From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
100 Years Ago This Week: The Curtiss NC-4 and the First Transatlantic Flight
In May 10th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 122, host Theo Mayer recounted the story of the first transatlantic flight. American Navy pilots flying a Curtiss NC-4 made several stops on a trip that ultimately took several weeks before landing in Lisbon, Portugal. It was harrowing journey that marked a major achievement for the Navy, the nascent aerospace industry, and the United States as a whole. The following is a transcribed segment from the podcast, edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: A big theme for this month is the role of the Navy in WWI, and in our editorial planning meetings, a '100 years ago' story jumped out that is so compelling and exciting that we thought we'd dedicate the whole segment to it. It's a story we've touched on in the past. The first successful Transatlantic plane crossing, and it happened in a US Navy flying boat known as the NC-4. So with that as a setup, let's jump into our centennial time machine and go back 100 years, as the postwar US Navy takes on the challenge of flying from the North American to the European continent.
We've gone back a hundred years to early May, 1919. The newspapers all over the nation, small towns and large cities alike are all tuned into a play-by-play, day-by-day drama happening along the North Eastern seaboard, a Mid-Atlantic island chain, and over to Lisbon in Portugal. The papers are telling the story of three Navy planes that are bound and determined to be the first airplanes to fly across the Atlantic. Unlike the pilots who are competing for the grand prize for the first nonstop transatlantic flight, The Navy is trying to demonstrate that their WWI-developed technology can bridge the Pacific Ocean's chasm. The plane is designed by Glen Curtiss and his team, and manufactured by the Curtis Airplane and Motor Company and is meant to serve as a US Navy submarine hunter.
Now, a crucial strategic capability for the plane's deployment in WWI, is that it needs to be able to fly itself across the Atlantic to the European theater. You see, as America deploys an unprecedented number of troops to Europe, there is simply no cargo space available on ships to transport large planes. To be viable in the conflict, those planes need to be able to get where they need to go on their own. To get across the ocean, the NC-4 sported four of the American engineered and designed 12 cylinder liberty engines. As it happens, the war ends before the plane can be put into service, but their design and capability is considered by the Navy and by Curtis to be groundbreaking. Well, maybe 'groundbreaking' is the wrong phrase because after all, it is a flying boat.
Now, the Navy wants to shed some light on what's been accomplished, and so it decides to show off it's new technology and capability by making the Navy Curtis flying boat the first plane ever to fly across the Atlantic. It's meant to be a huge public relations coup for the US Navy, Curtiss, and the fledgling American aerospace industry. To do this, three planes are designated to make the voyage: the NC-1, the NC-3 and the NC-4. Now, NC stands for Navy Curtiss, but everyone knew them as Nancy's. Okay. So, the Navy's gone all in on commitment and planning, and the multi-leg journey and adventure starts at the Naval air station at Rockaway Beach, New York, on May 8th, 1919. We're going to follow the events day by day, and it's a truly epic story.
Tuesday, May 6th, 1919: This is the day before the scheduled departure, and there's a great deal of drama at Rockaway beach. An HS-1, a single-engine seaplane flying over the Naval Air Station has an accident which sadly kills both the pilot and copilot. And on the same day, there's a fire in a hangar which threatens to destroy two of the three transatlantic squadrons flying boats. One of them, the NC-1, is damaged but repairable.
Wednesday, May 7th, 1919: Weather in New England and Nova Scotia delays the departure from Halifax, but gives the team time to fix the fire damage on the NC-1.
Thursday, May 8th: The three plane squadron takes off for Halifax. Over the next nine hours, two of the three planes make it, but there's a lot of concern about the NC-4 which reports engine trouble around midday and then goes radio silent. As the day wears on, they fear she might be lost, but later, wireless dispatches report her limping safely into Chatham, Massachusetts. Now, radio itself is a new tool in the arsenal of long distance navigation. The Navy's posting ships along the route, both to act as navigational aids to the planes and to provide progress reports, and of course should the need arise, to act as rescuers. Because of the wireless communication, the run-up drama, the delays, the lost plane and the NC-4's eventual arrival in Chatham, these are all news playing out in near real time, as the grand adventure before an intrigued and absorbed nation and world. This is very new and groundbreaking all by itself.
Saturday, May 10th: The NC-1 and NC-3 take off from Halifax heading Northeast to Trepassey harbor. Now that's generally the most Eastern port on the North American continent. It's almost directly due South of the tip of Greenland. I didn't know the continent actually went that far east, but it does. As they take off, trouble strikes. The NC-3 has to go back to Halifax and fix a problem with its propeller, but she makes it to Trepassey before the day's end. Meanwhile, the NC-4 is still in Chatham, Massachusetts and is not ready to journey to Halifax yet. In other news from St. John, Newfoundland, the navy announces that they have a dirigible, a lighter than air ship, the C-5, which is also going to try the ocean crossing after a test flight heading to Trepassey. The USS Chicago, the flagship of Rear Admiral Spencer Wood is deployed from New York to St. John in all haste with supplies and gas containers for the balloons attempt.
