First Across the Atlantic
When we are asked about who was the first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the answer usually is Charles Lindbergh. While that is a correct answer, he was not the first to do so. He was the first pilot to navigate across the ocean from New York to France non stop on a solo flight. However, several other flights had crossed the ocean prior to Lindbergh’s epic adventure.
In particular, were a series of four ungainly and barely airworthy United States Navy flying boats designed and constructed by Glenn Curtiss at the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in New York. Earlier (before World War One) Curtiss had designed and constructed a flying boat to attempt this very risky feat. His plans were put on hold by the outbreak of war in Europe. At the end of the war, the necessity for Atlantic Ocean-crossing flights became more pressing because of experiences learned from the successful use of submarines by Germany.
A sizable reward had been posted by the publisher of the London Daily Mail to the first pilots who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from west to east or east to west. Curtiss was very intentional and thoughtful in his attempt to win this prize. He and the United States Navy designed a new flying boat that was somewhat based on his early designs. These aircraft became known as the “Nancy” flying boats because of their military designation of NC (Navy/Curtiss).
NC-1 was initially designed with three Liberty V-12 engines, which were liquid cooled and developed about 400 brake horsepower. A bit of trivia. These V-12 engines were designed and initially built by Ford Motor Company.
After sea trials, the navy concluded the NC class of flying boats were seriously underpowered. A fourth Liberty V-12 engine was added to the airplane. This became the typical configuration for the 10 NC class airplanes ordered by the navy. Consider how little the airframe and power plant designers really understood about their craft. The Nancy’s had four engines that each produced about 400 horsepower, yet the aircraft top speed was only 85 miles per hour.
Even though the Liberty V-12 engines were marginally reliable, a larger hurdle was extended overwater navigation. Because of the relatively slow speed of the Nancy aircraft – less than 90 miles per hour – a major portion of at Atlantic crossing would be at night. The navy decided to establish a line of picket ships along the route from Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York to Halifax, to the Azores, to Lisbon and finally to Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
Preparation to Launch
The project, from the outset, was marred by one disaster after another. On May 5, 1919 a fire in the hangar destroyed the tail of NC-4 and one wing on NC-1. The project managers authorized the cannibalization of NC-2 to repair NC-1 and NC-4. Three days later, the three ships launched for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Two of the Nancy’s made it safely, but NC-4 landed at sea with an engine failure.
On May 10, 1919 NC-1 and NC-3 flew to Newfoundland and waited for the arrival of NC-4 several days later. Finally, on May 16, 1919 all three ships launched for the Azores off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic. The United States Navy had positioned over 35 cruisers, destroyers and tenders along the intended flight path of the Nancy’s. The six crewmembers on each of the three Nancy’s were battered by wind, rain and raw weather in open cockpits. Essentially, these pilots experienced a constant 75 or 80 knot wind during the entire duration of their flights. Some have said that these intolerable conditions probably were beneficial in keeping the pilots awake during hours of darkness.
Because of local surface conditions, i. e., fog and low cloud banks, the pilots of NC-1 and NC-3 lost sight of the somewhat evenly spaced naval vessels. Both of NC-1 and NC-3 put down in the open ocean. Both aircraft were so severely damaged by rough seas that neither were able to take off again. The crew of NC-1 eventually were rescued and evacuated by the Greek freighter Ionia. NC-1 sank and her crew was transferred to the USS Columbia. The crew of NC-3 sailed (taxied) their aircraft backwards for over 200 miles to one of the smaller, outlining islands in the Azores.
The crew on NC-4 had decided to climb to a higher altitude of 3,000 – 3,500 feet, which gave them better forward visibility and smoother – though colder air. On May 20, 1919 the pilots of NC-4 landed at Punta Delgado.
A week later, on the morning of May 27, 1919 the crew took off from Punta Delgado for Lisbon, Portugal. Upon landing, NC-4 was the first aircraft to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean. Friday, May 30, 1919 NC-4 lifted off from Porto De Lisbon headed for Plymouth, England. After an overnight stop at Ferrol, Spain she arrived in the United Kingdom on Saturday, May 31, 1919.
This adventure took the combined efforts of hundreds of United States Navy and Coast Guard aviators, enlisted crewmen, government employees and civilians. Additionally, the United States Navy positioned over 60 ships along the intended flight path of the Nancy’s.
In today’s world, over water navigation has become routine. Modern turbine engines operate for thousands of hours without incident. Military and civilian pilots are constantly trained on the use of exceptionally reliable ground-based and satellite navigation equipment with accuracy that is measured in feet. Consider what these Nancy pilots must have been thinking about as they prepared for and then endured ninety five years ago. They were given relatively unreliable engines which were prone to overheating, flimsy aircraft with rudimentary flight controls, non-existent overwater navigation equipment and charting.
This truly was an epic adventure.