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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
On May 10, 1919, however, he appeared to have little chance to complete his assignment. It would be nearly a week before he got replacement engines, and headquarters might tell the NC-1 and ATC-3 to go on without him. Those two planes flew up to Trepassey Bay on the eleventh, landed neatly in choppy water, and waited for clear skies and orders. While there they were visited by two teams of British fliers from St. John’s, which was about twenty-five miles from Trepassey; they came out of curiosity, courtesy, and jealousy. Harry Hawker and Kenneth MackenzieGrieve were the pilot and navigator respectively of a Sopwith single-engined biplane named the Atlantic, in which they hoped to win the Daily Mail award. Frederic P. Raynham and Charles F. W. Morgan were to make the same attempt in the Raymor , also a oneengine craft. Two other entrants were en route by sea with their crews—a two-engined Vickers bomber and a gigantic four-engined Handley-Page.
Hawker, Raynham, their navigators and servicing personnel were frankly disheartened by the arrival of the Americans, as each had hoped to be first away from the mark. They had been on the bleak, windy island for a month and more, and seen their advantage erased by almost unbroken foul weather. The take-off fields they had chosen (and painfully cleared of rocks and stumps) were narrow and uneven, like most of the country around their base at St. John’s. After spending the better part of five weeks sitting in the Cochrane Hotel playing cards, drinking beer, talking aerial shop, and staring glumly at the gray windows, they now came to watch the NC’s, serenely independent of landing fields, prepare to go.
However, it was not all that simple even for flying boats. Frost and storm clung to the hillsides; there were icebergs, and winds gusting to fifty miles an hour and more snatched greedily at the weather balloons aloft. The same winds were the death of a blimp, the C-5 , which the Navy sent up from Montauk, Long Island, on the fourteenth. It flew 1,100 miles to St. John’s in twenty-five hours, a record in itself and perhaps the prelude to a separate transatlantic attempt which the Navy’s aviation section was keeping in reserve. But on the very afternoon of the C-5’ s arrival, a violent gale ripped her from her moorings and sent her plunging out to sea. Fortunately, she was unmanned.
The frets and delays of Towers and Bellinger, however, were Read’s opportunity. On the fourteenth he flew to Halifax. The next afternoon found the NC-4 driving, bouncing, slewing through choppy air at ninety-five miles an hour, her crewmen painfully aware that the other planes had by now received instructions to proceed without them if necessary. At sunset in they came, banking low over the narrow harbor, and were relieved to see the long wings of the sister ships sheltered near the Aroostook . The two had actually attempted take-off earlier, but some miscalculation of their gross weight had overloaded them, and all the pilots’ frantic gunning of engines had only sent them churning up and down the bay like clumsy speedboats.
On Friday afternoon, the sixteenth, all three planes were ready. Once more, curious crowds of onlookers gathered—fishermen and Navy personnel at the rails of their ships, townspeople at the water’s edge. It was 6 P.M. in New York, an hour later in Newfoundland, and 10 P.M. by the aviators’ clocks set to Greenwich Mean Time when the three boats taxied out. That the NC-4 was operating was partly due to the stubbornness and courage of Lieutenant Breese, the engineer. One engine had refused to start. Breese, diagnosing the trouble as battery weakness, had hastily secured a more powerful standby battery. With neither time nor wiring available for a proper temporary connection, Breese joined the battery to the balky ignition apparatus with a pen-knife, its blades opened to form a U and the handle in his hand. When they pressed the starter the engine indeed fired—and Breese gamely gritted his teeth as he received a severe electrical burn. At any rate, they turned and once more strained forward into the wind, engines howling. Under the burden of 1,600 gallons of gasoline and oil, each rose sluggishly, the NC-1 barely skimming the water as it cleared the harbor. They watched the shadowed waters only a few hundred feet below, and even in the deepening twilight they could spot icebergs. Soon they reached the first destroyer, then the next.
Night came on full, but reassuring signals pierced the darkness: the sudden, high, golden chrysanthemum of star shells, the silver rods of searchlights, the greenand-red fireflies of the planes’ own running lights. So they kept in touch with each other and mankind in the black immensity, each hour moving as much as ninety miles closer to Ponta Delgada, Sâo Miguel, the Azores, Europe.