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First To Fly The Atlantic

June 2024
25min read

The commander of the NC-4 called the trip “uneventful,” but the men in the other planes of the mission could not quite agree

Half a century ago, heavier-than-air flight was less than sixteen years old, but men were already usine their frail new wings for nothing less ambitious than leaping an ocean. In 1919, the Atlantic was vaulted three times in three consecutive months, first by a team of American naval airmen in a flying boat, then by two Englishmen in a conventional bomber, and finally by the crewmen and officers of a British dirigible. The exploits of the aerial adventurers provided hope in an otherwise uneasy postwar springtime. The American public followed every mile of the transoceanic hops in the headlines, it was so enthralled by the drama that it scarcely noticed the abrupt passing of one of the basic certainties of its national identity—physical remoteness from the Old World. Nor did one in a hundred grasp the full import of the flights vis-à-vis the cherished ideal of individualism. As one designer of the American planes involved pointed out, the achievement was essentially collective and technical; success was due to “organized engineering, which takes the place of invention and makes use of the special knowledge of many people.”

From the beginning, aviation had had two faces. It was both scientific advance and adventure. It was brought to birth by a strange alliance of meticulous engineers, rich sportsmen, thrill seekers, daydreamers, cranks. Its growth was a miracle. In December of 1903 the Wright brothers’ plane barely cleared the ground and wobbled 120 feet in twelve seconds, pushed into a twenty-five-mile-aii-hour wind by a twelve horsepower engine. Less than six years later, Voisin, Farman, and Curtiss biplanes were flying for an hour or more, climbing as high as a thousand feet, and achieving ground speeds of forty miles an hour. By 1914 specially souped-up models had, astonishingly, attained an altitude of 25,755 feet a speed of 128 miles an hour, and a nonstop distance of over 1,100 miles. Trophywinning superplanes were built one by one, primarily with private funds, in shops that were no more than glorified garages. Aviation still belonged to enthusiasts sustained by their own time and money.

World War I changed that. All of the major combatants poured into the laps of aeronautical engineers enough money to build whatever their imaginations conceived, provided it was deadly. The fundamental wartime revolution in aeronautics was the shift to mass production of planes designed by committees of military and technical experts. The United States alone produced forty-three aircraft in 1914 and more than 14,000 in 1918. The romantic, mile-high tournaments-in-the-clouds of the combat pilots—the Guynemers, Foncks, Boelckes, Bishops, Richthofens, and Rickenbackers, costumed in riding breeches, scarves, and goggles—obscured the fact that the aces were less important to the future than were their machines. Each year the fighting craft grew in muscle and sophistication. The state’s quest for killing power had been an effective stimulant to aeronautic ingenuity.

In the spring of 1919 aviation’s leaders were anxious to prove that the precocious adolescent could do man’s work in peacetime, too. Veterans of the prewar sporting years of aeronautics yearned to try powerful new machines against fresh obstacles of distance and time. In the first five months of 1919, French aviators easily hopped from southern France to Algeria, took seventeen passengers on a round trip from Paris to Brussels and back in half a day, and began airmail service from Paris to Bordeaux and Marseilles. A British blimp cruised for four days in an uninterrupted patrol over the North Sea. Four American army planes made a four-thousand-mile transcontinental mapping and pathfinding tour, and another sped from California to Georgia and back in forty-four hours’ flying time. Winged shadows darted across Alpine peaks as the Italians risked airmail deliveries from Padua to Vienna. Even the Germans, their wings clipped by the armistice agreements, set a record with a nonstop flight between Berlin and Stockholm—about 570 miles in seven hours.

But of all the tests of the airplane’s new-found strength, the most challenging was the North Atlantic. Winston Churchill, Britain’s Secretary for War and Air in 1919, called it a “terrible waste of desolate waters, tossing in tumult in repeated and almost ceaseless storms, and shrouded with an unbroken canopy of mist.” So it was, but it was also the most vital highway of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Western civilization, most of whose capitals were located relatively near its shores. To span the Atlantic was a minimum requirement of aviation if it was to play any significant role in transportation. But the fliers who first tried it would be at every moment, in Churchill’s words, threatened with “destruction from a drop of water in the carburetor, or a spot of oil on their plugs, or a tiny grain of dirt in their feed pipe, or from any of the other hundred and one indirect causes” which, in those days, “might drag an aeroplane to its fate.”

