Flight of the NC-4
Alcock and Brown
losses across the Atlantic
Charles Lindbergh
Wrong Way Corrigan


Flight of the NC-4

World War I put many aviation plans on hold, which was probably just as well. Had it not been  for the war many more fliers would have tried crossing the Atlantic and would have been claimed by its icy waters. The planes of 1913 were not capable of the nearly nineteen-hundred- mile (3,057km) flight between Newfoundland and Ireland, the shortest route across the Atlantic, nor of the twenty to thirty hours of reliable continuous operation that would be required by any engine that would power such a plane.

In England, Alfred, Lord Northcliffe, publisher of the London Daily Mail, had offered a prize in 1913 of fifty thousand dollars to the first aviator to cross the Atlantic. Northcliffe had offered other prizes—it was in pursuit of Northcliffe prizes that Blériot had crossed  the English Channel and Paulhan had flown from London to Manchester—but this was considered the ultimate prize, and almost as soon as it was announced, various groups in different countries prepared to try for it.

Northcliffe  realized how difficult this feat would be in 1913. In the original rules, the plane making the Atlantic crossing was allowed to land on the water along the way, could be refueled in the Azores, and even towed for repairs, as long as the flight continued from the point of touch down. The only plane with any real chance of making the flight would have to be a seaplane, and at that time the best seaplanes were being manufactured by Glenn Curtiss.

Curtiss was triumphant again in December 1918, when the U.S. Navy unveiled the NC seaplane. With a wingspan of 125 feet (38.lm), it was among the most formidable planes then in the air

While in England looking for buyers of his planes, Curtiss met British naval commander John Cyril Porte, who apprised him of the Northcliffe challenge and even found him a financial backer in Rodman Wanamaker, the Philadelphia merchant millionaire. (Porte, who was stricken with tuberculosis and didn’t expect to live very long, even offered to fly the plane across the Atlantic!) Curtiss began testing his seaboat designs back on Keuka Lake and by February 1914 had a gangly-looking aircraft that he calculated would be able (just) to make the crossing.

The aircraft was one of the largest built to that time, with a forty-five-foot (13.5m) podlike hull, 126-foot (38.5m) bi-wings, and three large engines, the entire aircraft weighed more than twenty-eight thousand pounds (12,712kg). Curtiss built two models and prepared to fly one, dubbed America, to Newfoundland for the trans-Atlantic launching, which after many delays was set for August 15,  1914.

The outbreak of war on August 4 made the flight of the America impossible, but the British Admiralty was so impressed with the performance of the planes that it ordered sixty of them for submarine patrol. By the end of the war, several things had changed. Curtiss was now building planes in partnership with the U.S. Navy—the planes were thus designated NC for   “Navy- Curtiss” and soon came to be called “Nancies”— in a larger plant in Buffalo, New York.

The planes were now outfitted with four powerful Liberty engines, the only advance made in American aviation during the war. And Curtiss and navy engineers, under the supervision of G.C. Westervelt, designed a stronger, lighter, more  streamlined hull.

The forward lookout of the NC-4 in flight (shown here in 1918) provides a sense of the aircraft’s scale. RIGHT: The crew of the historic Atlantic crossing (from left): Lieutenant Commander A.C. Read; pilot Lieutenant E.F. Stone; pilot Lieutenant W Hinton; radio operator N.C. Rodd; engineer E.H. Howard; and reserve pilot Lieutenant J.L. Breeze, Jr.

The navy decided (with strenuous lobbying by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt) to attempt the trans-Atlantic flight anyway “for scientific purposes". A squadron of three Nancies took off from Rockaway, New York, for the first leg of the trip to Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland, on May 8, 1919. The lead craft, NC-3, was piloted by a crew of six commanded by John H. Towers, a famous Curtiss-trained Navy flier who had been scheduled to fly the America in 1913.

The NC-1 was commanded by Patrick N.L. Bellinger, also a famous flier, and the NC-4 was commanded by Albert C. “Putty” Read. (The NC-2 had been used for spare parts for the other three ships.) Read, a quiet New Englander who earned his nickname because his face rarely showed any emotion, was, at five-foot-four, the most unlikely looking hero of the group and was not expected to finish. In fact, the NC-4 went down eighty miles (128.5km) off the Massachusetts coast with a broken connecting rod and had to taxi through the night to the naval station at Chatham.

It took six days for the repairs to be completed and for Read to resume the flight, but he still managed to catch up to Towers and Bellinger, who had been fogged in, and the three planes took off on May 16 in V formation. The route was marked by a string of twenty-five navy destroyers spaced fifty miles (80.5km) apart. Problems plagued the NC-1 and the NC-3 almost  from the start and, at one point, with both their radios unable to transmit and the fog making navigation all but impossible, both Towers and Bellinger decided to put down to get their bearing and attempt repairs.

