First To Fly The Atlantic

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Curtiss and his engineering staff began to work with the Navy’s Bureau of Construction experts on the development of four ocean-going superplanes that would make the impossible possible, the technological game twentieth-century man has played so brilliantly. Step by step, out of conferences, arguments, scribbled notes, sketches, long sessions over drawing boards, mounting piles of empty coffee cups and cigarette butts, the regular Navy scientists, the physics professors in reservists’ uniforms, the Curtiss production men, and the experienced aviators worked out the equations of success. They whittled fantasy down to limits that reality could nearly embrace, and then stretched reality until it did. Commander Holden C. Richardson was told to design a hull that would be independently seaworthy, light as air-borne wood could be, and sturdy enough to survive slamming into a wave while landing at sixty miles an hour loaded with twelve tons. Patient, skilled, and a twenty-year veteran of naval construction, Richardson produced a V-bottomed boat fortyfive feet long and ten feet wide, with double planking sandwiching a waterproof layer of glued muslin, it weighed only 2,800 pounds empty. Richardson, Hunsaker, and Westervelt protected the tail surfaces against the beating of huge ocean waves by mounting them on hollow wooden spars well above the water. The emerging aircraft took on a curious appearance of a wingand-tail assembly mated to a hull yet not integrally part of it—like some monster dragonfly pouncing on a fish. The original plan called for three twelve-cylinder Liberty engines, but weight-to-horscpower ratios showed that a fourth engine would lift two pounds for every one added by its own weight. So the planes would have four engines, one on each wing and two in tandem on the (enter line, and would fly with a total weight of 28,000 pounds. Six of those fourteen tons could be useful load, over the weight of the empty plane—enough for 1,800 gallons of gasoline (in nine tanks), spare parts, oil, radio equipment, and six-man crews.

Day by day hotly discussed hunches were checked by slide rule, towing basin, and wind unnel. Month by month the first plane took shape. It was to be called the N (Navy) C (Curtiss) 1 (first of a series.) It would be a joint product; many of its parts would be subcontracted out to keep from overwhelming Curtiss’ facilities and to give more of the American aircraft industry a stake in it. Its upper wing would span 126 feet, half a Manhattan Island block, and would have a chord of 12 feet. From nose to tail it would be just under seventy feet, and it would stand twenty-five feet high. Its wing panels were moved from Curtiss’ Garden City, Long Island, assembly plant to the Naval Air Station at Far Rockaway in trucks ordinarily used for hauling theatrical scenery. At Rockaway the plane required a special hangar and, later on, railroad tracks and tractor engines to move it into the water. In October of 1918 it was completed, with the NC-2, -3 , and -4 in various stages of construction.

By then it was clear that the end of the war was only weeks away, and that there would be no military use for the planes. The contracts for the uncompleted three would probably be cancelled. The prospect was wormwood to Commander Towers. He pleaded with his superiors to let the planes prove their transoceanic capabilities. The United States, he wrote, had built the first airplane and the first seaplane. It should not miss another opening. The first flight across the Atlantic would be sure to “go down in history as an epoch making event.” He asked for command of the expedition as “the senior aviator, in point of aviation service, on aviation duty,” and added, “I believe that I could quickly get the project organized without interference with my present duties.” It was a promise he would make good on.

Towers had thought more about such a flight than any other man in the Navy. His service record was virtually the story of early naval aviation, with its crises, lean years, and improvisations. He had flown every kind of craft, taught other men to fly, organized air stations, supervised purchases, designed improvements, and fitted them to planes with his own calloused, greasy hands. And he had constantly risked his life. Once he was in a plane with another officer when it spun out of control. There were no safety belts then, and both men were pitched out of their seats. The other fell to his death. Towers caught a strut, hung on, and survived the crack-up. It was all in the day’s work for the fathers of military flight.

Moreover, Towers’ request was well timed. The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, was a North Carolina editor and politician with a deep concern for public relations. The assistant secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was an enthusiastic amateur sailor, whose passion for the Navy was matched by an appetite for novelties. Both men were undoubtedly impressed when the NC-1 , on November 27, 1918, swallowed fifty-one sailors and civilian workers (including one stowaway) and set a world’s passenger-carrying record. Bannered in the press, such feats carried weight with the public and with Congress.