Despite these risks, pilots and designers had been dreaming of transatlantic flight since before the war. In 1913 Alfred Harmsworth, Baron Northcliffe, publisher of the London Daily Mail , announced that he would award ten thousand pounds—a genuine treasure in that time of low-taxed incomes—to the first aviator or aviators to cross the ocean. It was a tempting enticement, but it seemed impossibly remote. Few planes then had a range of more than two hundred miles. A flight from America to Europe by any route would require, for safety’s sake, an ability to cover 1,500 miles without a stop, which would be possible only if tons of fuel could be carried. But air-minded engineers enjoyed the paper solution of “impossible” equations, and the Northcliffe offer set pencils to scribbling figures and tracing curves in every flying club on both sides of the ocean.

By June, 1914, in the little New York town of Hammondsport, on Keuka Lake, a twin-engined red flying boat rose and settled on the water again and again in preliminary tests. She was the America , and her builder was Glenn H. Curtiss, a native of Hammondsport. Among the curiosity seekers and reporters attracted to the lake was an observer sent by the United States Navy, Lieutenant John H. Towers, a Georgian and an Annapolis graduate of the class of 1906. Just twenty-nine years old, he was nevertheless a veteran flier, the third official American naval aviator. Curtiss had been his teacher. The outbreak of world war cancelled any attempts for the Northcliffe prize, but Towers and Curtiss would—five years later—furnish the planes and leadership that would finish the work under way that June.

By the summer of 1917 the United States was in the war, Curtiss was building planes for the Navy, and Towers, by then a lieutenant commander, was on duty in Washington, D.C. On an August day in 1917, Rear Admiral David W. Taylor, the Navy’s chief constructor, called in two of his assistants for aeronautics, Jerome C. Hunsaker and G. C. Westervelt, to discuss the implementation of a memorandum he had just prepared. “It seems to me,” he had written, “the submarine menace could be abated, even if not destroyed, from the air.” This could be accomplished by large, flying boats, which could carry heavy depth charges and machine guns on long ocean hunts. To save valuable shipping space in delivery, they should be able “to fly the Atlantic under their own power.” In effect, the Admiral told Hunsaker and Westervelt, the Navy was committing itself, as a matter of military logic, to performing what had previously been considered a stunt. They were to get the project in motion. The two junior officers reached immediate accord on the first step: they wired to Curtiss to come down to Washington.

Curtiss was not just another manufacturer. He was to aviation what Ford was to the automobile: a founding father, a prophet, an evangel, a worker of miracles who could assemble the cash and equipment to turn the spidery drawings of inventors (himself included) into finished hardware. Born in 1878, he belonged to the generation of young Americans who seized the gasoline engine and raced exuberantly with it into the twentieth century. Like the Wright brothers, he tinkered first with bicycles and then discovered the lively possibilities of hitching motors to them. When he was in his twenties he set a world motorcycle speed record of 137 miles an hour. But airplanes held an even greater promise of speed and freedom, and he began in 1909 to build them from his own designs. (Not altogether his own, according to the Wright brothers, who successfully sued him for patent infringement in his use of ailerons too much like theirs.)

Curtiss, who was deceptively unassertive-looking, raced like a demonic wind in planes with saucy names —the June Bug, the Red Wing , the Silver Dart . He went to Europe and raced and beat the continent’s best fliers as if they were Hammondsport slowpokes. The list of his awards was a bluebook of aviation’s early sponsors: the Scientific American Trophy, the Cortland F. Bishop Prize, the Gordon Bennett Cup, the Robert J. Collier Trophy, the W. E. Kelly Cup, the Grand Prix Passenger Prize, and the Langley Medal of the Smithsonian. He flew faster and higher than anyone. And his imagination kept suggesting new airplanes and airplane uses, which his business sense turned into production models. He invented the flying boat, or hydroplane, pioneered water landings and take-offs, sold his seagoing flying machines to the Navy, and personally taught blue-water sailors to fly them. By 1914 he had created the Curtiss Motor Company and the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, worth nearly ten million dollars; they would build more than 200 kinds of aircraft, using sixty-seven of Curtiss’ patents.

