringia) and realised he must’ve been somehow wrong, turning northeast. Eventually, the aircraft ran out of fuel, after 43 hours and 6,294 km, and landed at Eisleben, near Halle, indeed completing the mission to carry the first transatlantic passenger and to outperform the distance of the “Spirit of St.Louis” weeks before, even though of course Eisleben wasn’t Berlin (and never will be). In a manner customary to the heroes in any Jules Verne novel, Chamberlin hastily asked for fuel and proper directions to Berlin, and soon took off eastwards again, sneaking in a low altitude with the aim to follow the apparent railway track Halle – Berlin. Over Bitterfeld, he somehow confused the tracks and followed a track further east to Cottbus, overflying Torgau and Finsterwalde. He was spotted overflying the city of Cottbus around 11 am, which was where he realized he had lost his way again: Cottbus couldn’t possibly be Berlin (a widespread verdict still today). Chamberlin then operated a turnaround near Cottbus (he had even read the unheard-of sign “Cottbus” whilst overflying the city’s station) attempting to land, once more ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing 700 m northwest of the village Klinge (about 120 km southeast of Berlin), shortly before noon 6 June. On the muddy surface, the aircraft’s nose tilted over, which caused one propeller blade to break, no injuries however. The news spread like wildfire in and around Klinge, a crowd came running, and was greeted by the two pilots: “hunger”, apparently the only German word they knew. A local engineer with English language skills served to translate and call Cottbus to announce the arrival of the “Columbia”. Soon after, radio broadcasted the news, resulting in more spectators come running from Cottbus and Forst. From Berlin, the film crew producing the weekly “Wochenschau” arrived. Chamberlin and Levine were invited to the nearby restaurant “Scheppan” (renamed “Restaurant Chamberlin” soon after – the building is a residential house today, even survived the 1981 resettlement of Klinge’s 432 population which made way for the brown coal surface mining near Jänschwalde). Hours later, the director of Cottbus airfield drove the two adventurers to Cottbus, where they entered the city’s golden book and became honorary citizens.
Meanwhile at Klinge, a couple of skilled mechanics from Cottbus repaired the aircraft to enable the odyssee’s completion: escorted by six Lufthansa airplanes – to avoid any further mix-ups? – the “Columbia” continued the flight to Berlin Tempelhof the following day, 7 June 1927.
Thus, Chamberlin and Klinge made history, whereas auntie’s intention just was to simplify the arrival and pick-up service for her family: after all, the two airports are 83 km apart (IAD Washington Dulles International Airport and BWI Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport)!
A few weeks ago, when I first heard the story of Chamberlin and his aircraft, I confused it with Arthur Neville Chamberlain, British PM 1937-40, well known for the portrait photo in front of the Lockheed 14 G-AFGN after arrival at Heston Aerodrome (a stone’s throw east of LHR) from the Munich Conference on 30 September 1938. You live and learn!
“Still glaring from the city lights, into paradise I soared. Unable to come down, for reasons I’d ignored. Total confusion, disillusion – new things I’m knowin’.” (“Through My Sails”, Neil Young, 1975)