Sunday, May 11th: Bad weather keeps everybody grounded. The NC-1 and NC-3 are getting prepped. The NC-4 hasn't made it out of Chatham yet, and the dirigible C-3 is getting ready to head to St. John. Part of the news of the day in the papers are reports about the new navigation technologies being used. They include an aerial sextant, a new instrument with a bubble in a curve tube that shows if the wings are flat to the horizon, if not, the plane is turning. Now that piece of tech is something that was still in the trainer that I learned to fly in, in the late sixties. With many of our listeners growing up in the age of GPS, in a world where you casually accept that you always know where you are, it's hard to imagine having nothing but the sun, the stars, a compass and a clock to tell you where you are and where you want to go.
Next Day, Monday, May 12th: Good weather is forecast and the NC-1 and NC-3 say they may not wait for the NC-4 if an opening arises.
Tuesday, May 13th: The NC-1 and NC-3 are ready and announce that they're not going to be racing across the Atlantic, but flying together. The NC-4 isn't there yet. The C-5 dirigible is ready to head North. In another unrelated airplane achievement story that sneaks into the headlines today, a professor named David Todd, the head of the Amherst Astronomical Observatory, announces plans to take a plane up to 15,000 feet, 2.8 miles up, to take what they expect to be unprecedented photographs of an upcoming solar eclipse.
Wednesday, May 14th: The dirigible C-5, now being called a blimp in the headlines, is heading to St John. The NC-4 makes it to Halifax and the rest of the squadron, the NC-3 and NC-1 have decided to wait for the NC-4 in Trepassey.
Thursday, May 15th: The C-5 blimp is moored in St. John and breaks away in a sudden gale and gets blown to sea. During the dramatic event, sailors are swept off their feet and a rope catches a local boy. One person is killed in the incident and a short time later, the Navy C-5 dirigible goes down. A British ship finds her in the water and rescues the crew. On the same day, the NC-4 makes it to Trepassey, and the entire squadron is now assembled and ready to make a run for the Azores, which if you don't know where that is, is an island chain in the middle of the Atlantic, sort of due west of Portugal and Spain.
Friday the 16th: There's a big headline in the New York Times that shouts the news. Headline, "All three planes nearing the Azores, NC-4 was 800 miles out at 3:06 this morning." The Navy has staged 21 destroyers along the route from Trepassey to the Azores, providing the intrepid navy pilots with navigation help and constant communications, and news updates for us as they fly the stunning 1,350 mile leg of the journey.
Saturday, May 17th: The results are in. The NC-4 makes the run to the Azores in 15 hours of solid flying and she's ready to head for Lisbon in Portugal. The NC-1 has troubles and she lands in the sea where she's found by a steamship who throws her a line and tries to reel her in. But, the line parts and the plane goes down to Davy Jones' Locker. Fortunately, the crew of six is rescued. Unfortunately, the NC-3 is missing somewhere in the fog and is being looked for by the Navy destroyers.
Sunday, May 18th: The NC-3 is still missing. There's grave concern for her safety. Destroyers are combing the seas. The crew of the NC-1, which sank yesterday, is brought to port in the Azores. Meanwhile, the NC-4 is readying for the last leg to Lisbon, Portugal, the Eastern most edge of the European continent. And now we get a plot twist. In a competitive attempt to steal the thunder, so to speak, a British Hawker Sopwith biplane, with pilots Hawker and Grieve, takes off from St. John hoping to make the first nonstop Transatlantic crossing and beat the Americans to win the first crossing overall.
Monday, May 19th: The British biplane with Hawker and Grieve disappears on their flight, and the British Admiralty fears that they're lost. But good news for the US Navy- 52 hours after disappearing, the lost NC-3 arrives in the Azores. It's a great story. Apparently, during a water landing to get their bearings a few days earlier, she was slightly damaged so that she couldn't take to the skies again, but being essentially a boat, the NC-3 fired up her engines and motored her way on the ocean surface to the Azores, much to the joyous and happy relief of the US Navy and her Navy comrades. Then things slow down a bit. The weather intervenes and the NC-4 is stuck in the Azores by bad weather, delaying her attempt to reach Lisbon.
On Monday, May 26th: We have good news. Hawker and Grieve, the British biplane pilots, have been rescued mid-ocean by an American steamer who found them. But having no wireless radio, the news of their rescue doesn't get out until today. Hawker tells of his flight and rescue. They were aloft for 13 hours and in the ocean for two and a half before they were found. Meanwhile, the NC-4, the plane that had all the trouble at the start and a heck of a time catching up with her squadron in Trepassey is now getting ready to fly the final leg to Lisbon.
Tuesday, May 27th, 1919: The NC-4, the Navy Curtiss flying boat designed by Glen Curtiss and his team, manufactured by the Curtiss Airplane and Motor Company for the US Navy, sporting four US designed liberty engines and piloted by Lieutenant Commander A.C. Read, are the first men in history to fly across the Atlantic in an airplane. It's a huge win for American capability. It's not only cause for big celebration, but it actually marks a moment in history that ushers in a new age. When within a couple of generations, a mere 100 years later, common citizens routinely travel to every corner of our planet safely and even cheaply without giving it much thought. Wow, what a story, what an adventure. And for me having dug into it this week, every bit is exciting, in its own way every bit is significant as the flight of Apollo 11. Hey Hollywood, are you paying attention? Great story here. And those are the headlines a hundred years ago this month, a direct result of the war that changed the world.