A century ago in May 1919, three huge seaplanes set out to be the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic, albeit with stops en route in Canada and the Azores. One of the three, designated NC-4, completed the journey, reaching the final destination of Plymouth, England, on May 31.
The aircraft that proved capable of crossing the Atlantic in 1919 was born in desperate times during World War I. The German navy had perfected its U-boats in that war, and Allied shipping paid a terrible price. The U.S. Navy sought a far-ranging flying boat to combat the enemy submarines at sea.
Designed by Glenn Curtiss in collaboration with Navy engineers and pilots in the fall of 1917, the resulting seaplane was too late for wartime service. But its great range made this aircraft a natural for long overwater flights.
Before current standardization of American military aircraft nomenclature, the seaplanes built to these blueprints were identified as “NC” for Navy and Curtiss. If the Curtiss JN series of biplanes became affectionately known as Jennies for phonetic reasons, it wasn’t long before the public and the press took to calling the big NC flying boats Nancies. That evidently riled some stuffed shirts in the Navy, but the nickname took hold.
The NC seaplanes were thoughtfully built to withstand open ocean landings, where swells could be punishing. The actual portion of the hull that contacted the water was kept to only 45′ in length; the remainder of the more than 68′ measurement to the tail was accommodated by a trusswork of spruce booms and wires kept high out of the water. The NCs spanned 126′ — 16′ greater than the wingspan of a World War II B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.
After trying various versions of V-12 Liberty motor installations, the ultimate Nancy powerplant configuration consisted of two nacelle mounted engines between the wings, plus two more Liberties in a pusher-puller pod along the centerline.
The first four NC seaplanes were simply identified as NC-1, NC-2, NC-3, and the fateful transatlantic NC-4. NC-2 used an engine configuration that proved inferior to the other Nancy boats, so it was cannibalized to repair NC-1 for the epic flight.
On May 16, 1919, the three NCs took off from Newfoundland, pointed toward the Azores. A line of U.S. Navy ships spaced 50 miles apart along the route were intended to help with navigation and to provide emergency support.
The seaplanes carried radio direction-finding gear (RDF), but its efficacy was severely hampered by interference from the running engines in flight. When other navigational cues were insufficiently reassuring in inclement weather, the crew of NC-1 elected to land on the open ocean, shut down the Liberty engines, and use the radio direction finder.
The seas were rough. After a safe landing, the NC-1 could not fight the 20′ swells and a crosswind to take off again. The crew practiced seamanship in an effort to preserve their flying boat, but over the next seven hours the NC-1 took a disabling beating.
Finally the Greek freighter Ionia came into view. The crew of NC-1 was safely aboard the freighter, but the towline to their aircraft broke. Over the next two days, the USS Gridley, a destroyer, tried to save the NC-1, but to no avail. It slipped beneath the Atlantic Ocean’s surface.
NC-3’s crew also opted for a landing at sea to give their RDF equipment a chance of working, but their luck ran out when the still-moving flying boat smacked into a swell. It decelerated so rapidly that the forward centerline Liberty engine’s mounts bent and placed the motor askew. NC-3 was out of the flight. Winds punished the aircraft and drove its tattered hulk tail-first toward the Azores.
Two days later, with its wing floats ripped off, NC-3 used crewmen on the wings for balance as the fliers summoned some engine power to taxi into port at Ponta Delgada in the Azores.
Only the NC-4 remained airworthy. This aircraft was crewed by Lt. Cdr. Albert C. Read as aircraft commander. In the pilot’s seat was Lt. (j.g.) Walter Hinton. Though Hinton was technically junior to the copilot, Lt. Elmer Stone, it appears Stone and Read decided Hinton’s acknowledged ability to stay on course warranted his place in the left seat. Stone was the U.S. Coast Guard’s first pilot, and also carried U.S. Naval Aviator Number 38. Radio operator was Ens. Herbert Rodd. Lt. James Breese served as chief engineer, with Machinists Mate Chief Eugene Rhoads as the onboard mechanic.
Outdistancing the other two Curtisses, NC-4 let down low over the water when a hole in gathering cloud cover revealed a land mass. They had reached the Azores, but this archipelago of nine islands included some towering volcanic peaks, and the ever-worsening scud-running weather made the flight perilous.
Their destination was Ponta Delgada, but a navy ship at Horta was a better choice as the NC-4 was now barely skimming the waves to keep clear of the fog. One false landing at a harbor that proved not to be Horta was followed by the correct landing spot, and the NC-4 settled in just as visibility was lost to the worsening fog. The date was May 17, 1919. NC-4 had been flying more than 15 hours, interrupted only by the brief touchdown at the wrong harbor.
NC-4 followed the plan, and hopped several days later to Ponta Delgada, then to Lisbon, Portugal. The final leg of the journey took the NC-4 to Plymouth, England, by May 31. The routing through the Azores and Portugal on the way to England gave the aircraft the shortest viable overwater distance between land masses.
The Atlantic had been crossed by air, and the U.S. Navy had accomplished the feat.
A handful of later NC boats rounded out production. Only the famed NC-4 survives. On loan from the Smithsonian Institution, NC-4 holds a place of honor in the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.