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THE FIRST CROSSING OF THE ATLANTIC

The story of the American triumph in being the first to fly from the New World to the Old World is a story of careful, painstaking, organized effort on the part of the American navy. With the flight of Lieut.-Commander Albert C. Read from Rockaway Naval Air Station to Plymouth, England, nearly four thousand five hundred land miles, the navy brought to fulfilment plans which had been maturing for two years. Since 1917 there have been naval flying-officers anxious to cross the ocean by air, and their plans have been cast and recast from time to time. At first there were many reasons why it was impossible to attempt such a thing while the United States was at war. Destroyers, busily hunting German submarines, could not be spared for a feat more spectacular than useful at the time. Pilots and mechanics could not be spared from the business at hand training hundreds of seaplane pilots for service overseas.

American efforts to cross the Atlantic by air date back to the spring of 1914 when the flying-boat America was built to the order of Rodman Wanamaker. She was a large seaplane, a new departure in her time, and represented the combined effort of a number of the best seaplane designers in the world. Lieut. John C. Porte, of the Royal Navy, came over from England to be pilot of the boat, and after her tests in August she was to have made her flight. But Porte was recalled by his government at the outbreak of war and the project given up.

In the latter half of 1918 the naval seaplane NC-1 was delivered to the Rockaway Naval Air Station the largest seaplane ever built on this side of the water. She was originally planned, with three sister ships, as an aerial submarine-chaser. One hundred and twenty-six feet from wing-tip to wing-tip, she was equipped with three big Liberty motors a monster seaplane, ideally suited to the purpose for which she was designed.

The signing of the armistice interfered with her use as a submarine scout, and naval plans for crossing the ocean in the air were brought from their pigeonholes. The NC-1 and her sister ships under construction appeared to have been built for just such a flight. When the war ended, the navy as a whole, and the naval air service in particular, concentrated attention on the possibilities of using the NC planes for the flight. One of the first decisions made was to increase the engine power by adding a fourth engine, and to enlarge the gasolene-tanks for a long flight.

Early in March of this year it became apparent that the spring or early summer would see several attempts to cross the ocean by air. On March 19th it was reported from England that the unfortunate Sopwith machine with its lucky team of Harry G. Hawker and Lieut.-Commander Mackenzie Grieve had started from England for Newfoundland. At the same time announcement was made that naval officers had been conferring over their Atlantic flight plans, and that a start would be attempted some time in May.

As a matter of fact, a great deal of work had been done in secret by Commander John H. Towers, Lieut.-Commander Albert C. Read, and Lieut.-Commander Patrick N.L. Bellinger. As early as February 24th a conference was held in Washington and a date of May 15th or 16th for the flight from Newfoundland was set. This date coincided with a full moon over the North Atlantic, and the machines started May 16th from Trepassey.

There were really only three routes open to pilots anxious to make the first crossing of the Atlantic. There was the flight straight from Newfoundland to Ireland, a matter of about one thousand nine hundred miles of straight flying, with the possibility of favoring winds. There was the Newfoundland-Azores route which the Americans took, and the route from Dakar, French Senegal, to Pernambuco, Brazil, which French fliers attempted. In addition there was the possibility of flight from Ireland to Newfoundland, given up by Major Woods, pilot of the Short biplane, after his forced landing in the Irish Sea.

The great question of a flight straight across the Atlantic was that of fuel consumption. Could a machine be devised which would carry enough fuel to fly across one thousand nine hundred miles of water? The Sopwith Aviation Company designed their machine for such a flight, but sent it out to Newfoundland to catch and take advantage of the prevailing west winds across the North Atlantic. The story of the six weeks’ wait for favorable weather, and the desperate take-off to beat the American plane, the NC-4, at the Azores, make it appear doubtful whether such winds are to be relied upon.

The American planes took advantage of those winds in their flight to the Azores, that much is certain. But they were well protected with destroyers, were not pushing their planes to the limit, and did not depend upon favoring winds. That the NC-1 and the NC-3 reached the Azores, but did not make safe landings in the harbor after their long flight, is one of the fortunes of flying which must not reflect upon the American effort as a whole.

