Curtiss NC-4: First Across the Atlantic by Air – Part 2

Curtiss NC-4The Curtiss NC-4 flying boat on Rockaway Beach, New York before its historic crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in May 1919

In the second of a two part series about the Curtiss NC-4, Marion picks up as the Navy seaplane arrives in the Azores

By David H. Marion. If you missed Part 1, read it here! On the morning of May 17th, 1919, the Navy Curtiss NC-4 flying boat and its crew of six made it to the port of Horta on the island of Fayal in the Azores, having just flown just over 1,200 nautical miles from Newfoundland, where they had taken off the evening before. That in itself was something that had never been done before, but the Azores were still about 800 miles west of Lisbon. They still had a way to go to be able to say that they had crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

*Different sources seem to disagree about exactly when the NC-4 arrived in Horta. One said “just before noon” while another (one of the annotated maps that I included in Part 1 for example) claimed that it arrived at exactly 9:25 am.

Curtiss NC-4

The crew of the NC-4; left to right – Chief Mech EC Rhodes USN, Lt JL Breese USNRF, Lt(jg) W Hinton USN, Lt EF Stone USCG, LCmdr AC Read USN, not shown Ensign HC Rodd USN

Even so, for several days after arriving in Horta, the NC-4 rode at anchor in swells of harbor as the crew waited on board the cruiser USS Columbia for the weather and other conditions to improve. In addition to working on the airplane, they also anxiously awaited word of the fate of their squadron mates on the NC-3, which unknown to them had been forced to make a landing at sea some 200 miles northwest of the Azores. Because the Greek freighter SS Ionia was equipped with a radio, the crew of the NC-4 and other Navy personnel stationed in the Azores quickly learned that the crew of the NC-1 had been rescued, even though the aircraft itself had been lost at sea.

Two days after the NC-4 made it to Horta, on May 19, 1919, the crew of the NC-3, in an amazing demonstration of good, old-fashioned seamanship, managed to “sail” their stricken aircraft into the harbor at Ponta Delgado on the island of São Miguel in the eastern Azores, somehow bypassing several other islands in the process, including Fayal where the NC-4 had been waiting in the meantime.

The next day, on May 20th and with the weather finally clearing, the NC-4 departed Horta on the island of Fayal with the intent of flying all the way to Lisbon on the mainland in Portugal. Once again, a chain of navy warships – this time thirteen of them – had taken up station along its intended route once again to serve as navigational aids and provide emergency assistance if needed. Maybe it was the number of ships that brought the bad luck, but after just two hours in flight, as the NC-4 approached the eastern Azores island of São Miguel, it began to have problems with its engines and Commander Read elected to land in the harbor at Ponta Delgada to try to make the necessary repairs before continuing. Of course once there, it re-joined the still essentially derelict NC-3 and its crew for a while.

Curtiss NC-4

Map of the Navy warships deployed from the Azores to Portugal to support the crossing of the NC-4 on May 27th, 1919

The engine problems turned out to be severe enough that new parts had to be shipped in. The NC-4 was stuck at Ponta Delgada for an entire week. It was not until May 27th that the NC-4 was able to continue on and nominally complete the first transoceanic crossing by an airplane. The final leg from São Miguel to Lisbon took nine hours and forty-three minutes. Following its line of ships, the NC-4 sighted the Cabo da Roca lighthouse on the coast of Portugal at dusk, after which it turned south to find the Tagus River and the port of Lisbon. The deed was done – the ocean had been crossed.

The crew of the NC-4 was joined again in Lisbon by the crews of the NC-1 and NC-3 and they all spent two days enjoying the hospitality and acclaim of the Portuguese government and people. All along though, the original plan had been to continue on to England, so on May 29th the NC-4 took off again and headed north toward England. Once again however, it was plagued by even more engine troubles and it was forced down on the Monedego River for a while. After carrying out the necessary repairs to the engines, it took off again, but not wanting to arrive in England after dark, Commander Read decided to spend that night in the harbor at El Ferrol, on the northwest corner of Spain where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Bay of Biscay.