Curtiss and his engineering staff began to work with the Navy’s Bureau of Construction experts on the development of four ocean-going superplanes that would make the impossible possible, the technological game twentieth-century man has played so brilliantly. Step by step, out of conferences, arguments, scribbled notes, sketches, long sessions over drawing boards, mounting piles of empty coffee cups and cigarette butts, the regular Navy scientists, the physics professors in reservists’ uniforms, the Curtiss production men, and the experienced aviators worked out the equations of success. They whittled fantasy down to limits that reality could nearly embrace, and then stretched reality until it did. Commander Holden C. Richardson was told to design a hull that would be independently seaworthy, light as air-borne wood could be, and sturdy enough to survive slamming into a wave while landing at sixty miles an hour loaded with twelve tons. Patient, skilled, and a twenty-year veteran of naval construction, Richardson produced a V-bottomed boat fortyfive feet long and ten feet wide, with double planking sandwiching a waterproof layer of glued muslin, it weighed only 2,800 pounds empty. Richardson, Hunsaker, and Westervelt protected the tail surfaces against the beating of huge ocean waves by mounting them on hollow wooden spars well above the water. The emerging aircraft took on a curious appearance of a wingand-tail assembly mated to a hull yet not integrally part of it—like some monster dragonfly pouncing on a fish. The original plan called for three twelve-cylinder Liberty engines, but weight-to-horscpower ratios showed that a fourth engine would lift two pounds for every one added by its own weight. So the planes would have four engines, one on each wing and two in tandem on the (enter line, and would fly with a total weight of 28,000 pounds. Six of those fourteen tons could be useful load, over the weight of the empty plane—enough for 1,800 gallons of gasoline (in nine tanks), spare parts, oil, radio equipment, and six-man crews.

Day by day hotly discussed hunches were checked by slide rule, towing basin, and wind unnel. Month by month the first plane took shape. It was to be called the N (Navy) C (Curtiss) 1 (first of a series.) It would be a joint product; many of its parts would be subcontracted out to keep from overwhelming Curtiss’ facilities and to give more of the American aircraft industry a stake in it. Its upper wing would span 126 feet, half a Manhattan Island block, and would have a chord of 12 feet. From nose to tail it would be just under seventy feet, and it would stand twenty-five feet high. Its wing panels were moved from Curtiss’ Garden City, Long Island, assembly plant to the Naval Air Station at Far Rockaway in trucks ordinarily used for hauling theatrical scenery. At Rockaway the plane required a special hangar and, later on, railroad tracks and tractor engines to move it into the water. In October of 1918 it was completed, with the NC-2, -3 , and -4 in various stages of construction.

By then it was clear that the end of the war was only weeks away, and that there would be no military use for the planes. The contracts for the uncompleted three would probably be cancelled. The prospect was wormwood to Commander Towers. He pleaded with his superiors to let the planes prove their transoceanic capabilities. The United States, he wrote, had built the first airplane and the first seaplane. It should not miss another opening. The first flight across the Atlantic would be sure to “go down in history as an epoch making event.” He asked for command of the expedition as “the senior aviator, in point of aviation service, on aviation duty,” and added, “I believe that I could quickly get the project organized without interference with my present duties.” It was a promise he would make good on.

Towers had thought more about such a flight than any other man in the Navy. His service record was virtually the story of early naval aviation, with its crises, lean years, and improvisations. He had flown every kind of craft, taught other men to fly, organized air stations, supervised purchases, designed improvements, and fitted them to planes with his own calloused, greasy hands. And he had constantly risked his life. Once he was in a plane with another officer when it spun out of control. There were no safety belts then, and both men were pitched out of their seats. The other fell to his death. Towers caught a strut, hung on, and survived the crack-up. It was all in the day’s work for the fathers of military flight.

Moreover, Towers’ request was well timed. The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, was a North Carolina editor and politician with a deep concern for public relations. The assistant secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was an enthusiastic amateur sailor, whose passion for the Navy was matched by an appetite for novelties. Both men were undoubtedly impressed when the NC-1 , on November 27, 1918, swallowed fifty-one sailors and civilian workers (including one stowaway) and set a world’s passenger-carrying record. Bannered in the press, such feats carried weight with the public and with Congress.