The French route which Lieutenant Fontan, of the French army, tried twice, and on which he was twice forced to land because of engine trouble, was laid to take advantage of favoring winds. Across the South Atlantic the winds prevail in the spring of the year from east to west, contrary to the winds on the northern course. A twenty-mile wind at the back of a flier jumping the one thousand eight hundred miles across this bit of water would add just twenty miles an hour to the ground speed of the machine.

Capt. John Alcock and Lieut. Arthur Whitten Brown startled the entire world on June 15, 1919, with the success of their straight flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, covering 1,960 land miles in 16 hours and 12 minutes, at an average speed of 120 miles an hour. Not only was this the longest non-stop flight over land or water on record, but the greatest international sporting event. As such, though credit for the first flight of the Atlantic belongs to the American NC-4, it eclipses for daring the flight of the American navy. The Vickers-Vimy plane left St. John’s, Newfoundland, on June 14th, at 4.29 P.M., Greenwich mean time, and landed at Clifden, Ireland, on June 15th, at 8.40 A.M., Greenwich mean time. The machine was equipped with two 375-horse-power Rolls-Royce Eagle engines, and had a wing span of 67 feet and measured 42 feet 8 inches over all.

The start of the American fliers was made after a series of tests of the seaplanes which covered a period of almost two months. At the outset it was decided to fly three out of the four NC planes, on the theory that one of the machines would probably prove to be weaker or less easy to handle than the others. The NC-2 proved to be the unfortunate sister in this case, and because of some defects in the arrangement of her engine-bearing struts she was dismantled and left behind.

With the decision to start three planes simultaneously, the navy made it clear that, although it hoped all three seaplanes might complete the trip, allowance was made for one or two machines to give up the flight if they found themselves in trouble.

The NC-1, and NC-3, and the NC-4 all proved to be up to expectations, and, with increased engine power, showed that they could take-off the water with a load of twenty-eight thousand five hundred pounds. After the necessary tests had been made on Jamaica Bay, Commander Towers said on May 4th that the start would be made a little after daybreak, May 6th. There remained only the task of filling their hulls with one thousand eight hundred gallons of gasolene.

Early in the morning of May 5th, while mechanics were pumping gasolene into the tanks of the NC-1, a spark from an electric pump fell into a pool of gasolene and set fire to her whole right side. In a moment the heavily “doped” linen wings, with seasoned spruce spars, were a mass of hot flame. The sailors at work on the machine, with complete disregard of their personal safety, ran for fire-extinguishers, and with the fire burning around the mouth of the open tanks, confined it to the right wings of the machine and to the elevators of the NC-4 standing close by. No one believed that the NC-1 could be made ready in time for the flight twenty-four hours away.

She was ready the next morning, with fresh wings from the discarded NC-2, but the flight was postponed on account of a heavy northeast wind, reported all the way to Halifax. The machines made their start from Rockaway on the morning of May 8th, at ten o’clock, and two of them, the NC-1, with Lieutenant-Commander Bellinger, and the NC-3, with Commander Towers, arrived at Halifax after nine hours’ flying. The NC-4 proved to be the “lame duck” on the first leg of the flight, and came down at sea a hundred miles off Chatham, because of overheated bearings. Some alarm was felt during the night by the failure of destroyers to find her. She appeared the next morning off the Chatham breakwater, “taxi-ing” under her own power.

While her sister ships, the NC-1 and the NC-3, were flying to Trepassey the NC-4 waited at Chatham. Even after the repairs were made, it seemed impossible for the NC-4 to catch up with the other two machines, and she was held stormbound for five days. On May 14th she finally got away from Chatham, and, with her new engines, made the fastest time over the short course to Halifax recorded since the beginning of the flight. Her average for the 320 miles was 85 nautical miles an hour, about 20 miles an hour faster time than either of the other two machines had made.

