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WHO FIRST flew the Atlantic? A quick answer is Charles Lindbergh. His stunning achievement on May 20-21, 1927, was the first solo flight from New York to Paris. But eight years earlier, almost to the day, a flotilla of three Curtiss flying boats set out to cross the Atlantic—and, with adventures a’plenty, one of them achieved this goal.
The NC (as in Navy-Curtiss) flying boat designed for this task was a four-engine biplane, its upper wing span 126 ft., its lower wing 94 ft. Powered by three 400-hp Liberty V-12s operating as tractors and the fourth as a pusher-prop, the NC had an empty weight of 15,874 lb. and a gross weight of 28,000 lb. To put these in perspective, a contemporary Curtiss Jenny’s wing span was just a tad less than 44 ft.; its maximum takeoff weight, 1920 lb.
More than 11,000 lb. of the NC’s gross weight was gasoline, nine main tanks of 200 gal. each and a gravity-fed tank of 91 gal. Each aeroplane carried a crew of six. The commander/navigator and two pilots rode in the open cockpits; a radio operator and two flight engineers resided aft, but were able to squeeze forward between the fuel tanks to visit the other crew.
The flight engineers were also called upon to do wing-walking maintenance of the four Libertys.
NC-1, NC-3 and NC-4 started on May 8, 1919, from Rockaway Naval Air Station, Queens, New York, directly south of where JFK is located today. (NC-2 had earlier been cannibalized for parts.) Their flight plan was to hopscotch to Chatham, Massachusetts, and Halifax, Nova Scotia; fuel up at Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland, for the Atlantic crossing to Horta, in the Azores, and then on to Lisbon, Portugal, and Plymouth, England.
The U.S. Navy arranged a flotilla of 22 ships, destroyers providing short-range navigational radio telegraphy from Canada to the Azores. This was the only radio and radio-directional equipment of the era.
The first 900 miles were uneventful. Said one of the crewmen, “Our four 400-horsepower Liberty engines hummed monotonously. The destroyers passed as regularly as railroad stations.”
However, within 350 miles of the Azores, the trio got separated in heavy rain and fog. NC-1 and NC-3 were forced down onto the ocean. The crew of NC-1 was taken aboard the Greek ship Ionia; their flying boat sank in heavy seas. The NC-3’s crew kept their flying boat afloat, weathered the storm for 62 hours—and taxied 200 nautical miles (!?) to Ponta Delgada in the Azores.
At 1323 GMT, May 17, 1919, NC-4 set down in Horta harbor 15 hours and 13 minutes after leaving Canada. Ten days later, she flew to Lisbon.
After three days in Lisbon, she completed her journey to Plymouth, England. Everyone came home by ship.
The Navy-Curtiss NC-4 has been restored and now resides in the National Museum of Naval Aviation, in Pensacola, Florida (www.navalaviationmuseum.org).
To close on a personal note, I visited her there on the morning of my younger daughter’s wedding day—when dads are supposed to get lost for a few hours. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013