...I know that I’ve got a better chance of reaching Europe in the Sprit of St. Louis than the NC boats had of reaching the Azores. I have a more reliable type of engine, improved instruments, and a continent instead of an island for a target...”
~Charles A. Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, Scribner’s, © 1953
...1919 – Fully 8 years before
Lindbergh, the US Navy's NC-4
flying boat crossed the Atlantic Ocean by air…
NC-4 departs Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland for the first flight to Europe.
Photo© L. D. Sheely via U.S. Navy.
Photo from the Collection of Irving E. Sheely, 9/24/1893 - 12/16/1962
...The Story of the First Successful Transatlantic Flight:
Several million people fly the Atlantic Ocean each year. Every plane that crosses does so under a system of radio communications, weather forecasting, satellite navigation, and rescue forces that is the inheritance of the first Trans-Atlantic flight, by the US Navy’s NC flying boats. Today, the story of the NC Trans-Atlantic Flight Expedition and her crews has been all but lost in the dust of history. This is written in hope of more people becoming aware of such an historic milestone.
In May of 1919, the US Navy’s NC-4 and her crew of six accomplished the first successful Trans-Atlantic flight. It took from May 8 until May 27 to accomplish, some three weeks. Humans had only taken wing, in airplanes, less than twenty years before. A full eight years would pass before Lindbergh made the first solo non-stop.
Near the end of World War I, the US Navy requested an aircraft which would be able to cross the Atlantic under her own power and be able to go directly in to action against the German U-boat menace, which was sinking tons of merchant shipping each week. A large flying boat with this transatlantic capability eliminated the need for precious cargo space aboard ships.
Four large Navy-Curtiss (NC) flying boats (which land or takeoff from water only), the NC-1, 2, 3, and 4, were designed and constructed by a joint venture of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company and the US Navy. Due to damage from storm and fire, the NC-2 was salvaged to repair the NC-1, and the remainder became spare parts.
On May 8, 1919, the NC-1, 3, and 4 took off from Naval Air Station Rockaway in Long Island, New York, with Trepassey, in Newfoundland, Canada, the intermediate stop prior to their attempt across the Atlantic. After delays due to the NC-4 having engine trouble near Cape Cod and bad weather at Trepassey, all three aircraft departed on the long flight across on Friday evening, May 16th.
In contrast to the comfort of today, these aircraft flew at a maximum of 90 mph, with the crews exposed to the elements in open cockpits. The part-way stop for fuel, in the Azores, would take more than seventeen hours to reach, with an elapsed flying time for the entire Atlantic crossing of more than twenty-six hours!
Because of engine trouble and inclement weather, two of the aircraft, the NC-1 and 3, landed near the Azores, and were not able to take off again due to a high sea state, with waves cresting above twenty feet. All hands survived from both aircraft, with the NC-3 being sailed and taxied backwards some 250 miles to the Azores, a formidable adventure in its’ own right. The NC-1 was lost at sea, her crew rescued by the Greek freighter Ionia.
The NC-4, after what seemed like impossible delays in weather, engine repairs, and other problems, made Lisbon, Portugal on May 27, 1919, being the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic.
The NC-4 was the first in 1919, and for always. Her place in history and the significance of her flight have long been diminished by the public’s love of heroics. The NC crews were quickly forgotten as America looked to peace and prosperity after the war. This was best demonstrated by the Congress, which took more than 10 years to appropriate the meager dollars necessary to award the special medals that had been authorized for the crews. Four presidential elections passed before the men had their White House ceremony.
Today, anyone can go to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and see a plaque to Alcock and Brown, the second successful crossing. Additionally, there are monuments in Ireland and at Heathrow Airport near London.
The British dedicated a plaque to the NC-4 in Plymouth to commemorate the end of their flight. The Portuguese dedicated a similar memorial in Lisbon. It took until the 50th anniversary for America to place a marker at Rockaway, where it all began, and that was solely due to citizens in that community.
The American aircraft industry, or what’s left of it, and the airlines which dominate the North Atlantic air routes, and reap much profit from it, have never seen fit to erect even the most cursory memorial to the NC Transatlantic Expedition in the International Arrivals Building of New York City’s Kennedy International Airport. Yet, every flight that takes off from their runway 25L barely is airborne, when it overflies the site of the long gone and forgotten Naval Air Station Rockaway.
In the summer of 1919, American composer Frederick Bigelow was moved and wrote a song entitled The NC-4 March. Every year at 4th of July celebrations, and on town greens at brass band concerts, this tune is played. Very few know the cryptic significance of the song’s title.
The NC-4 herself was restored by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and the US Navy, for her 50th anniversary in 1969. It was another six years before she was placed on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, where she is on permanent loan from the Smithsonian. The NC-4 finally had her place of honor.
She would not have survived at all, if not for the efforts of the late Dr. Paul E. Garber, former curator of NASM. He shepherded her remains from the 1940’s until she was restored. The Smithsonian’s restoration facility today bears his name.
The flight of NC-4, its’ lessons, and its’ blazing of the Atlantic airways are largely unknown today. Americans think Lindbergh made the first crossing; Englishmen say Alcock and Brown. Many at the time thought it not “sporting” that the Navy placed ships along the route to aid navigation, but the NC-4 was and ever shall be, FIRST ACROSS THE ATLANTIC!
Today, only the families of the heroic crews and a few historians recall their names.
THE CREW OF THE NC-4:
Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read, U.S. Navy, Commander of NC-4 and Navigator
Lieutenant Elmer F. Stone, U.S. Coast Guard, Pilot
Lieutenant Walter Hinton, U.S. Naval Reserve Force, Pilot
Lieutenant James L. Breese, U.S. Naval Reserve Force, Flight Engineer
Ensign Herbert C. Rodd, U.S. Naval Reserve Force, Radio Operator
Chief Machinist’s Mate Eugene T. Rhoads, U.S. Navy, Flight Engineer
The original flight of three aircraft was conceived, planned and led by CDR John H. Towers, U.S. Navy. None of this would have occurred without his forethought and vision.
U.S. Navy image. L-R: Rhoads, Breese, Read, Hinton. Stepping from cockpit, E. F. Stone, USCG.