By The Greater Astoria Historical Society
At 10 a.m. May 8, 1919, three U.S. Navy Curtiss NC flying boats departed the Rockaway Naval Air Station to begin the first trans-Atlantic crossing by air. The Rockaway facility, constructed on 96 acres with more than 80 buildings and several large hangars, was one of the first naval air stations in the United States. Operational between 1917 and 1930, it was staffed with as few as a handful of men to a maximum of 1,285. The air station adjoined Fort Tilden, a battery of 12-inch mortars that defended the port of New York.
The Curtiss NC — short for “Navy Curtiss” — was designed by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and was manufactured by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. Production of NCs began in 1918 during World War I. The Navy needed an aircraft capable of long ocean flights for both anti-submarine patrol and, it was hoped, the ability to cross the Atlantic and avoiding waters menaced by German U-boats. As it was only 16 years since the Wright Brothers’ first flight, this was an ambitious goal with the primitive state of aviation at this time.
The NC was one of the largest biplane designs ever produced, equipped with sleeping quarters and a wireless transmitter/receiver. Originally powered by three V12 Liberty engines of 400 horsepower each, a fourth engine was later added. Maximum speed was 90 miles per hour. The NC’s estimated maximum flight range was 1,500 miles.
NC-1, -3 and -4 set out from Rockaway for Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The flight was under the command of John Towers, the commanding officer of NC-3. NC-4 was commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Albert C. Read and NC-1 by Lt. Cmdr. Patrick N.L. Bellinger. Off Cape Cod, NC-4’s engine failed and it was forced to land at sea and taxi to the Naval Air Station in Chatham, Mass., for repairs. NC-1 and -3 arrived in Halifax without incident, but the next morning serious cracks were found in their propellers and a day was lost replacing them.
On May 10, NC-1 and -3 continued their flight to Newfoundland, the rendezvous point for the cross-Atlantic flight. Eight Navy warships were stationed along the east coast of North America to assist the Curtiss NCs with navigation and help in case of an emergency.
Repairs were completed on NC-4, but it was kept at Chatham by gale force winds and rain. Newspapers were calling NC-4 a “lame duck” that would be withdrawn from the flight, but the weather cleared by the 14th and it made it to Newfoundland by May 16.
At dusk on May 16, all three planes took off into the gathering darkness over the Atlantic. The evening take-off was necessary so they could reach the Portuguese Azores Islands, about 930 miles west of Lisbon, after sunrise the next day and enjoy daylight landing conditions.
During the night, the three planes broke formation to avoid collision. Due to rough flying weather, both NC-1 and -3 were forced to land on the open ocean before reaching the Azores and both crews were rescued.
NC-4 was the only plane to complete the journey by air. On May 20, NC-4 took off bound for Lisbon, but was forced by mechanical difficulties to land again in the Azores. After a week of delays for repairs, NC-4 took off again, landing in Lisbon after a flight of nine hours and 43 minutes, becoming the first aircraft of any kind to fly across the Atlantic — or, for that matter, any other ocean.
The achievement of the naval aviators of NC-4 was eclipsed in the mind of the public first by the first, non-stop trans-Atlantic flight made just two weeks later June 14-15 by British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown and the first solo non-stop flight made by Charles Lindbergh May 20-21, 1927.
For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.