Early in February, 1919, Towers got his wish. But from the start, the Navy officials made every effort to give the flight the character of a carefully planned military operation rallier than a theatrical gamble unworthy of the attention of admirals. The Daily Mail had renewed its offer of ten thousand pounds, but the Navy fliers were forbidden to compete for it. Every element of risk was compressed to minimum dimensions. The Navy’s planners decreed that the four planes should fly together, each with a navigator, two pilots, a radioman, and two engine specialists. They loaded each craft with lifesaving communications equipment: a transmitter that could send a distress call squeaking over 250 miles, a short-range set to talk to other planes up to twenty-five miles away, receivers whose radio eardrums could pick up messages and orders from stations several thousand miles away, and a radio compass to locate the source of signals from ship or shore and give bearings to the navigator. There were special instruments as well to keep the group on course. Commander Richard E. Byrd designed a sextant in which a bubble in a tube created an artificial horizon, making observations possible above clouds. He also invented a drift meter which used a flare or smoke bomb dropped on the sea to calculate the wind’s force and direction. Special charts were drawn which radically cut the time of computation from observations; the shortcut was indispensable to plotting a course while whistling through the wind at a mile and a third a minute.

The Navy also chose the safest available route. The night’s first leg would be to Newfoundland via Nova Scotia. That is the shortest path to Europe, though on a flat map it deceives the eye. Cold, fogbound Newfoundland was the westernmost usable point of departure from North America. All the prospective Atlantic fliers began from there, like jumpers edging up to the very lip of a chasm, seeking the ultimate inch of advantage before leaping. The NC boats would not, however, fly the 1,700 nautical miles from Newfoundland to Ireland, the most direct line. Rather, they would swing southeastward in a 1,200 mile flight to Ponta Delgada, on Säo Miguel Island in the Azores, refuel, and then make for Lisbon, 800 miles farther on. They would, in that way, have a shorter nonstop distance to cover and prospects of better weather. And along the entire route destroyers would be stationed fifty miles apart. Theoretically at least, in perfectly clear weather the high-flying aviators could cross the ocean without ever losing sight of a ship. The thick hedge of precaution around the undertaking moved two British fliers to grumble to reporters that the American plan to “eliminate any risk and do away with any need of navigation” would guarantee the failure of the flights to prove anything “theoretically or practically.”

The Englishmen were missing the point. The naval planners, with their marshalled resources of scientific organization, teamwork, and money, were laying the foundations for the aviation of the future. The flight they designed with their slide rules foreshadowed an age when pilots would be technicians—enormously skilled and brave, but technicians nonetheless—flying by the rulebook, using the pooled experience of years to guarantee success time after time. In 1919 hardly anyone could see that, because flight was still most vividly symbolized by lone adventurers in frail “kites.” As it fell out, there was adventure, for sophistication in equipment had not yet caught up with sophistication in planning. Eighteen young naval officers would in fact fight wind, storm, fog, and the cruel sea itself, and some of them would lose.

Through the winter months, Towers picked his crews. His job was simplified somewhat by a February storm that seriously damaged the NC-1 as she lay in the water. The NC-2 , cannibalized for repair parts, would be left out of the flight. Towers had a free hand to go after experts, provided they had not seen overseas service during the war. He was therefore able to get some of “the senior and best aviators in the Navy,” one man recalled—those who had been kept at home to train and plan for others, and some of whom had consulted with the builders of the NC-1 as it took shape.

Towers himself would lead the expedition from the NC-1 . Patrick N. L. Bellinger, commanding the NC-1 , had learned to fly just after Towers and was also a skilled hand in gunnery and submarines. Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read, in charge of the NC-4 , was a thirty-two-year-old Connecticut Yankee, admitted to Annapolis at sixteen, an honor graduate, and a flier of four years’ experience. Lieutenant James Breese, Read’s engineer officer, was a reservist who had helped to perfect the Liberty engine. Ensign Herbert Rodd, radio officer on the NC-4 , was a co-developer of the radio compass—at twenty-five he was only fifteen years older than practical radio communication itself. The mechanics were also hand-picked, like boatswain Lloyd Moore of the NC-3 , known in the small world of naval flying as a man with an ear for engines.

By the first week of May they were ready, surviving the inevitable omens and crises that attend high enterprises at birth. On Friday, May 2, there was a reminder that death and injury would always be making a spectral bid for passage. Chief Special Machinist E. H. Howard of the NC-4 , tinkering with his engines for the thousandth time, became absent-minded and lost his hand to a propeller blade. Less than seventy-two hours later, gasoline being pumped into the tanks of the NC-1 and NC-4 was accidentally ignited. Parts of both planes’ wings were badly burned. Round-theclock work by repair crews managed to get all three craft airworthy by Wednesday morning, May 7.

