May 21

The Transatlantic Flight of the NC-4

Tuesday, May 21, 2019 12:01 AM

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While outside we enter the second-half of May and quickly descend into June, as I work away inside the archive, my mind inevitably wanders to the subject that seems to be on everyone’s mind this time of year: Summer travel plans. Even for those no longer bound to the timetable of the educational system, Summer is still synonymous with vacation and travel, myself included.

But with my occupation, even my thoughts on travel end up turning in a historical direction. One hundred years ago, in 1919, our main mode of long-distance transportation today was still a scary, new technology that the general public was wary to place trust in. In fact, it would not be until eight years later, when Charles Lindbergh completed is non-stop transatlantic in 1927, that commercial air travel would truly take-off. But in May of 1919, one of the crucial steps to the success of air travel was undertaken by the U.S. Navy: the first transatlantic flight of the NC-4.

The Curtiss NC seaplanes were originally created by the U.S. Navy to participate in World War I. By the time the four commissioned NC planes were completed in 1919, however, the war had been over for several months. Now with several brand-new planes in their possession, but no war to fly them in, the officers in charge of these planes decided to utilize the planes for a more empirical pursuit. That is, they wished to demonstrate that the NC-4 and its sister planes (the NC-1, NC-2, and NC-3) were capable of transatlantic air travel, a feat never before accomplished.

The crew of the NC-4 makes the final preparations prior to their departure on the first transatlantic flight. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

The NC-4 began its journey on 8 May 1919 – accompanied by the NC-3 and NC-1 (the NC-2 had been cannibalized to repair parts of the NC-1 before the journey started) – at Naval Air Station Rockaway, New York before flying on to Newfoundland, on 15 May. On 16 May, the three NC’s continued on the longest leg of the journey, from Newfoundland to the Azores. It was during this portion of the expedition that the NC-1 and NC-3 were damaged, and the NC-4 was forced to carry out the remainder of its journey alone.

The NC-4 arriving in Lisbon, Portugal on 27 May 1919, completing the first transatlantic flight. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

The crew of the NC-4 set out from the Azores on 20 May, but due to technical difficulties were only able to fly 150 miles to another island in the Azores chain. Luckily, the crew was able to conduct repairs, and on 27 May set off once again across the Atlantic. Nine hours and forty-three minutes later, the NC-4 landed in Lisbon, Portugal, and became the first aircraft to cross an ocean. The NC-4 later flew on to England, arriving in Plymouth on 31 May 1919 to great fanfare.

The flight crew of the NC-4 is greeted with fanfare in Plymouth, England upon their arrival. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

It is important to note that even without the NC-1 and NC-3, the crew of the NC-4 was not alone during their never-before attempted expedition. One of the most important reasons this demonstration succeeded was because the U.S. Navy took no chances, and stationed ships every fifty miles to aid the seaplanes with navigation and to rescue the crewmen should it deem necessary (as it was for the crew of the NC-3, who were rescued by one such U.S. Navy ship). While the NC-4 needed no rescue, I imagine it was a comfort for the crew to know that their comrades kept an eye on their progress and were ready to aid them at a moment’s notice. Moreover, the ships’ presence allowed the NC-4 to continue flying at night, which otherwise would have been too dangerous to navigate during, thereby prolonging the journey.

Though the U.S. Navy’s accomplishment could not be denied, it was quickly eclipsed at the time by the first nonstop transatlantic flight, which took place on 14-15 June 1919, less than one month after the NC-4 completed its journey. But history would not forget which aircraft was the first to add “transatlantic” to its achievements, which is why the NC-4 is still celebrated by those who know its story. The fact that these men were able to demonstrate the viability of long-distance air travel on their first try, with no casualties to mar their success is a terrific feat. But knowing as I do now how many precautions the Navy took to ensure their success, one lesson stands out to me as a takeaway from this mission: preparing for the worst can be the best way to ensure success.

LCDR Alfred Cushing Read, commander and navigator of the NC-4, and LTJG Walter Hinton, one of the seaplane’s pilots, examine a map in preparation for their journey. Official U.S. Navy Photograph