First To Fly The Atlantic

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Despite these risks, pilots and designers had been dreaming of transatlantic flight since before the war. In 1913 Alfred Harmsworth, Baron Northcliffe, publisher of the London Daily Mail , announced that he would award ten thousand pounds—a genuine treasure in that time of low-taxed incomes—to the first aviator or aviators to cross the ocean. It was a tempting enticement, but it seemed impossibly remote. Few planes then had a range of more than two hundred miles. A flight from America to Europe by any route would require, for safety’s sake, an ability to cover 1,500 miles without a stop, which would be possible only if tons of fuel could be carried. But air-minded engineers enjoyed the paper solution of “impossible” equations, and the Northcliffe offer set pencils to scribbling figures and tracing curves in every flying club on both sides of the ocean.

By June, 1914, in the little New York town of Hammondsport, on Keuka Lake, a twin-engined red flying boat rose and settled on the water again and again in preliminary tests. She was the America , and her builder was Glenn H. Curtiss, a native of Hammondsport. Among the curiosity seekers and reporters attracted to the lake was an observer sent by the United States Navy, Lieutenant John H. Towers, a Georgian and an Annapolis graduate of the class of 1906. Just twenty-nine years old, he was nevertheless a veteran flier, the third official American naval aviator. Curtiss had been his teacher. The outbreak of world war cancelled any attempts for the Northcliffe prize, but Towers and Curtiss would—five years later—furnish the planes and leadership that would finish the work under way that June.

By the summer of 1917 the United States was in the war, Curtiss was building planes for the Navy, and Towers, by then a lieutenant commander, was on duty in Washington, D.C. On an August day in 1917, Rear Admiral David W. Taylor, the Navy’s chief constructor, called in two of his assistants for aeronautics, Jerome C. Hunsaker and G. C. Westervelt, to discuss the implementation of a memorandum he had just prepared. “It seems to me,” he had written, “the submarine menace could be abated, even if not destroyed, from the air.” This could be accomplished by large, flying boats, which could carry heavy depth charges and machine guns on long ocean hunts. To save valuable shipping space in delivery, they should be able “to fly the Atlantic under their own power.” In effect, the Admiral told Hunsaker and Westervelt, the Navy was committing itself, as a matter of military logic, to performing what had previously been considered a stunt. They were to get the project in motion. The two junior officers reached immediate accord on the first step: they wired to Curtiss to come down to Washington.

Curtiss was not just another manufacturer. He was to aviation what Ford was to the automobile: a founding father, a prophet, an evangel, a worker of miracles who could assemble the cash and equipment to turn the spidery drawings of inventors (himself included) into finished hardware. Born in 1878, he belonged to the generation of young Americans who seized the gasoline engine and raced exuberantly with it into the twentieth century. Like the Wright brothers, he tinkered first with bicycles and then discovered the lively possibilities of hitching motors to them. When he was in his twenties he set a world motorcycle speed record of 137 miles an hour. But airplanes held an even greater promise of speed and freedom, and he began in 1909 to build them from his own designs. (Not altogether his own, according to the Wright brothers, who successfully sued him for patent infringement in his use of ailerons too much like theirs.)

Curtiss, who was deceptively unassertive-looking, raced like a demonic wind in planes with saucy names —the June Bug, the Red Wing , the Silver Dart . He went to Europe and raced and beat the continent’s best fliers as if they were Hammondsport slowpokes. The list of his awards was a bluebook of aviation’s early sponsors: the Scientific American Trophy, the Cortland F. Bishop Prize, the Gordon Bennett Cup, the Robert J. Collier Trophy, the W. E. Kelly Cup, the Grand Prix Passenger Prize, and the Langley Medal of the Smithsonian. He flew faster and higher than anyone. And his imagination kept suggesting new airplanes and airplane uses, which his business sense turned into production models. He invented the flying boat, or hydroplane, pioneered water landings and take-offs, sold his seagoing flying machines to the Navy, and personally taught blue-water sailors to fly them. By 1914 he had created the Curtiss Motor Company and the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, worth nearly ten million dollars; they would build more than 200 kinds of aircraft, using sixty-seven of Curtiss’ patents.