Both aircraft were badly damaged in landing and for them the flight was over. The crew of the NC-1 was picked up by a Greek freighter, but Towers and the NC-3 were not spotted and the plane drifted for nearly three days. Fighting sixty-mile-per-hour (96.5 kph) gales and rough seas, hoping that as they were floating backward they were being blown toward the Azores, and requiring a crew member to climb out to the end of a wing and hang on for most of the sixty-hour ordeal in order to balance the craft after a portion of the wing on the other side broke off, the NC-3 finally limped into Horta Harbour in the Azores. (Ironically, the element of the entire mission that drew the most notice from aviators was Towers’ seamanship and not Read’s airmanship.

The NC-4 taxis into Lisbon Harbour, having completed the first crossing of the Atlantic by air—on May 27, 1919, eight years before Lindbergh’s historic flight. Some experts were reluctant to acknowledge the achievement because the seaplane covered some of the  ocean miles on water, but most hailed the crew as heroes of flight.

Far more powerful land-planes were already in existence and in just a few weeks, one would complete a non-stop crossing of the Atlantic. But Towers had shown that the sea could be counted on as a safety buffer for a plane that went down over the ocean. It led to the rise of the great flying boats as the primary intercontinental transport aircraft of the 1930s.) Meanwhile, Read and his crew flew the NC-4 to the Azores, arriving on May 17. They waited there anxiously for the NC-3 as they repaired the NC-4 and prepared for the next leg of the trip to Lisbon, Portugal.

Read knew that word of his success would reach two crews back in Newfoundland who would race to launch their aircraft and still beat him to England—although not by air— (demonstrating that the Daily Mail money was not all that important to the aviators.) One was the Sopwith team, flying a biplane called Atlantic, and piloted by Harry Hawker and Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve; the other, the Martinside team of Frederick P. Raynham and William Morgan, flying a biplane called the Raymor (a combination of the aviators’ names). The Atlantic took off first on May 18 and the Raymor followed two hours later.

The Raymor never made it aloft; a gust tipped the overloaded aircraft on takeoff, crushing a wheel, and the plane dug nose-first into a bog, a total loss. The Atlantic did little better: the radiator clogged and the engine started overheating over the mid- Atlantic. An hour into the flight, Hawker knew he wasn’t going to make it. In a bit of inspired airmanship, Hawker headed south toward the shipping lanes, hoping to spot a freighter he could ditch near, while he bobbed up and down trying to air-cool the engine. He spotted a ship that turned out to be a Danish freighter with no radio and he put the Atlantic down. Hawker and Grieve were rescued (and, amazingly, so was the floating Atlantic a few days later), but there was no way of getting word to England until the ship reached British waters on May 25.

Hawker and Grieve arrived in London just as the memorial ceremony honouring their martyrdom was concluding. With both challengers out of the running, Read took his time and set out for Lisbon on May 25. He landed on May 27, completing the first crossing of the Atlantic by an airplane. Two days later, Read took off again (Towers refused to relieve Read of command of the NC-4, even though navy protocol would have allowed him to do so) and landed in Plymouth, England, on May 31. The success of Read and the NC-4 was hailed by the British and the French no less than by the Americans. All three countries, in fact, heaped medals and accolades on the crew of the NC-4. What puzzled Read, though, was that he arrived in England in the middle of a similar celebration of the accomplishment of Hawker and Grieve. (Read had to ask several times to make sure he got it right, that the pair had failed to cross the Atlantic by air.

What made matters even more confusing was that the Daily Mail awarded the pair a twenty-five- thousand-dollar consolation prize; Read and his crew were offered nothing.) The flight of the NC-4 was quickly forgotten: a non-stop flight across the Atlantic was only a few weeks away and the great flights of the next decade eclipsed the accomplishment of Read and his crew. Even at the time, few newspapers covered the flight (admittedly difficult for reporters to keep up with), and the most extensive reporting on the operation was filed by a Yale undergraduate for the Yale Graphic.

The reporter was named Juan Terry Trippe, and he would later become the creator of Pan American Airways and pioneer the great flights of the clipper flying boats to South America. For many years, the NC-4 was stored in a forgotten hangar and gathered dust; it was even broken up into several pieces and stored in a number of places. Read died in relative obscurity in 1967 near Washington, D.C., but he lived long enough to see the NC-4 restored after World War 11 and to see his contribution to aviation history remembered and acknowledged.