From Vikings to World War II Admirals, David Marion walks us through the history of the Transatlantic game-changer known as the Curtiss NC-4 Flying Boat.
Written by David H. Marion — It is generally regarded that in the early 11th century Norse explorer Leif Erikson led an expedition of Vikings further west from their existing settlements in Iceland and Greenland to what are now northeastern provinces of Canada. There is much better historical documentation of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage from Spain to the Caribbean in 1492. Accounts of Erikson’s voyages vary among several different legends, but Columbus is known to have sailed from a port on the southern coast of Spain on the morning of August 8th, 1492 and that his fleet of three small ships took 6 days to reach the Canary Islands.
Columbus and his crews spent nearly a month in the Canary Islands refitting and stocking their ships and on September 9th, 1492, they started westward again. On October 7th, 1492, after four weeks at sea, they spotted land for the first time at an island now believed to be part of either the Bahamas or Turk and Caicos chains. They eventually went on to explore more of that area including the northern coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola – and to make a further three other round trip expeditions from Spain to the “New World.”
Over the next 400 years, sailing ships eventually gave way to steam-powered ocean liners – and the length of a transatlantic passage grew ever shorter. In September 1909, the British ocean liner RMS Mauretania crossed westward from Queenstown, Ireland to Ambrose Light at the mouth of New York harbor in just 4 days, 10 hours, and 51 minutes. It was a record that won the ship the unofficial “Blue Riband” trophy and went unbroken for almost 20 years.
During the time of the Mauretania’s record-setting transatlantic crossing, a new invention known as “airplanes” had started to mature and even developed into a new primary weapon of war. During the First World War, the Atlantic Ocean was both a battleground and a highway of resupply from the industrial bounty of the United States to the front lines in France and the rest of Europe. German submarines, known as U-boats, stalked and sank many Allied ships in the Atlantic. It is no wonder that forward-thinking men began to work on ways that airplanes might eventually be able to make the same trip.
As I recently discussed in my previous piece on Glenn Curtiss, his flying boat designs had a significant impact on Allied (British and American) anti-submarine and maritime patrol operations during the war. Even before the war ended in November 1918, the U. S. Navy approached Curtiss about building a newer and larger series of flying boats that were specifically also intended to be able to cross the ocean on their own. With that goal in mind, Curtiss designed what was at the time one of the largest biplanes yet built, with a wingspan of 126 feet and which included sleeping berths for the crew and a then still very heavy “wireless” transmitter for long-range communications – and of course the a fuel capacity anticipated to give it transoceanic range.
In its original configuration, the first aircraft of the Navy-Curtiss “NC” series, which eventually became more popularly known as the “Nancy” boats, were equipped with three, 400 hp. Liberty V-12 engines mounted in nacelles in between the upper and lower wings. The NC-1 was completed just prior to the end of the First World War and made its maiden test flight on October 4th, 1918. A couple of weeks after the signing of the Armistice that ended the formal hostilities, on November 25th, 1918 the NC-1 set a world record by carrying a total of 51 people aloft in its cavernous hull. However, based on feedback from the pilots in particular, the decision was made to modify the design of the aircraft to add a fourth engine behind the original center engine, pointing aft and driving a “pusher” propeller.
The change in engine configuration delayed the completion of the next three NC aircraft, NC-2 through NC-4. They also used that time to try an entirely different configuration on the NC-2. Initially it was built with its center engine in an aft-facing “pusher” configuration and its outboard left and right nacelles mounted a bit closer to the centerline of the aircraft than they had been on the NC-1. In converting it to have four engines, the center “pusher” engine was removed entirely and new “pusher” engines were mounted behind each of the existing outboard nacelles. During subsequent test flights however, that configuration did not prove to be as successful as the revised, 3-tractor, 1-center pusher configuration to which the NC-1 had been modified and both NC-3 and NC-4 were built to match the revised configuration of the NC-1.
The NC-2, such as it was, made its initial test flight on April 12th, 1919 and it was soon followed by the new NC-3 on April 23rd and the NC-4 on April 30th. The completion of the NC-2 had been delayed back in March after the NC-1 suffered some structural damage to one of its main wings during a storm and a replacement wing was “borrowed” from the NC-2, which then had to wait for its own replacement wing to be constructed. Then again, after the apparently persistently unlucky NC-1 suffered further damage to its left wing as a result of a fire in its hangar at Far Rockaway on Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York on May 5th, 1919, the fate of the NC-2 was sealed when the decision was made to further cannibalize it for parts to repair the NC-1 once again.
The Navy Brass was in a big hurry to test the operational capabilities of the new “Nancy” boats and to achieve the milestone for which they had been built – to make the first transatlantic crossing by airplanes. It was to be a major demonstration of the new power of the U. S. Navy in the immediate post-war period. Less than two weeks after the completion of the NC-4 and without much if any operational transition training whatsoever, the transatlantic expedition was set in motion and the three remaining aircraft, NC-1, NC-3, and NC-4, set off from New York some 540 nautical miles northeast to Halifax, Nova Scotia on May 8th, 1919.
The overall group commanding officer was Cmdr. John Henry Towers, who acted as navigator on the NC-3 as well – and who was officially recognized as U. S. Naval Aviator no. 3 and also later became the first such naval aviator to rise to flag rank as a rear admiral and eventually served as the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. The NC-1 was under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Patrick N. L. Bellinger and the NC-4 that of Lt. Cmdr. Albert C. Read. On that very first leg however, one of the center engines on the NC-4 failed. It had to make an open water landing and then taxi on the water to the nearby naval base at Chatham, Massachusetts in order to make repairs.