Four days later she left Halifax for Trepassey in a last-minute effort to catch her sister planes. It seemed certain that she could not get there in time and would be forced to follow on the course a day later. Just as she flew into Trepassey Bay, on May 14th, the NC-1 and NC-3 were preparing to take-off. They postponed their start until the next day. In the mean while repairs were rushed and adjustments made, and she was ready to start the next afternoon, when all three planes started a little after six o’clock.

From the beginning of the flight from Trepassey the NC-4, thought to be the “lame duck” of the squadron, ran away from the other two machines. She lost contact with them very quickly and plowed through the night alone, laying her course by the line of destroyers lying beneath her. She was about half an hour ahead of the NC-1 at daybreak the next day and within an easy run of Horta, Fayal.

The half-hour lead gave the NC-4 a chance to get through a fog which was coming up over the Azores ahead of the other machines. She held a little above it until she thought she was in the right position. Then she came down through the mist. As it happened, she landed in the wrong harbor, but picked herself up and found Horta a few minutes later. She landed in Horta after fifteen hours and eighteen minutes of flying, in which she averaged 78.4 nautical miles an hour for the flight.

The machine was nearly five hours ahead of the schedule laid down by the Navy Department.

Both the other planes were forced to land at sea, the NC-3 after 1,250 miles of flight the longest ever made over water up to that time and the NC-1 after more than 1,100 miles in the air.

The NC-1 with Bellinger and his crew was picked up on the morning of Saturday, May 17th, by a Greek steamer, the Ionia, and brought into Horta. Towers with the NC-3 tossed about for nearly sixty hours at sea and was not picked up until the following Monday, when the public had begun to fear for his safety.

On Tuesday, May 20th, the NC-4 hopped off for the shortest leg of the flight, 150 miles from Horta to Ponta Delgada, where the fuel and supplies for the machines were. With favoring winds at her back, and with the lightest load she had carried, she covered the distance in one hour and forty-four minutes, an average speed of 86.7 nautical miles an hour, or more than 99 land miles. This was a new record for the seaplanes on the ocean flight.

Meanwhile Harry G. Hawker and Lieut.-Commander Mackenzie Grieve, the Sopwith team waiting so long at St. John’s for a chance to fly, stimulated in their daring attempt by reports of American successes at the Azores, took-off on their flight straight across on the afternoon of Sunday, May 18th. All through that night he flew, when his engine began to give signs of overheating, due to a clogged water-filter. Early the next morning, about half-way across, Hawker decided that there was no chance to make the land, and began looking through the fog for a chance for a safe landing.

By zigzagging on the steamship courses for about two hours, with his engine hot but running well, he picked up the Danish steamer Mary, and pancaked on the water about two miles ahead of her. Because the little tramp steamer had no wireless, the world was kept waiting a week, before word was signaled to land that Hawker and Grieve were safe.

With the Sopwith team out of the race, it became evident that Commander Read and the NC-4 would actually win the honors for the first flight. On the morning of May 27th he started over his well-patrolled course of eight hundred miles, and, after a little less than ten hours of flight, brought his machine into the harbor before Lisbon, Portugal. Americans had crossed the ocean in the air, and the enthusiastic Portuguese capital turned out to do them every honor.

Read, however, rather than linger, pushed on again May 30th, in the midst of the celebration for his triumph on the last leg of his course to Plymouth, seven hundred and seventy-five nautical miles. Engine trouble, the first since the machine had left Chatham, developed, and at the end of two hours he was forced to land at the mouth of the Mondego River, about a hundred miles on his way. The trouble was a water leak. It was quickly repaired, and he started again, but decided to put up at Ferrol, Spain, two hundred miles farther on the course, for the night.

Early in the morning of May 31st Commander Read started from Ferrol for Plymouth, and at the end of seven hours and six minutes of flight came down in the harbor, where a warm reception was waiting for him. The actual flying time since leaving the Rockaway Naval Air Station was fifty-seven hours and sixteen minutes, and the average rate of flight was at a speed of sixty-eight nautical miles an hour.