Meanwhile, preparations both solemn and trivial went imperturbably on. The tanker Hisko and the minelayer Aroostook , carrying fuel, spare parts, and repair facilities, dropped anchor in the bay of Trepassey, Newfoundland, to the wonderment of its nine hundred fisherfolk. Forty little New York schoolgirls, taken out to Rockaway by teachers (and, presumably, Navy press officers), presented Commander Towers with a little red, white, and blue ribbon and their wishes for success. Weather reports crackled into Rockaway (they barred a take-off on the seventh), destroyers jockeyed into line all across the Atlantic , and a thoughtful Navy captain prepared to give carefully hoarded four-leaf clovers to each member of the expedition.

Thursday morning, just before ten, the crews pulled flying suits over their uniforms and donned helmets containing intercom earphones which would allow them to converse above the pandemonium of fortyeight cylinders exploding overhead. Reporters crowded around for the ritual departure statements, shouted over the engine clatter: “It will be good sport, though in no way a sporting venture,” said Towers soberly. “It is a scientific experiment.” Read, too, was cautious: “Whether we get there or not, we are going to get some fun out of it.” Bellinger was cheery and chinup. “With the help of God and in spite of the devil,” he said, “we’ll get there.” Then Towers, glad to stop posing, snapped “Let’s go,” and they scrambled into their places. The hulls were completely enclosed, but from the single navigator cockpits at each bow and the paired openings amidships and astern for the pilots and engineers, the aviators’ heads protruded, looking from a distance like beads on a wooden shoe. The three ships taxied out, sun flashing off the doped fabric of their wings. Then the wind carried the roar of gunned engines back to the shore crowded with onlookers. Each ship moved forward, slowly at first, leaving a plumed wake, then going faster and faster, the plume levelling out, becoming a feather and then a thin pencil-streak of white on the blue water, until finally a crack of light appeared between hull and sea, and the great 28,ooo-pound machine rose, lightened, into the air in the breath-taking miracle of flight.

The NC-1 and NC-3 flew northeastward and covered the 540 miles to Nova Scotia easily, sliding down to a suppertime landing and a welcome by the American consul in Halifax. But the NC-1 seemed unable to shake off the bad luck of the Monday night fire. Shortly after take-off, one center engine cut out; then, as the ship mushed along at reduced speed, a second engine hiccuped a connecting rod into the air and stopped dead. The NC-4 fluttered down in a forced landing, mute because the long-range transmitter’s antenna was a weighted wire which could be unreeled only in the air. After futile repair efforts, Read ordered pilots Elmer Stone and Walter Hinton to start the two good engines and begin taxiing. Through the night the crippled craft puttered along a course laid out by the commander as he pored over his charts in the dim light of the cockpit. At 5:30 A.M. on Friday the ninth, the NC-4 arrived, as a surface vessel, at Chatham on Cape Cod. If discouragement burdened Albert Read’s soul, his was not the face to disclose it. It was small and composed, with a “square jaw, straight, firm mouth, wide forehead, serious eyes, and generous ears,” according to one newspaper. Navy regulations were Read’s testament, but he was not a dress-parade sailor. Reporters covering the preparations at Rockaway had not known him by sight until one day when the absence of senior officers put him in command of the base. Going to his office, the press found “a rather slight man wearing a gray sweater and a pair of uniform trousers.” He had been working on the NC-4 and had not bothered to change. The newsmen noticed that “he did not appear to be in a hurry, but everybody around him hustled efficiently.” His wife said he did not start anything he could not finish.

On May 10, 1919, however, he appeared to have little chance to complete his assignment. It would be nearly a week before he got replacement engines, and headquarters might tell the NC-1 and ATC-3 to go on without him. Those two planes flew up to Trepassey Bay on the eleventh, landed neatly in choppy water, and waited for clear skies and orders. While there they were visited by two teams of British fliers from St. John’s, which was about twenty-five miles from Trepassey; they came out of curiosity, courtesy, and jealousy. Harry Hawker and Kenneth MackenzieGrieve were the pilot and navigator respectively of a Sopwith single-engined biplane named the Atlantic, in which they hoped to win the Daily Mail award. Frederic P. Raynham and Charles F. W. Morgan were to make the same attempt in the Raymor , also a oneengine craft. Two other entrants were en route by sea with their crews—a two-engined Vickers bomber and a gigantic four-engined Handley-Page.

