First To Fly The Atlantic

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Early in February, 1919, Towers got his wish. But from the start, the Navy officials made every effort to give the flight the character of a carefully planned military operation rallier than a theatrical gamble unworthy of the attention of admirals. The Daily Mail had renewed its offer of ten thousand pounds, but the Navy fliers were forbidden to compete for it. Every element of risk was compressed to minimum dimensions. The Navy’s planners decreed that the four planes should fly together, each with a navigator, two pilots, a radioman, and two engine specialists. They loaded each craft with lifesaving communications equipment: a transmitter that could send a distress call squeaking over 250 miles, a short-range set to talk to other planes up to twenty-five miles away, receivers whose radio eardrums could pick up messages and orders from stations several thousand miles away, and a radio compass to locate the source of signals from ship or shore and give bearings to the navigator. There were special instruments as well to keep the group on course. Commander Richard E. Byrd designed a sextant in which a bubble in a tube created an artificial horizon, making observations possible above clouds. He also invented a drift meter which used a flare or smoke bomb dropped on the sea to calculate the wind’s force and direction. Special charts were drawn which radically cut the time of computation from observations; the shortcut was indispensable to plotting a course while whistling through the wind at a mile and a third a minute.

The Navy also chose the safest available route. The night’s first leg would be to Newfoundland via Nova Scotia. That is the shortest path to Europe, though on a flat map it deceives the eye. Cold, fogbound Newfoundland was the westernmost usable point of departure from North America. All the prospective Atlantic fliers began from there, like jumpers edging up to the very lip of a chasm, seeking the ultimate inch of advantage before leaping. The NC boats would not, however, fly the 1,700 nautical miles from Newfoundland to Ireland, the most direct line. Rather, they would swing southeastward in a 1,200 mile flight to Ponta Delgada, on Säo Miguel Island in the Azores, refuel, and then make for Lisbon, 800 miles farther on. They would, in that way, have a shorter nonstop distance to cover and prospects of better weather. And along the entire route destroyers would be stationed fifty miles apart. Theoretically at least, in perfectly clear weather the high-flying aviators could cross the ocean without ever losing sight of a ship. The thick hedge of precaution around the undertaking moved two British fliers to grumble to reporters that the American plan to “eliminate any risk and do away with any need of navigation” would guarantee the failure of the flights to prove anything “theoretically or practically.”

The Englishmen were missing the point. The naval planners, with their marshalled resources of scientific organization, teamwork, and money, were laying the foundations for the aviation of the future. The flight they designed with their slide rules foreshadowed an age when pilots would be technicians—enormously skilled and brave, but technicians nonetheless—flying by the rulebook, using the pooled experience of years to guarantee success time after time. In 1919 hardly anyone could see that, because flight was still most vividly symbolized by lone adventurers in frail “kites.” As it fell out, there was adventure, for sophistication in equipment had not yet caught up with sophistication in planning. Eighteen young naval officers would in fact fight wind, storm, fog, and the cruel sea itself, and some of them would lose.

Through the winter months, Towers picked his crews. His job was simplified somewhat by a February storm that seriously damaged the NC-1 as she lay in the water. The NC-2 , cannibalized for repair parts, would be left out of the flight. Towers had a free hand to go after experts, provided they had not seen overseas service during the war. He was therefore able to get some of “the senior and best aviators in the Navy,” one man recalled—those who had been kept at home to train and plan for others, and some of whom had consulted with the builders of the NC-1 as it took shape.

Towers himself would lead the expedition from the NC-1 . Patrick N. L. Bellinger, commanding the NC-1 , had learned to fly just after Towers and was also a skilled hand in gunnery and submarines. Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read, in charge of the NC-4 , was a thirty-two-year-old Connecticut Yankee, admitted to Annapolis at sixteen, an honor graduate, and a flier of four years’ experience. Lieutenant James Breese, Read’s engineer officer, was a reservist who had helped to perfect the Liberty engine. Ensign Herbert Rodd, radio officer on the NC-4 , was a co-developer of the radio compass—at twenty-five he was only fifteen years older than practical radio communication itself. The mechanics were also hand-picked, like boatswain Lloyd Moore of the NC-3 , known in the small world of naval flying as a man with an ear for engines.