On May 10th, 1919, the NC-1 and NC-3 flying boats flew another 460 nm east on to Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland – their intended final “jumping off” point before flying some 1,200 nm to the Azores, a group of islands that are about 800 nm west of the coast of Portugal. After its engine problems were resolved, the NC-4 finally made its way to Halifax on May 14th and caught up with the other aircraft at Trepassey Bay the next day.
The preparation for the aerial transatlantic crossing was an elaborate affair and the Navy dispatched a total of three dozen warships to provide navigational guidance, weather reporting, and other support as needed. They were also there to carry out search and rescue functions if that too became necessary. The largest of them and the acting flagship of the fleet was a former minelayer, the USS Aroostook, which had recently been converted as one of the service’s first seaplane tenders and re-designated as CM-3. It rendezvoused with the Curtiss flying boats at Trepassey Bay, serviced and re-stocked them, and then set out itself for Portsmouth, England where it expected to meet them once again at the end of their voyage.
Some twenty-one U. S. Navy ships, mostly destroyers, were stationed at 50 to 60 mile intervals all the way from Newfoundland to the Azores. In the absence of modern navigational aids, they acted as visual checkpoints along the seaplanes’ projected course of travel. Because the flight was also expected to take more than a single day, nominally close to 16 hours of flight time to cover the 1,200 nm longest leg over the ocean, part of the flight was going to occur during the dark of night. In fact, when the crews finally received the favorable weather forecast they wanted, the three aircraft departed Trepassey Bay in quick succession just before sunset on Friday, the 16th of May and flew southeastward into the gathering darkness – so that they would have daylight by which to make their landings in the Azores the next morning.
Throughout that night, the Navy ships along their route illuminated themselves with every light they had on board and also launched “star shells” into the air to serve as beacons to guide the aircraft. At their cruise speed of only about 80 knots (nautical miles per hour) most of the flight passed between sunset on the 16th and sunrise on the 17th. In order to prevent a potential collision during the night, the three aircraft actually broke formation soon after their departure and proceeded independently. Not exactly examples of mass production or standardization, each aircraft was in fact different enough both to handle differently and to cruise at slightly different speeds. While the first-built aircraft, the NC-1, was reported to be the slowest, the last-built, the NC-4, was actually considered to be the fastest of the three.
Unfortunately for all involved, the morning also brought an unexpected and dreaded adversary – fog. Other problems soon followed and beset the crews of the NC-1 and NC-3 in particular. Surrendering their own “dead-reckoning” navigation (based on compass headings and calculated speed) to an ill-timed sighting of a ship on the horizon, the NC-3 under Cmdr. Towers strayed far off course when it turned out that the ship in question was in fact not one of their guidance pickets but was instead just a random ship transiting the ocean. With his aircraft’s fuel supply dwindling, Towers made a fateful decision at 5:15 am to make a water landing in the open ocean in the hopes of riding out the fog and eventually being able to use their sextant to get a better position fix before trying to proceed any further.
The condition of the water however was less than favorable and the landing was so rough that the mounts for the center engine pylons were damaged, rendering two of the four engines unserviceable. The flying boat became a regular if oversized just plain boat and the fate of the crew was compounded by the fact that Cmdr. Towers had made another seemingly ill-advised decision to jettison his radio transmitter before leaving Trepassey Bay in order to save weight; they could still receive transmissions from other radios but they could not call for help or inform anyone else of their situation.
About 3 hours later and 150 nm or so further along, Lt. Cmdr. Bellinger on the NC-1 made a similar decision to have his pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Marc Mitscher* “land” the aircraft in the open ocean so that their navigator could try to take a better navigational fix. If anything though the sea conditions where it put down were even worse and the aircraft, once again acting as a 45-foot long (and 126 foot wide) boat, was soon damaged and swamped by 12-foot seas. Fortunately for the crew, another random ship passing by saw them and they were soon rescued by a Greek freighter called the Ionia. The freighter attempted to take the derelict seaplane in tow, but it eventually sank and was lost.
*Mitscher was certified as Naval Aviator no. 33 and like Towers was another future admiral, but he would serve as a carrier task force commander during World War II.
The luck of the crew of the NC-4 was slightly better. Even though the pilots were constantly disoriented by the fog and sometimes could not see from one end of the aircraft to the other, the radio operator, Ensign Herbert Rodd, was able to maintain contact with and navigational guidance from the chain of Navy support ships out of sight below in the fog. Lt. Cmdr. Read judged them to be close enough to their immediate destination that he decided to press on.
Eventually, the crew of the NC-4 spotted a green bit of land in the middle of empty vastness surrounding them and they were able to identify the island of Flores, one of the westernmost of the Azores. With that navigational fix, they were able to adjust their course and arrived to make a safe landing in the harbor of Horta on the southeast corner of the island of Fayal just before noon – and just before the entire area was socked in by thickening fog.
Next time around, I will cover the fate of the NC-3 as well as the rest of the journey of the NC-4 as it completed it historic ocean crossing to the European mainland and then on to England.
Dave Marion is the Technical Content Editor at Seaplanemagazine.com. An A&P and IA with 29 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: [email protected]