Hawker, Raynham, their navigators and servicing personnel were frankly disheartened by the arrival of the Americans, as each had hoped to be first away from the mark. They had been on the bleak, windy island for a month and more, and seen their advantage erased by almost unbroken foul weather. The take-off fields they had chosen (and painfully cleared of rocks and stumps) were narrow and uneven, like most of the country around their base at St. John’s. After spending the better part of five weeks sitting in the Cochrane Hotel playing cards, drinking beer, talking aerial shop, and staring glumly at the gray windows, they now came to watch the NC’s, serenely independent of landing fields, prepare to go.

However, it was not all that simple even for flying boats. Frost and storm clung to the hillsides; there were icebergs, and winds gusting to fifty miles an hour and more snatched greedily at the weather balloons aloft. The same winds were the death of a blimp, the C-5 , which the Navy sent up from Montauk, Long Island, on the fourteenth. It flew 1,100 miles to St. John’s in twenty-five hours, a record in itself and perhaps the prelude to a separate transatlantic attempt which the Navy’s aviation section was keeping in reserve. But on the very afternoon of the C-5’ s arrival, a violent gale ripped her from her moorings and sent her plunging out to sea. Fortunately, she was unmanned.

The frets and delays of Towers and Bellinger, however, were Read’s opportunity. On the fourteenth he flew to Halifax. The next afternoon found the NC-4 driving, bouncing, slewing through choppy air at ninety-five miles an hour, her crewmen painfully aware that the other planes had by now received instructions to proceed without them if necessary. At sunset in they came, banking low over the narrow harbor, and were relieved to see the long wings of the sister ships sheltered near the Aroostook . The two had actually attempted take-off earlier, but some miscalculation of their gross weight had overloaded them, and all the pilots’ frantic gunning of engines had only sent them churning up and down the bay like clumsy speedboats.

On Friday afternoon, the sixteenth, all three planes were ready. Once more, curious crowds of onlookers gathered—fishermen and Navy personnel at the rails of their ships, townspeople at the water’s edge. It was 6 P.M. in New York, an hour later in Newfoundland, and 10 P.M. by the aviators’ clocks set to Greenwich Mean Time when the three boats taxied out. That the NC-4 was operating was partly due to the stubbornness and courage of Lieutenant Breese, the engineer. One engine had refused to start. Breese, diagnosing the trouble as battery weakness, had hastily secured a more powerful standby battery. With neither time nor wiring available for a proper temporary connection, Breese joined the battery to the balky ignition apparatus with a pen-knife, its blades opened to form a U and the handle in his hand. When they pressed the starter the engine indeed fired—and Breese gamely gritted his teeth as he received a severe electrical burn. At any rate, they turned and once more strained forward into the wind, engines howling. Under the burden of 1,600 gallons of gasoline and oil, each rose sluggishly, the NC-1 barely skimming the water as it cleared the harbor. They watched the shadowed waters only a few hundred feet below, and even in the deepening twilight they could spot icebergs. Soon they reached the first destroyer, then the next.

Night came on full, but reassuring signals pierced the darkness: the sudden, high, golden chrysanthemum of star shells, the silver rods of searchlights, the greenand-red fireflies of the planes’ own running lights. So they kept in touch with each other and mankind in the black immensity, each hour moving as much as ninety miles closer to Ponta Delgada, Sâo Miguel, the Azores, Europe.

But morning found them in trouble. Fog closed in; they lost contact and flew on through opaque solitude, each plane trusting to its navigator to keep it on course. The NC-1 and NC-3 soon believed themselves lost. Their radio-compass equipment was not picking up signals, and they rushed on in a wet, milky infinity which yielded no sight of sun or sea. Towers and Bellinger independently reached the same solution to the problem. If they were off their planned track, they could miss the islands altogether. Then they would fly on until their tanks were sucked dry and they had to land, without power, perhaps two or three hundred miles from the chain of ships, helpless to do anything but wait in the face of storms and possible injuries. Better to use their capacity for water landings, and sit down until the weather cleared enough for observations and a position fix.