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Map of the flight of the NC-4 from Lisbon, Portugal to Plymouth, England May 30-31, 1919

For the final leg of the transoceanic expedition from Spain to England, another ten U. S. Navy warships were stationed along the planned route of travel. A grand total of 53 warships had been deployed by the American Navy in support of the project just to help the three aircraft cross the ocean. Early in the afternoon of May 31st, 1919, the 24th day after first leaving Rockaway Beach in New York, the Curtiss NC-4 flying boat finally arrived in Plymouth, England. It was welcomed and escorted to its landing by three of its own “cousins” in British service – three Felixstowe F.2A flying boats, which were themselves based on the design of the earlier Curtiss model H-16.

The reception in England was triumphant for all three crews but for the crew of the NC-4 in particular. While they traveled by train to London, and later on to Paris, where they were they were celebrated in the headlines of all the newspapers, the NC-4 aircraft was left behind in Plymouth where it was met once again by the seaplane tender USS Aroostook, which two weeks earlier had seen all three flying boats off as they departed Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland. The NC-4 airplane was disassembled and loaded onto the ship – and eventually carried back across the Atlantic to the USA.

Later, the Curtiss NC-4 was re-assembled and put back into service with the Navy’s East Coast Squadron. The airplane and its crew were sent on a publicity tour of the east and gulf coasts and the airplane was even flown up the Mississippi River all the way to St. Louis. The plane and crew had been the very first to cross the ocean by air, but the fame from that feat was fleeting.

Curtiss NC-4

A Vickers Vimy bomber like the types used by the British during World War I and by Alcock and Whitten-Brown to cross the Atlantic nonstop in June 1919

Literally just two weeks after the NC-4 and its crew arrived in England on May 31st, their accomplishment was completely eclipsed by two other pilots named Alcock and Whitten-Brown. Instead of taking almost a month to do what an ocean liner could do in 5 days, the two of them flew their modified, war-surplus Vickers Vimy bomber from St. Johns, Newfoundland to County Galway in Ireland nonstop in just 16 hours during the night of June 14-15, 1919. In doing so, they won the Daily Mail newspaper’s prize of £10,000 that had been offered even before the start of the First World War.

The Navy crews of the “Nancy” boats were never officially entered into nor even eligible for the Daily Mail competition. For one thing, the competition stipulated that the whole trip had to be completed in less than 72 hours, so they missed that deadline by just a little bit. Nevertheless, Commander Read and his crew were the very first to cross the ocean in an airplane – but once it had been done, others found new ways to do it continually faster, safer, and more reliably.

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The front and back of the limited edition NC-4 Gold Medals awarded by an act of Congress in 1929 to honor the flight crew of the NC-4.

In recognition of their achievement, on February 9, 1929 Congress enacted Public Law 70-714 (45 Stat. 1157) by which a specially authorized, unique “NC-4” gold medal was awarded to the project’s overall commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. John H. Towers USN and to the flight crew of the Curtiss NC-4;

Lt. Cmdr. Albert C. Read USN, commanding officer and navigator,
Lt. Elmer F. Stone USCG, pilot,
Lt. Walter Hinton USN, co-pilot,
Ensign Herbert C. Rodd USN, radio operator,
Lt. James L. Breese USN, engineer, and
Chief Machinist Mate Eugene S. Rhoads USN, second engineer (whose name was ignobly misspelled as “Rhodes” on the medal citation.)

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The Curtiss NC-3 flying boat as it has been preserved and displayed by the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida

The Curtiss NC-4 flying boat was eventually handed over by the U. S. Navy to the Smithsonian Institution to be disassembled and preserved. The Smithsonian unfortunately deemed the iconic flying boat with its 126-ft wingspan to be too large to put on public display, even in the large new Air and Space Museum that was eventually built in 1976. There, the Milestones of Flight Gallery contains instead what is only a much smaller scale model of the NC-4. More fortunately for posterity however, in 2014 the Smithsonian loaned out the actual NC-4 aircraft to be re-assembled and put on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.

For anyone who is interested, you can read more about the NC-4 Transatlantic Crossing and see additional interesting photos here and here….

Dave Marion is the Technical Content Editor at Seaplanemagazine.com. As A&P and IA with going on 30 years of experience in aircraft maintenance, he is also a Commercial Pilot with Airplane, Single & Multi-Engine, and Instrument ratings. He has a BA from Colgate University in 1984 and also graduated cum laude from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (DAB) with a BS in Aviation Technology in 1990. He can be reached along with all of the editors via E-Mail: editor@seaplanemagazine.com