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Thu May 16, 2019, 06:54 AM

100 Years Ago Today; US Navy NC-4 - first Transatlantic crossing by air


The NC-4 after her return to the United States in 1919

The NC-4 was a Curtiss NC flying boat that was the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, albeit not non-stop. The NC designation was derived from the collaborative efforts of the Navy (N) and Curtiss (C). The NC series flying boats were designed to meet wartime needs, and after the end of World War I they were sent overseas to validate the design concept.

The aircraft was designed by Glenn Curtiss and his team, and manufactured by Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, with the hull built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Corporation in Bristol, Rhode Island.

In May 1919, a crew of United States Navy aviators flew the NC-4 from New York State to Lisbon, Portugal, over the course of 19 days. This included time for stops of numerous repairs and for crewmen's rest, with stops along the way in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia (on the mainland), Newfoundland, and twice in the Azores Islands. Then its flight from the Azores to Lisbon completed the first transatlantic flight between North America and Europe, and two more flights from Lisbon to northwestern Spain to Plymouth, England, completed the first flight between North America and Great Britain. This accomplishment was somewhat eclipsed in the minds of the public by the first nonstop transatlantic flight, made by the Royal Air Force pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown two weeks later.


The transatlantic flight

Crews of the NC-4, NC-3 and NC-1 immediately before the departure of the first transatlantic flight

The U.S. Navy's transatlantic flight expedition began on 8 May 1919. The NC-4 started out in the company of two other Curtiss NCs, the NC-1 and the NC-3 (with the NC-2 having been cannibalized for spare parts to repair the NC-1 before this group of planes had even left New York City). The three aircraft left from Naval Air Station Rockaway, with intermediate stops at the Chatham Naval Air Station, Massachusetts, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, before flying on to Trepassey, Newfoundland, on 15 May. Eight U.S. Navy warships were stationed along the northern East Coast of the United States and Atlantic Canada to help the Curtiss NCs in navigation and to rescue their crewmen in case of any emergency.

The "base ship", or the flagship for all of the Navy ships that had been assigned to support the flight of the Curtiss NCs, was the former minelayer USS Aroostook, which the Navy had converted into a seaplane tender just before the flight of the Curtiss NCs. With a displacement of just over 3,000 tons, Aroostook was larger than the Navy's destroyers that had been assigned to support the transatlantic flight in 1919. Before the Curtiss NCs took off from New York City, Aroostook had been sent to Trepassey, Newfoundland, to await their arrival there, and then provide refueling, relubrication, and maintenance work on the NC-1, NC-3 and NC-4. Next, she steamed across the Atlantic meet the group when they arrived in England.

On 16 May, the three Curtiss NCs departed on the longest leg of their journey, from Newfoundland to the Azores Islands in the mid-Atlantic. Twenty-two more Navy ships, mostly destroyers, were stationed at about 50-mile (80 km) spacings along this route.[4] These "station ships" were brightly illuminated during the nighttime. Their sailors blazed their searchlights into the sky, and they also fired bright star shells into the sky to help the aviators to stay on their planned flight path.

After flying all through the night and most of the next day, the NC-4 reached the town of Horta on Faial Island in the Azores on the following afternoon, having flown about 1,200 miles (1,900 km). It had taken the crewmen 15 hours, 18 minutes, to fly this leg. The NCs encountered thick fog banks along the route. Both the NC-1 and the NC-3 were forced to land on the open Atlantic Ocean because the poor visibility and loss of a visual horizon made flying extremely dangerous. NC-1 was damaged landing in the rough seas and could not become airborne again. NC-3 had mechanical problems.

The crewmen of the NC-1, including future Admiral Marc Mitscher, were rescued by the Greek cargo ship SS Ionia. This ship took the NC-1 in tow, but it sank three days later and was lost in deep water.

The pilots of the NC-3, including future Admiral Jack Towers, taxied their floatplane some 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) to reach the Azores, where it was taken in tow by a U.S. Navy ship.

US Navy warships "strung out like a string of pearls" along the NC's flightpath (3rd leg)

Three days after arriving in the Azores, on 20 May, the NC-4 took off again bound for Lisbon, but it suffered mechanical problems, and its pilots had to land again at Ponta Delgada, São Miguel Island, Azores, having flown only about 150 miles (240 km). After several days of delays for spare parts and repairs, the NC-4 took off again on 27 May. Once again there were station ships of the Navy to help with navigation, especially at night. There were 13 warships arranged along the route between the Azores and Lisbon. The NC-4 had no more serious problems, and it landed in Lisbon harbor after a flight of nine hours, 43 minutes. Thus, the NC-4 become the first aircraft of any kind to fly across the Atlantic Ocean – or any of the other oceans. By flying from Massachusetts and Halifax to Lisbon, the NC-4 also flew from mainland-to-mainland of North America and Europe. Note: the seaplanes were hauled ashore for maintenance work on their engines.

The part of this flight just from Newfoundland to Lisbon had taken a total time 10 days and 22 hours, but with the actual flight time totaling just 26 hours and 46 minutes.

The "NC-4" later flew on to England, arriving in Plymouth on 31 May to great fanfare, having taken 23 days for the flight from Newfoundland to Great Britain. For the final flight legs – from Lisbon to Ferrol, Spain, and then from Ferrol to Plymouth – 10 more U.S. Navy warships were stationed along the route. A total of 53 U.S. Navy ships had been stationed along the route from New York City to Plymouth.

Most of the flight route taken by the NC-4 was indicated on the map of the North Atlantic published by Flight magazine on 29 May 1919, while the NC-4 was still on the mainland of Portugal.

The feat of making the first transatlantic flight was somewhat eclipsed shortly afterward by the first nonstop transatlantic flight of some kind by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in a Vickers Vimy biplane, when they flew from Newfoundland to Ireland nonstop on 14–15 June 1919, in 16 hours and 27 minutes. Consequently, Alcock and Brown won a prize of £10,000 offered by the newspaper, Daily Mail, which had been first announced in 1913, and then renewed in 1918, to "the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States, Canada, or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland, in 72 consecutive hours." The conditions also stipulated that "only one aircraft may be used for each attempt." Hence, there was no possibility of changing to a fresh aircraft in Iceland, Greenland, the Azores, and beyond.

Alcock and Brown also made their flight nonstop, even though this was not specified in the rules given by the Daily Mail. Conceivably, any aviators could have made stops on Iceland, Greenland, or the Azores along the way for refueling, as long as they completed the entire flight within 72 hours. The rule that "only one aircraft may be used" eliminated the possibility of having fresh aircraft, with their fuel tanks already topped off, and new oil in their crankcase(s), waiting for the pilot or pilots to change from one exhausted airplane to a fresh one.

The Curtiss NCs were never entered into the above competition – because the U.S. Navy never planned for their flight to be completed in fewer than 72 hours.


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