Sometime Saturday morning, each plane dropped through the murk toward what appeared to be gently heaving ocean. But waves iron out deceptively when viewed from a height, and stiff winds were actually churning the surface into thirty-foot crests. The NC-1 smashed hard into one of them. No one was hurt, but the shock buckled the struts supporting her center engines. From that moment she could no longer fly. The NC-3 touched down safely, but could not take off again in the state of the weather. Great waves began to smash at her wings, snap their ribs, soak and loosen their fabric, and turn them into dead weights on the bobbing hull. Towers and Bellinger had stepped into a trap.

Ironically, neither plane was far off the target. The NC-1 was about an hour’s flight west of the Azores island of Flores, while Towers was somewhat to the south. Both crews huddled in the rocking, groaning boats, listened to radio messages which they could not answer, and fought to keep their derelict craft upright.

Read, meanwhile, was having a flight of almost boring uneventfulness. He, too, was fog-muffled, but he caught sight of Destroyer 17 through a rift, thus confirming his position. Sometime later, however, it became clear that he had missed several other destroyers. Then he saw land—the steep, terraced hills of the island of Fayal. He made a quick decision: he was close to the sheltered and adequate harbor of Fayal, already designated an alternate landing site, with an American ship, the Columbia , waiting. Fully aware of the governing strategy of the flight—“the safest and sanest way“—Read took no chances on pushing on to Ponta Delgada. At about 1:20 G.M.T., some fifteen hours after lift-off, pilots Stone and Hinton set the NC-4 gently down in a bay that they took for the Columbia’s anchorage. They found it empty, realized their mistake, then flew around a headland and saw the harbor and the Columbia . Sirens wailed in rising ecstasy, sailors in dress white lined both sides of the gangway, and salutes boomed as the rumpled aviators were brought alongside in small boats. It was a time for celebration, but the ATC-4 had so far flown only sixty per cent of the way. It was still eight hundred nautical miles to Lisbon. Yet from the time of Columbus the Azores had been regarded as Europe’s front yard. The NC-4 had risen from North American waters and was now safely in a port Portuguese beyond dispute. The headlines that stretched the width of Sunday’s front pages treated the flight as a victory already complete.

It was a costly victory. Two thirds of the expedition was shipwrecked, after all, and while Read’s crew was cleaning up aboard the Columbia , the men of the NC-1 and NC-3 were battling for life. At 6 P.M. that Saturday, the wings of the NC-i were spotted between wave crests by a lookout on a Greek freighter, the Ionis. The fliers were taken aboard; later a destroyer joined the rescue party and a futile effort was made to tow the airplane to Fayal. The remorseless hammering of the ocean continued to break her up, and finally she had to be cut loose and left to sink.

Meanwhile, the five men on the NC-3 were drifting westward and were doing all they could to avoid capsizing. Drenched, chilled, wincing at the drum of spray on hull and wings, the crew munched stale, wet sandwiches and salty chocolate bars, and drank water drained from the radiators while they listened for the snapping and tearing sounds of catastrophe. They drifted through the night, and on Sunday morning saw land to the north, the Azores island of Pico. They could not taxi toward it without the risk of swamping, and Towers elected instead to continue the drift, which he estimated would bring them to Sâo Miguel in another day. But drifting was a risky course also, since every hour increased the sea’s inexorable chewing and crunching of the plane. A float under the right wingtip broke away, forcing the men to take turns crawling out in wind and wave to the opposite tip to swing the damaged one up out of the water, seesaw fashion. Part of the tail came off. The wing surfaces were slowly shredded by the fliers themselves as they cut through the tough cloth to drain heavy pools of water.

The NC-3’ s soaked and tired men were not the only transatlantic fliers in the sea on Sunday the eighteenth. The news of the NC-4’ s arrival in the Azores on Saturday, radioed to Newfoundland, stirred the British to action. They still believed they were in a race, and if they got into the air at once they might make it to Ireland before the Americans finished their two-stage flights. In mid-afternoon, Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve bumped over their uneven runway and took wing. They flew through the night and covered more than half the distance to Europe, but a faulty radiator allowed their engine to overheat badly. Finally it failed over the eastern Atlantic. Hawker, long forewarned, was able to ditch the plane in a main shipping lane and clamber with his navigator into a small boat attached to the fuselage. After a short time a Danish freighter rescued them, but as it had no radio they were presumed lost until they reached a British port a week later.

