- Historic Sites
First To Fly The Atlantic
The commander of the NC-4 called the trip “uneventful,” but the men in the other planes of the mission could not quite agree
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
By the first week of May they were ready, surviving the inevitable omens and crises that attend high enterprises at birth. On Friday, May 2, there was a reminder that death and injury would always be making a spectral bid for passage. Chief Special Machinist E. H. Howard of the NC-4 , tinkering with his engines for the thousandth time, became absent-minded and lost his hand to a propeller blade. Less than seventy-two hours later, gasoline being pumped into the tanks of the NC-1 and NC-4 was accidentally ignited. Parts of both planes’ wings were badly burned. Round-theclock work by repair crews managed to get all three craft airworthy by Wednesday morning, May 7.
Meanwhile, preparations both solemn and trivial went imperturbably on. The tanker Hisko and the minelayer Aroostook , carrying fuel, spare parts, and repair facilities, dropped anchor in the bay of Trepassey, Newfoundland, to the wonderment of its nine hundred fisherfolk. Forty little New York schoolgirls, taken out to Rockaway by teachers (and, presumably, Navy press officers), presented Commander Towers with a little red, white, and blue ribbon and their wishes for success. Weather reports crackled into Rockaway (they barred a take-off on the seventh), destroyers jockeyed into line all across the Atlantic , and a thoughtful Navy captain prepared to give carefully hoarded four-leaf clovers to each member of the expedition.
Thursday morning, just before ten, the crews pulled flying suits over their uniforms and donned helmets containing intercom earphones which would allow them to converse above the pandemonium of fortyeight cylinders exploding overhead. Reporters crowded around for the ritual departure statements, shouted over the engine clatter: “It will be good sport, though in no way a sporting venture,” said Towers soberly. “It is a scientific experiment.” Read, too, was cautious: “Whether we get there or not, we are going to get some fun out of it.” Bellinger was cheery and chinup. “With the help of God and in spite of the devil,” he said, “we’ll get there.” Then Towers, glad to stop posing, snapped “Let’s go,” and they scrambled into their places. The hulls were completely enclosed, but from the single navigator cockpits at each bow and the paired openings amidships and astern for the pilots and engineers, the aviators’ heads protruded, looking from a distance like beads on a wooden shoe. The three ships taxied out, sun flashing off the doped fabric of their wings. Then the wind carried the roar of gunned engines back to the shore crowded with onlookers. Each ship moved forward, slowly at first, leaving a plumed wake, then going faster and faster, the plume levelling out, becoming a feather and then a thin pencil-streak of white on the blue water, until finally a crack of light appeared between hull and sea, and the great 28,ooo-pound machine rose, lightened, into the air in the breath-taking miracle of flight.
The NC-1 and NC-3 flew northeastward and covered the 540 miles to Nova Scotia easily, sliding down to a suppertime landing and a welcome by the American consul in Halifax. But the NC-1 seemed unable to shake off the bad luck of the Monday night fire. Shortly after take-off, one center engine cut out; then, as the ship mushed along at reduced speed, a second engine hiccuped a connecting rod into the air and stopped dead. The NC-4 fluttered down in a forced landing, mute because the long-range transmitter’s antenna was a weighted wire which could be unreeled only in the air. After futile repair efforts, Read ordered pilots Elmer Stone and Walter Hinton to start the two good engines and begin taxiing. Through the night the crippled craft puttered along a course laid out by the commander as he pored over his charts in the dim light of the cockpit. At 5:30 A.M. on Friday the ninth, the NC-4 arrived, as a surface vessel, at Chatham on Cape Cod. If discouragement burdened Albert Read’s soul, his was not the face to disclose it. It was small and composed, with a “square jaw, straight, firm mouth, wide forehead, serious eyes, and generous ears,” according to one newspaper. Navy regulations were Read’s testament, but he was not a dress-parade sailor. Reporters covering the preparations at Rockaway had not known him by sight until one day when the absence of senior officers put him in command of the base. Going to his office, the press found “a rather slight man wearing a gray sweater and a pair of uniform trousers.” He had been working on the NC-4 and had not bothered to change. The newsmen noticed that “he did not appear to be in a hurry, but everybody around him hustled efficiently.” His wife said he did not start anything he could not finish.