Two hours after Hawker’s take-off, Raynham and Morgan tried to lift their fuel-heavy plane from the ground. There is a point in such a flight when engine and overburdened wings strain to the limit, and the plane is neither securely footed on land nor yet a bird, but a gawky, hopping, vulnerable creature rejected by land and air alike. At that critical moment a gust slammed the Raymor brutally to the ground, shattering its undercarriage and instrument panel. Raynham was shaken up, and Morgan’s eye severely injured by glass fragments. So in less than thirty-six hours, between Friday evening and Sunday morning, five planes had attempted the Atlantic passage: one had crashed on take-off, and three, so far as the world knew, had disappeared into the sea.

But by Sunday evening the news was out that the NC-1 crew had been saved. And on Monday, while the world still mourned Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve, the sea gave up more of its supposed victims. Just outside the harbor of Ponta Delgada, the U.S.S. Harding came upon a bedraggled, broken-backed, droop-winged caricature of a one-time flying boat making for port on two slowly ticking engines. Proudly, Towers and his men answered the destroyer’s hail and disdained an offer to be taken aboard. They had drifted and taxied 205 miles in some fifty-two hours, and they meant to finish in proper naval style, under their own power. Launches were lowered and took positions, at Towers’ shouted orders, under the wings. Then, teetering first one way and then another, like a groggy drunkard being held up by small boys, the NC-3 finished its crossing.

The next day, the ATC-4 flew in from Fayal. By naval protocol, a fleet commander who loses his ship transfers his flag to another, and Read fully expected to hand over his plane to Towers. But on orders from Washington, naval tradition yielded to public relations. An elated America was making Read a hero, and the Navy would blacken its own eye if, on a technicality, it deprived a hero of the chance to score the winning touchdown, inherit the fortune, and marry the beautiful girl. Towers was to go home by ship; Read, would fly the rest of the way. Towers, who deserved better, swallowed the bitter dose, and Read, who fully understood, suffered in mute embarrassment during a period of nearly a week when bad weather kept the two men in each other’s company in Ponta Delgada.

At last, on the morning of May 27, the NC-4 flew eastward once more—almost one hundred years to the day, as the New York Times noted, after the American ship Savannah had begun the first steam-powered Atlantic passage. The Savannah waddled across in twenty-nine days, using paddle wheels to help her sails on only a few of them. The NC-4 had flown some fifteen hours to reach the Azores, and took a mere nine and a half more to finish the journey that had been two years in preparation.

At Lisbon, twilight was deepening when the NC-4 came down through a purple sky to land on a harbor streaked with the silver reflections of ships’ lights. Almost before the hull swished into the water, a launch from the cruiser Rochester was on the way to pick up the six grinning crewmen. They came up the gangplank as the ship’s band played “The StarSpangled Banner,” and the Tagus River resounded with the boom of saluting guns and the ringing of Lisbon’s steeple bells. Thomas H. Birch, American minister to Portugal, stepped forward from a lineup of uniformed and dress-coated Portuguese officials to shake the fliers’ hands. Portugal’s minister of marine pinned on each flying suit the Grand Cross of the Order of the Tower and Sword. There was cheering and champagne; essentially, the flight was over and the Atlantic conquered, though on the thirtieth the plane left for Plymouth, England, so it could end its trip at the site of the Pilgrims’ departure from England in 1620. Perversely, the NC-4 developed its first mechanical flaw—radiator trouble—since Cape Cod, and had to lie overnight at Ferrol, Spain. But on the first day of June, it was all done.

The accomplishment was superb. Though two planes were downed no lives went with them, and the fault was partly in the judgment of their captains, who had landed in bad weather to take old-fashioned sea-level bearings. Read and his crew, on the other hand, had simply fulfilled their contract with engineering. They had faithfully used the equipment as planned, and it had functioned admirably. Reporters noted a certain calmness, almost indifference, among the NC-4 ‘ s crew. “We hardly realized that we were doing anything extraordinary,” said radio officer Rodd, while Read himself declared the trip “uneventful.” Except for the fog, “everything went off as we planned.” The stance was not merely the expected modesty for the newspapers; it was realistic. The fliers had simply recognized the proper relationship between man, equipment, and technique. They had been so unspectacular, in fact, that their achievement fell into near obscurity. Fifty years later many Americans are still under the imnrpssinn that Charles A. Lindbergh’s New York-to-Paris hop was the first transatlantic flight. But that honor belongs to the United States Navy and the NC-4 .

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